The Witness of General Synod

Issues concerning inclusive language for God and humanity have been addressed since the 9th General Synod. They grow out of commitments outlined in the UCC Constitution. The relevant texts are below:

The United Church Of Christ: Diversity within Covenant

The Local Churches of the United Church of Christ have, in fellowship, a God‑given responsibility for that Church, its labors and its extension, even as the United Church of Christ has, in fellowship, a God‑given responsibility for the well‑being and needs and aspirations of its Local Churches. In mutual Christian concern and in dedication to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, the one and the many share in common Christian experience and responsibility.

The autonomy of the Local Church is inherent and modifiable only by its own action. Nothing in this Constitution and the Bylaws of the United Church of Christ shall destroy or limit the right of each Local Church to continue to operate in the way customary to it; nor shall be construed as giving to the General Synod, or to any Conference or Association now, or at any future time, the power to abridge or impair the autonomy of any Local Church in the management of its own affairs, which affairs include, but are not limited to, the right to retain or adopt its own methods of organization, worship and education; to retain or secure its own charter and name; to adopt its own constitution and bylaws; to formulate its own covenants and confessions of faith; . . .

Actions by, or decisions or advice emanating from the General Synod, a Conference or an Association, should be held in the highest regard by every Local Church.
– Constitution of the United Church of Christ, Article IV, Sections 14‑16

General Synod is a biennial gathering of representatives of conferences chosen from local churches of the United Church of Christ. Resolutions and pronouncements are brought for consideration to General Synod by groups and members of the church. When passed, resolutions and pronouncements become the witness of the General Synod and are commended to all members of the United Church of Christ for consideration. They have significant influence on the mission and ministry of instrumentalities and other national bodies of the denomination and provide a significant teaching role for the church in all settings.

Beginning in 1973, the General Synod has addressed issues related to language for people and God.

The 9th General Synod

In 1973 as part of a Statement on Women in Church and Society, General Synod voted (73‑GS‑41) the following items related to inclusive language:

The Ninth General Synod also commits itself and commends to the congregations, Associations, and Conferences the elimination of sex and race discrimination in every area of its life, and determines that implementation shall be initiated in these ways:

  1. A concerted effort will be made by the Instrumentalities, Conferences, Associations and local churches to educate the membership of the United Church of Christ to the issues and sensitivities involved in the writing and using of inclusive language.
  2. The Constitution and Bylaws [of the United Church of Christ] will be changed so that all language is deliberately inclusive;
  3. All newly printed materials (including worship books and services, hymnals, curricula, books, journals and magazines, personnel materials and documents) published or used officially by the agencies of the United Church of Christ will be written (or rewritten when revised) to make all language deliberately inclusive.

The 11th General Synod

Resources already in process in 1973, such as the 1974 hymnal of the United Church of Christ and part of the ecumenical Christian education curriculum, did not thoroughly incorporate the sensitivities anticipated by the 9th General Synod. At the I 11th General Synod, the Northren California and the Michigan Conferences brought an overture. It was voted (77‑GS‑92):

  1. The Eleventh General Synod directs the Advisory Commission on Women in Church and Society, in consultation with the Executive Council and with ethnic constituency groups in the United Church of Christ to develop guidelines for intentionally inclusive language when referring to people and for utilizing a multiplicity of ways of referring to our relationship with God and that which we experience as God.
  2. The Eleventh General Synod directs the Executive Council to establish a means of reviewing (before publication and/or use) all materials published by the United Church of Christ and used officially by United Church of Christ agencies to insure that the guidelines regarding intentionally inclusive language are implemented.
  3. The Eleventh General Synod directs the Executive Council to begin the process which will result in the creation of a new official hymnal which would follow the guidelines for intentionally inclusive language. A progress report shall be made to the Twelfth General Synod.

The vote was amended (77‑GS‑92a) to note “that the Division of the House focused on item #3 of the Overture regarding the creation of a new hymnal.” There were 353 yes votes and 290 no votes.

To implement the actions of the Eleventh General Synod, an Advisory Committee on Developing Inclusive Language Guidelines was established. It was recognized that not everyone in the United Church of Christ believed that inclusive language was a justice issue or the correct theological response, but that there was substantial reason to encourage the discipline of inclusive language.

Inclusive Language Guidelines for Use and Study in the United Church of Christ was presented to the church in June 1980. The guidelines dealt with language relating to God, the church, and people, including the need for racial and ethnic sensitivity. The purposes stated at the beginning of the guidelines were:

  1. To be an aid in consciousness‑raising about inclusive language for writers, editors, clergy and other United Church of Christ leaders.
  2. To provide examples of different ways of describing our experience as a full human community for writers, editors and others who prepare printed materials to be used in the United Church of Christ.
  3. To help clergy and lay persons become more sensitive to ways of speaking about God through providing various examples that reflect more than masculine characteristics of the Deity.
  4. To help clergy and lay persons to become more sensitive to the ways language and images often perpetuate racial stereotypes, and to provide aids to affirm the reality of a pluralistic world and a pluralistic American society.

The Eleventh General Synod also asked the Office for Church Life and Leadership to develop, if feasible, a book of worship for the United Church of Christ using inclusive language. That task is interpreted in the introduction to the 1986 Book of Worship United Church of Christ:

The Eleventh General Synod explicitly instructed that a Book of Worship be characterized by language that is truly inclusive with respect to God and to human beings. Although the generic use of masculine terms may have been acceptable in the past, it excludes and offends many sensitive people of faith today. Further, the use of only masculine nouns and pronouns for God and of masculine generic terms for humankind has hidden the rich feminine imagery for God and God’s people in scripture. The rediscovery of the complementarity of female and male metaphors in the Bible and the literature of the early church forbids Christians to settle for literary poverty in the midst of literary riches.

Inclusive language is far more than a matter of male and female imagery. Behind the aesthetic dimension of human words towers the prophetic issue of social justice. It is obvious to people of goodwill that words have the power to exploit and disfranchise as well as to affirm and liberate those to whom they refer. Language that is truly inclusive affirms not only human sexuality but also racial and ethnic background and diverse stages of maturity from infancy to old age. It shows respect for people with handicapping conditions, people who do not live in the traditional nuclear family, people who suffer addictions, and others who intentionally identify themselves by some particular need or characteristic. If people do not find themselves in the language of worship or find themselves there in derogatory images, it should not be surprising if they absent themselves from the worshiping community. (Book of Worship United Church of Christ [New York: Office for Church Life and Leadership, 1986], p. 8.)

The 12th General Synod

Concern about application of inclusive language to scripture came to the 12th General Synod in an “Overture Concerning Fair Identification Standards to Distinguish the Bible from Rewritten Materials.” It was passed (79‑GS‑64):

Whereas, there is a proliferation and popularity of Bible translations as well as paraphrases and other modifications of the Bible;

whereas, there is confusion among people in our churches in distinguishing the translations of the Bible from rewritten materials,

and whereas, it is our concern that the United Church of Christ preserve the tradition in our heritage which encourages openness, scholarship, and sensitivity to the times; and, at the same time, maintain a responsible, canonical approach to the use of Scripture;

therefore be it resolved, the Twelfth General Synod recommends that quotations, both written and spoken, from Bible translations and materials rewritten from the Bible used in the United Church of Christ, be differentiated and identified as to source in order to avoid confusion and to build understanding.

The 14th General Synod

At the 14th General Synod, the concern about scripture continued. The “Resolution on Affirming the Integrity of the Bible” was adopted (83‑GS‑67):

… Therefore, the Fourteenth General Synod directs the Executive Council, requests the Instrumentalities and other national bodies to follow in all publications, worship, and in other official life of the United Church of Christ, and commends to the consideration of the Conferences, Associations, and churches the following statement of consensus and standards for responsible use of Scripture.

Statement of Consensus: Responsibility in leadership of worship, in writing of Material for publication in other public use of the Bible involves using only authorized translations of the Bible when a Scripture lesson or Bible quotation is called for.

We recognize that rewritten materials such as paraphrases, may be illuminating in the context of commentary, sermon, study, or other explication.

It then gave examples of authorized translations and paraphrases and stated that “Quotations from the Bible and rewritten materials should be identified in order to avoid confusion and to build understanding.”

The 16th and 17th General Synods

“The Use of Inclusive Language for God and the Status of the Trinity in the United Church of Christ” from the 16th General Synod was referred to the Executive Council for referral to appropriate instrumentalities to report back to the 17th General Synod.

Two diverse resolutions came to the 17th General Synod (1989). One affirmed inclusive language; the other opposed it. A compromise was brought to the floor endorsed by Marilyn Breitling, Executive Director of the Coordinating Center for Women, and Barbara Weller of the Biblical Witness Fellowship. This resolution (85‑GS‑92) affirmed “the importance of continuing study of inclusive language and updating of the Inclusive Language Guidelines, marked with careful scholarship, theological vitality, and an openness to Biblical interpretation and faith language that may include new and renewed understandings of ancient texts.”

It invited the Office for Church Life and Leadership to guide the theological endeavor and to prepare educational material to help all settings of the church to “address the hopes and promise, as well as the questions and reservations present in the midst of discussions of inclusive language and the nature of authoritative texts.”

It addressed the use of scripture and asked instrumentalities to continue to identify the version or source of re‑written or paraphrased material. The resolution stated:

Be it further resolved, the 17th General Synod recognizes that the responsibility for the use of inclusive language in worship, in the writing of material for publication or other public use of the Bible continues to rest with the person in leadership.

Such responsibility includes: 1) Choosing from among existing or emerging translations by scholars from credible Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts, and 2) choosing from among Biblical paraphrases, lectionaries and other selected Biblical resources that identify the grace of God in relation to the realities and concerns of contemporary life.

Believing that the time had come to move beyond guidelines the Office for Church Life and Leadership responded to the request for guidelines with an Inclusive Language Covenant. Local churches are invited to witness through the covenant.