Editing And Choosing Hymns For Inclusive Language -- By: Michael Rathke

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 07:3 (Summer 1993)
Article: Editing And Choosing Hymns For Inclusive Language
Author: Michael Rathke

Editing And Choosing Hymns For Inclusive Language

Michael Rathke

Michael Rathke is on the staff of C.B. Fisk, Inc. He holds a BS degree in English from Ball Stale University, Muncie, Indiana, and an MBA from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. This article first appeared in The American Organist, May 1991, and is reprinted by permission.

The use of inclusive language in contemporary hymn texts has gained fairly wide acceptance in recent years. However, the selecting and editing of existing texts for inclusiveness have been far more controversial: should we insist on unequivocally neutral pronouns and titles to refer to God, the people of God, or both? How do we make judicious changes to meet poetical, legal, and aesthetic requirements while still maintaining (and, in some cases, possibly enhancing) the intelligibility and integrity of the original text?

Perhaps owing to the complexity of the above issues, it is increasingly common for individual churches to assemble and publish for their own use, legally or otherwise, hymnals or song books which attempt to be inclusive. These collections typically incorporate traditional texts altered to be more inclusive and, in some cases, to eliminate so-called archaic language. Unfortunately, the results are not uniformly successful from church to church; even recent editions of certain mainstream hymnals suffer similarly from well-intentioned yet insensitive revision.

The following set of guidelines is intended as a tool for pastors, musicians, and lay people who are in a position of editing or selecting existing hymn texts. While these suggestions have been written primarily with hymnody in mind, they may also prove useful at times for spoken prayers.

1. Certain hymns are fundamentally unchangeable without corrupting their poetry (and often grammar) or without destroying long-familiar associations (God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen). One solution is not to use the offending hymn at all, which is always better than using an awkward adaptation that calls undue attention to itself. (Remember that editing a text is very like surgery: the object is to remove only that which is necessary, causing a minimum of trauma to adjacent areas.) Another solution is to balance a questionable hymn with a wholly-inclusive hymn (Come Down, O Love Divine) or a hymn employing a great deal of feminine imagery (The Church’s One Foundation) elsewhere in the service.

2. There are quite a few existing hymn texts that are completely inclusive as they are. Make a list of them, use them often, and substitute them freely for others that may not lend themselves well to alteration.

3. Poetical devices, especially those lending a musical sense to the text (meter, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, onomatopoe...

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