Making Hymns Inclusive

by Dean McIntyre

The words we sing in our hymns and songs have the power to hurt or to heal and to include or to exclude. When applied to hymn texts, the term "inclusive language" is used to indicate words that seek to include, to affirm, and to invite through the intentional use of language that embraces all and that excludes none, and that does not marginalize or negatively characterize one group (sometimes a minority) through the use of language, nouns, pronouns, images, or metaphors of another group (often the majority). Inclusive language is most often applied to matters of race, gender, national origin, handicapping conditions, and age, although there are others.

The 1984 General Conference that authorized the hymnal revision process that culminated in our present 1989 United Methodist Hymnal instructed the Hymnal Revision Committee to "be sensitive to inclusive language, but respect the language of traditional hymns." Thus in our hymnal one finds inclusive language referring to the assembly, the church, the community, and the world. It also retains traditional, sometimes noninclusive, language in referring to God and the Trinity, but often changes repeated gender metaphors, nouns, and pronouns. The committee's guidelines also included "respect for all races and cultures and both sexes, and with equal opportunity and dignity for all persons ... language that is discriminatory or not otherwise in accord with the Social Principles of The Book of Discipline should be altered or deleted." Also changed were gender descriptions, nouns, and pronouns referring to the church, nation, nature, objects, and virtues. The guidelines called for texts to be "inclusive and universal in outlook, free from divisive elements and phrases which convey attitudes of superiority or indifference toward people outside the circle of singers." (The Language Guidelines are included in Companion to The United Methodist Hymnalby Carlton Young; Abingdon Press, 1993; pp. 132-133.)

Under this definition and these guidelines:

  • "Good Christian Men, Rejoice" became "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice" (no. 224).
  • Stanza two of Wesley's "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" (no. 240) was changed from "pleased as man with men to dwell" to "pleased with us in flesh to dwell." This change and that of no. 224 above illustrate the discontinuation of the male pronoun to refer to all persons of both sexes.
  • "The Church's One Foundation" (no. 545) was retained with all its noninclusive language and metaphors, but a fully inclusive rendering (no. 546) was also provided, illustrating a variety of references and metaphors.

Making Hymns Inclusive: Why Do It?

The answer is because some hymn texts are offensive, exclusive, and hurtful to some worshipers. Some texts continually refer to gender-neutral nouns with only male pronouns. Others use only the male pronoun to generically refer to all people — the church, humankind — which can lead women to feel excluded. Much more so today than twenty, fifty, or a hundred years ago, the language of government, education, commerce, and the arts reflects this change in meaning. In much of the secular world, including the schools in which our children are educated, "man" is no longer used as a synonym for "human being." Thus, when women and girls hear it so used in our hymns and liturgy today, they either assume that they are excluded or that it refers only to males.

Some texts may be understood as ethnic slurs, whether they were intended as such by the author or not. Consider "Have Thine Own Way, Lord" (no. 382), which was changed from "Whiter than snow, Lord, wash me just now" to "Wash me just now, Lord, wash me just now," recognizing that no matter how often or how hard African Americans and other people of color may wash, their color will remain, and that their color is a good thing to be celebrated. The use of the washing whiter than snow image may be a symbolic metaphor referring to one's inner rather than outer person, one's soul rather than one's skin, but it is easy to understand how it might be offensive, even racist, to worshipers today who have come through the Civil and Equal Rights struggles of the past decades, and who have been brought up on the more inclusive language of the past fifty years. For similar reasons, one stanza of Charles Wesley's "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" was omitted from the nearly complete original (no. 58).

The use of male pronouns as well as feminine images and metaphors to refer to God is also an issue. God is referred to as Father throughout scripture. Feminine images for God are also scriptural. But what does it mean to refer to God as Father (and with male pronouns) or to use feminine metaphors? Surely we are not attributing a specific combination of X and Y chromosomes for God. What we mean is that we understand our relationship to God in terms similar to those we use in our human relationships: creator, life-giver, protector, nourisher, guide, teacher, provider. We variously experience these in human relationships as masculine and feminine, and transfer these characteristics to God, never intending to attribute a human gender to God. To exclusively refer to God in masculine images and pronouns can be considered hurtful and demeaning to those who seek to experience the fullness of God's inclusive nature.

Consider also persons with some kind of physical handicapping condition. How is a person who is blind, deaf, without speech, or in a wheelchair to react to stanza six of "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" (no. 57): "Hear him, ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ; ye blind, behold your Savior come, and leap, ye lame, for joy"? When a worshiper does not hear the sermon, cannot sing the hymn, is unable to see the words of Scripture on the page, or remains in a wheelchair, what is the effect of these words? That worshiper may very well come to feel as if he or she is less of a Christian, less of a participant in the worship service, less of a person than those all around who can do these things.

So, why do it? The answer is to include, to welcome, to invite, to affirm, to love, rather than the opposite.

Making Hymns Inclusive: How to Do It?

To those who would like to make hymns inclusive, here are some specific suggestions:

  • Use inclusive rather than exclusive pronouns.
  • Use plural rather than singular pronouns.
  • Use third- rather than first-person pronouns (you and your rather than he/she and his/her).
  • Use a variety of pronouns and images, both masculine and feminine.
  • Avoid referring to non-gendered entities with gendered pronouns.
  • Seek out new versions of older hymns in recent publications.
  • Avoid singing stanzas or hymns that cannot be made inclusive within the guidelines that follow.

Making Hymns Inclusive: Caution

Whatever changes you make should be:

  • Christian and biblical
  • Inclusive and not divisive
  • Simple and direct language
  • Poetic and aesthetic
  • Rhythmically singable with the tune
  • In accordance with civil law; Copyrighted hymn texts may not be altered in print or projection without the permission of the copyright holder, even if the church has purchased one or more music licenses, such as CCLI, GIA, or LicenSing. You may, however, suggest in the bulletin or with verbal instructions prior to singing that the congregation make certain changes during the singing.