UMC language guide again available online

The guide is available through Cokesbury.com

The guide is available through Cokesbury.com

A United Methodist guide to the language we use to describe God, first recommended for churchwide study by the 1984 General Conference, is available once again through a cooperative effort of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, United Methodist Women, and the United Methodist Publishing House.“It’s just a tremendous resource that explains the history and importance of language in how we deal with one another and in how we recognize Jesus Christ as God with us as a human being,” said GCSRW General Secretary Dawn Wiggins Hare.

Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: Language About God and People is available as an electronic download through Cokesbury.com.

“In the 1980s it was the church’s signature statement on inclusive language, and that has not changed,” said Harriett Olson, UMW’s chief executive.  “It remains a significant document.”

The 1980 General Conference called for a study on language used in liturgy and Bible translations, and after hearing the report and recommendations, the 1984 General Conference recommended a churchwide Bible study based on it, which the 1988 General Conference recommended continuing.

The version now online (Copyright 1990) includes a user’s guide and leader’s guide, excerpts from interviews with church leaders about the importance of inclusive language and a bibliography, in addition to the original report.

Audrey J. Krumbach, GCSRW’s director of gender justice and education, found a copy of the guide in her office when she started work at the commission in January.  She calls it “a powerful resource in plain packaging” that helped her plan training sessions in March for members of Annual Conference Commissions on the Status and Role of Women.

But when she tried to order copies for the training, she found the report was out of print.  Many attendees asked where they could get copies of the booklet to use in small groups and Sunday schools, which prompted the commission’s interest in having it available again.

At a recent General Secretaries’ Table meeting, Hare and Olson asked Neil Alexander, Publishing House president and publisher, if the booklet could be made available. “Within days, it was online,” Hare said.

“Choosing words that honor God, respect the integrity of others, help unearth hidden truth and bear witness to mercy – that’s the kind of writing and speaking we aspire to,” Alexander said.  “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal deftly helps us remember the importance of and then practice using language that makes the places we live, work and serve more loving and more just.”

Olson said studies repeatedly have shown that using “exclusively masculine images distorts the way we look at God.”

Indeed, the report itself says that, “we will not reach full humanity as women and men as long as our language and images continue to limit us, often in unconscious ways.”

However, the report also takes in consideration that some people find it uncomfortable and painful to use language that is different from what they have used historically.  And it examines how many translations obscured or limited images of God as originally used in the Bible.  For example, many early English versions of the Bible used “man” as translation for a Greek word that means “a human being.”

The report helped in developing new versions of the United Methodist Hymnal and other denominational liturgies and song books. Many recent Bible translations have sought to expand the language used to describe God, including the Common English Bible, created by an alliance of denominations, including the UMC.  GCSRW encourages all local congregations to reexamine their language and deepen their relationship with God by studying this report and the attached discussion guides.

Now that Words that Hurt, Words that Heal is available online again, leaders of all three groups are hopeful it might be updated or expanded in years to come.

“Gaining access to the distribution of this seminal work is a first step towards the witness of the church to the wholeness of God,” Hare said. “We hope to continue that journey.”


  1. Betsy Kersey

    Jesus called God, Abba, Father and never referred to Him as Mother. tho we do know God is spirit and has all qualities of compassion and love, He is our Father. Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Our Father” …if one does not have a loving human father, one can find comfort in knowing there is a Father above all fathers..

    We do not need more confusion in our relationship wiTh God, Our Father.

    1. Susan Keaton

      Thanks for your comments, Betsy. The guide does not suggest eliminating the term “father” when referring to God, but rather expanding our vocabulary to include other images that are comforting or illuminating to others. From the report: “We acknowledge that the concept of God as father is a rich and meaningful one for many Christians, and we affirm its use in the Lord’s Prayer and the Trinitarian baptismal formula as an important part of Christian tradition. In addition, more inclusive words and images — many of them scriptural– can convey the intimacy and closeness for some persons which Father does for others.”

      The booklet goes on to give Biblical examples: a woman giving birth (from Isiah), a woman looking for a lost coin (Luke) and Jesus alluding to himself as a mother hen gathering her chicks (both Luke and Matthew). It suggests ways of addressing God that are not exclusively male, such as Compassionate One, Nurturer, Counselor. It might help to think of this as “expansive language” rather than “inclusive language.”

      See why we asked that the report be made available again? It’s both inspiring and challenging!

      1. michele

        The names, and referells to Gods images, other than “God” or “Father”are what I would call a reference to help descibe what he was feeling like when he gathered his people. Not that he was mother or of female gender.

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