Demonizing Difference and the Word Police

One of the more disturbing developments in Progressive Christian thought of late is the demonizing of difference.  There was a time when we insisted on differences being acknowledged and everyone being heard.  That was true of advocacy for racial and ethnic differences.  It was also true of advocacy for differences in sex. Now, however, the trend is toward denying difference.

Take, for example, the recent legislation tabled, but to be considered next year by the Diocese of Connecticut and which will be urged upon the larger Episcopal Church at its next General Convention.  In a document designed to “Promote the Use of Gender-Neutral Titles for Priests,” the writers of the legislation argue that we should abandon the use of titles of address, like “Father” and “Mother.”  The legislation not only urges us to do this, it promises that the church will also audit our progress, insuring that we do it.

The word police are coming!

Why, you might ask?

Because, according to the architects of this new world order, “the continued practice of using gendered titles to refer to male and female priests effectively creates a different and unequal status for female priests.” No proof of this is offered, of course.  The legislative genre of wherefores and therefores that are characteristic of ecclesiastical resolutions doesn’t allow for it.  And no one explains how a resolution of this kind changes a bigot’s mind when he or she discovers that the gender-neutral term is applied to someone who is obviously a woman.  But we are told that it does and that, therefore, we ought to start policing its use.

Really? The titles, “Father” and “Mother,” aren’t the issue.  Consider these examples:

  • I knew an ostensibly Progressive rector who called male associates, “Father,” and referred to female associates by diminutive forms of their given names – e.g., “Megsie” and “Janie.”  That is language that is meant to communicate a different status.
  • I have known people who wouldn’t go to a female doctor, or take a plane piloted by a woman.  It had nothing to do with their titles.  They were all doctors and pilots.
  • I knew a man who voted against a candidate for a chaplaincy because she was a woman, who – when pushed for an explanation complained that she was “too short.”

In every case the issue was and is prejudice, not titles. And for that reason, this legislation is not the solution.  It is a flight from the reality of sexual difference — a flight from a difference that is a biological given and visually indisputable. Rightly, we once argued that there were meaningful and important differences between men and women that enriched communities.  That was the strength and the promise of ordaining women, of seeing them behind the altar, and of welcoming them into the priesthood.  That approach also recognized an important spiritual reality.  You cannot legislate people into a healthy acceptance of difference by erasing it or disguising it.  The God-given grace to recognize the image of God in others cannot be achieved that way.  Difference needs to be seen, recognized, named – and then accepted. I knew a retired cathedral dean who told my wife, who is also a priest, that he could “never bring myself to call you, M- m- m- m- Mother!”  Let’s keep him and everyone who has a problem with using that title working on the task until hearts are changed. Connecticut, you can keep your word police.

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