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Online Edition - Vol. III, No. 3: May 1997

NEW ZEALAND Bishops Issue "gender inclusive" Statement

Where the Scriptures themselves reflect gender bias, homilists and catechists must correct them

Language changes, and women no longer feel included," said a document issued April 18, 1997 by the nine bishops of New Zealand, to "ensure that texts and translations are used that respond to the requirements of inclusiveness."

The document is addressed to all priests, liturgical ministers, musicians, catechists and Catholic media personnel, who must "become aware of this vital issue of inclusive language."

A few weeks earlier, one hundred and fifty women from all over New Zealand had gathered in Palmerston North to hear Sister Sandra Schneiders expose "the evil of patriarchy in religious and secular institutions", according to a news report.

Sister Sandra is an American feminist theologian, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and professor of New Testament and Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

In her 1991 book, Beyond Patching , Sister Sandra speaks of the "violence of the institutional church's rejection and oppression of women." She believes the source for these attitudes is in the Scripture itself, not simply due to a misreading or misinterpretation. The Bible is, she says,

"a male centered account of male experience for male purposes with women relegated to the margins of salvation history,patriarchal in its assumptions and at times deeply sexist, i.e. anti-woman. Its God-language and imagery are overwhelmingly male. In other words, the problem is in the text." [p 39]

The title, Beyond Patching, means "that the old garment is beyond repair and that only a thoroughgoing reform of the church can respond adequately to the feminist critique," she says [p 4].

Sister Sandra told her New Zealand audience that the "great scandal of institutional Christianity" is that the community of equals proclaimed by Jesus, was "corrupted by the patriarchy of the Greco-Roman world and institutionalized as the will of God".

Sister Sandra's views about "God-language" are evidently shared by Dr. Ken Larsen, an ex-priest from Auckland who is one of the two principal translators of ICEL's revision of the Sacramentary, now in the final stages of review by all the English-speaking bishops' conferences.

Larsen said in a press interview last December that the major objective of the new translation was "inclusive language". "We seldom refer to God as 'Him' or 'Father'", he said. (cf, AB, February 1997.)

The New Zealand bishops' statement targeted Scripture for change, as well as all other liturgical texts.

The bishops' statement also listed eight recent translations of the Bible which they approved for use in the liturgy because these versions "respect inclusiveness".

The approved Bible translations include the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the New American Bible with Revised New Testament (RNAB).

Both these translations have been expressly denied Vatican approval for use in the liturgy.

Other translations the New Zealand bishops approved for liturgical use are:

New Jerusalem Bible, New English Bible, Good News Bible, Inclusive Grail Psalter, Contemporary English Version, ICEL Psalter

All these translations incorporate neutered English.

Two additional Bible versions on the New Zealand list have explicitly not been approved for liturgical use by the US bishops' conference in recent years: the Inclusive Grail Psalter, and the ICEL Psalter. The former was voted down by the bishops. The ICEL Psalter has never been submitted for vote, and is permitted for "study purposes" only. The American bishops found the "inclusiveness" in these translations too extreme for use in the liturgy.

The New Zealand bishops did not simply advocate use of neutered Bible versions in the liturgy, however. Echoing Sr. Sandra, the bishops suggest improvising from the pulpit when passages reflect the "gender bias" of the "authors" of Scripture:

"Where the scriptures themselves reflect gender bias and cultural assumptions on the part of their authors [sic], these cannot be changed in the translations, for translations must be faithful to the original text. It is up to homilists and catechists to correct these cultural features by speaking inclusively when referring to these texts".

Even the "gender neutral" translations may not be adequately sensitive to women's feelings, and "use of gender-neutral language is not a suitable substitute for language which acknowledges, respects and celebrates sexual differentiation". The bishops suggest using plural pronouns with singular nouns (e.g. person/they), and they call for "a balanced mixture[of] gender-neutral language, female gender language, and male gender language."

The bishops do not define these terms, however, nor do they describe how they believe this "balanced mixture" might be accomplished.

For example, would readings alternate between using all female pronouns and all male pronouns, with a third which would avoid using pronouns at all? The bishops' reference to "female gender language" is particularly puzzling, and they do not give examples.

Hymns are "a form of poetry", the bishops said, and "poetic license can be used to avoid non-inclusive language" so long as this is done with respect to "doctrinal integrity, our Catholic heritage, the music and poetry of hymns, and where appropriate, copyright." But music selected for "gender-inclusiveness should be preferred."

The statement contains several paragraphs on forms of address for God. The bishops believe that if people are assured that the distinction between the Persons of the Trinity is "revealed not in the language of gender, but in the language of sending", people can understand that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not intended to attribute gender to God, but indicate who is sending and who is sent.

This understanding, the bishops believe, will make it easier for people to accept "Jesus' teaching that God can be called our 'father' and the ease with which He used female imagery for illustrating God's disposition towards us."

Bishops who signed the statement are Bishop P. J. Cullinane of Palmerston North, president of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference; Cardinal Thomas Williams, Archbishop of Wellington; and Bishops D. G. Browne, J. A. Dew, P. J. Dunn, L. A. Boyle, J. J. Cunneen; M. T. Mario, SM, and O. J. Dolan.

***

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