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Every man for herself

September 26, 2013

fowlerMY SISTER said something recently that impressed me greatly. In the course of an otherwise routine telephone conversation, she responded to a joke about getting to the last bit of a dessert by saying, “Every man for herself.” We were laughing, but she wasn’t facetious in her language.

Every man for herself.

As the church grapples with questions of openness and inclusion, gender in the language of our worship frequently rears its head as a point of contention. Those of us who order our lives by the cadences of Rite I and its progenitors are taken to task for the occasional gendered passage in the text. In corporate worship, our language must be at once general enough to include all yet specific enough to appeal to each, and surely any use of the word men must fail the test of generalness.

Madeline L’Engle, surely one of the best modern thinkers and writers of our church, had something to say on this matter, and it bears repetition here.

I’m going to be thinking about man, and his part in the world, fairly frequently in these pages, and I want to make it quite clear, right away, that I Madeleine, sex: f, wife and mother, am just as much MAN as is Hugh, sex: m, husband and father, and that I’m not about to abdicate my full share in mankind. One of the most pusillanimous things we of the female sex have done throughout the centuries is to have allowed the male sex to assume that mankind is masculine.1

When we say, in the Apostle’s Creed, that Jesus Christ “was made man,” we do not understand principally that we was made a male, although he was. Rather, Christ was made human, a member of what Tolkien was fond of calling “the race of men,” and this fact carries all of the passage’s theological weight. Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us, the saviour of the nations born in the city of David.

In the Prayer Book, where the individual is addressed or named, the gender is specified: women and girls are always she, and men and boys are always he. Yet for humanity corporately, man is given. Examples of this are legion, from the Prayers of the People’s “to make prayers, and supplications, and to give thanks for all men,” to the General Thanksgiving’s “all thy goodness and loving-kindness 
to us and to all men,” to Psalm 8’s “What is man, that thou art mindful of him.” This does not strike us as pernicious in the least. Using human in the place of man is merely an exercise in euphemism (human derives from the Latin humanus, which itself derives from homo, man), designed to placate the ill educated and the misinformed. We are all, like Christ, homo sapiens, literally “wise man,” and there is no shame in it.

The debate over gender in our worship is rooted, as often happens in the church, in our expectation that the form of our worship can carry the full weight of the laudable social reform that we seek. We live in a world of real, honest-to-God sexism, ignorance, and, bigotry, and we must, as Christians, grapple with the sinful and broken world we find all around (and within) us. We believe in the accuracy of the old adage Lex orandi, lex credendi, that the law of prayer is the law of belief. But what exactly do we want for ourselves and our heirs to believe? How do we reconcile what appears to be irredeemably gendered language with our deepest conviction that all are equal before the Lord?

In the old Prayer Book, at Baptism, the priest welcomed the newly baptised, signing her with the sign of the cross “in token that hereafter she shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil.” What does that mean, to fight manfully under his banner? Is “manful” gender restricted? If we believe that manful describes men alone, then our language is sorely impoverished, and if we believe that women cannot fight manfully, then we think far too little of women. With the courage, resolve, and humility that each of us can summon, male or female, are we to stand against the temptations of this world as disciples of Christ.

This blogger’s opinion has long been that if a word is misunderstood, or understood in an outdated way, one should not change the word but change the way in which the word is comprehended. What is man, that thou art mindful of him? Man is each of us, male and female, made in the image of God, among whom Jesus came as one of us. What my sister has offered is an example of a right and suitable use of English for the church, one which rejects the doublespeak of the politically correct, and which yet makes a political statement both subtle and profound. Woman has as much stake in mankind as does any male of the species. Madeleine L’Engle believed this, and so does my little sister. Well done.

1. Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), 7.

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