At Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown, God isn't exclusively male.
When the congregation recites the Lord's Prayer, not everyone begins with, "Our Father who art in heaven." At least one woman uses "Our Mother."
The pastor often gives a benediction, "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us all," and nobody raises an eyebrow. The church bulletin on a Sunday suggests the way hymns may be changed: things like "you may sing we instead of man," or "you may sing God instead of He" are usually scattered throughout.
"It's a congregation that realizes there is a problem with sexist language and wants to find solutions," said the Rev. Thomas Brunkow, pastor of the church.
So do other congregations and even entire denominations.
At St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington, a group of congregation members last year produced the first year of a new inclusive language lectionary, a three-year cycle of Bible readings used for Sunday services. The lectionary is used at St. Stephen's every Sunday. Since September, about 300 copies have been sold across the country as well.
"The idea has been around for years," said Laura Mol, an organizer of the project. "It began with some people changing the more simple things when they got up to read." The inclusive language ranges from changes in masculine words referring to both sexes to references to God.
"In our time we've masculinized God more than the tradition can bear," she said. "What we're trying to do is recapture the more inclusive view of God, correct mistakes that translators made. It's idolatry to make God into less than God."
The nonsexist language movement has sliced across ecumenical and interfaith lines. In the late 1970s, prayer books put out by the Episcopal Church and a joint effort by three Lutheran denominations included initial attempts to remove some noninclusive language in references to people.
The Roman Catholic Church's National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1980 approved changes in Mass prayers to eliminate some sexist language. Among them was a recasting of the assertion that Christ shed his blood for "all men." In a new version, "men" was dropped.
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the organization of more than 700 Reform Jewish synagogues in the United States, has published a new nonsexist Haggadah, the book used during Passover to tell the Biblical story of Exodus.
It also has produced word lists giving alternatives to noninclusive words. Instead of "brethren," "brothers and sisters" is recommended. The formerly generic "fathers" could be replaced by "ancestors" or "patriarchs and matriarchs," it suggested.
References to God are suggested, particularly if avoiding pronouns like "He" means too much repetition of the word "God." "King" is out; instead, the word lists suggest such substitutes as "Almighty," "Eternal," "Holy One," "Creator," and "Redeemer."
Theologians point out female as well as male images of God in the Bible:
The story of the woman who loses one of 10 silver coins and searches for it is regarded as an analogy of God searching for a lost person. In another example, God answers when accused of forsaking his people, "Can a mother forget the infant at her breast, or a loving mother the child of her womb?" Again, God speaks, "As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you."
Meanwhile, there is new interest in regarding the Holy Spirit of the Trinity--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--as female.
"We have a big advantage, because we speak of the triune God, the one God in three persons," said the Rev. Dr. James A. Sanders, religion professor at the School of Theology at Claremont and president of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center, both in Claremont, Calif. He uses "She" for the Holy Spirit.
In the original Hebrew, where all nouns are either masculine or feminine, all the nouns referring to the Holy Spirit are feminine, he said. "Ruach" means "wind" or "spirit"; "shechinah" means "indwelling spirit of God"; and "hachmah" means wisdom--all are feminine, he said.
The Greek word for spirit is "pneuma," which is a neuter noun.
"The difficulty arose with the Latin translation of these from Greek and Hebrew. It became "spiritus," which is masculine," he said.
The Holy Spirit as feminine is "not as radical as some people would like, but at least it's getting away from a totally masculine God, which is simply not true to the Bible," he said.
The issue is controversial.
A United Methodist Church task force finished a three-year-long study this month on making language about God more inclusive. Its report is expected to go to the denomination's General Conference next year. Among recommendations is that "Lord" and "King," considered starkly male designations by some, be avoided as synonyms for God when spoken in sermons or liturgy or in the writing of current or future Methodist material.
But the report also notes that for others, "Lord as a name for God is central to their Christian faith" and doesn't indicate male gender but the "sovereignty of God."
It urged "special sensitivity to all persons when using this term."
The National Council of Churches, with 32 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, has embarked on two projects.
A new Revised Standard Version of the Bible, decades in the making, will attempt to include some nonsexist "inclusive" language when consistent with the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts.
A nonsexist lectionary also is being developed, with first year readings to be published by the council in the fall after two years of work.
The 1952 Revised Standard Version of the Bible is one of the most widely used Bibles among Protestants and is used as well by some Catholics. The new one, scheduled to be completed around the end of the decade, is not expected to make major changes in nonsexist language. The lectionary, which is focusing on inclusive language, is expected to go further.
Until the women's movement, the English language traditionally used male-gender words to include both male and female.
But "that is no longer true now," said the Rev. Dr. Burton H. Throckmorton, professor of New Testament at Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, and a member of the council's inclusive language committee working on the lectionary. "Our use of language is changing. There's been a cultural change."
Along with problems of the Bible being written in patriarchal societies with the languages--Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic--reflecting the bias, translations into a patriarchal English also were inaccurate, theologians state.
Throckmorton, a United Presbyterian minister, uses an example from Matthew: "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works." The word "man" came from the original Greek Bible's "anthropos," which means "human being," he said. "The text does not mean 'before male human beings.' "
The inclusive language committee is leaving words like "man" in the Biblical readings when the word means "male person." But "when it meant male or female person, or people, then we try to represent the intent of the passage," Throckmorton said.
References to God are more difficult.
"The problem is we have to use words for God which we can never mean literally. If one says God is "king," that is not understood to be a proposition that is literally true. It's a metaphor," he said. "God is beyond any literal description. If I say 'He' and mean literally a male being, it's idolatrous."
The issue has touched more than theological levels.
"The point of the lectionary is to provide a way of hearing scripture in the church that includes women on an equal basis with men," Throckmorton said. "I don't know how many people have left the church because of that one thing--it's all so overwhelmingly masculine."