United Methodists prefer masculine references to God and prefer traditional language over gender-free "inclusive" forms in references to people during worship, in Bible study and in song, according to a readers poll by the United Methodist Reporter.

More than two-thirds of the 7,043 respondents said they prefer traditional language in references to God. And more than half would retain traditional language to refer to people.

Survey questions were printed in the March 16 issue of the Reporter and the results published June 1. The Reporter said the 7,043 responses to the poll represent the second-highest number received on any poll conducted by the newspaper.

The widest exposure of United Methodists to inclusive language likely comes through use of a new hymnal adopted at the denomination's 1988 General Conference. That hymnal removed much of the male imagery relating to people. But conference delegates rejected a rewriting of 35 chapters from the Book of Psalms set to music that deleted use of the masculine pronoun "his" in references to God.

United Methodists will soon get further exposure to inclusive language, no doubt, through the recently released New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. That translation also removes many masculine references to people but, like the United Methodist hymnal, retains male imagery in references to God.

The most controversial treatment of inclusive language came in 1985 with the National Council of Churches's release of "An Inclusive Language Lectionary" containing weekly scriptural readings that removed male imagery not only for people but also for God.

The poll asked readers to answer four questions involving references to other people, references to God, references to the Trinity, and the openness of their congregations to inclusive language.

Key findings include the following:

67 percent of respondents said they oppose inclusive images for God, which can change phrases such as "the Lord who answers me from his holy hill" to "the Lord who answers me from the holy hill."

56 percent of the respondents said they oppose use of inclusive language in reference to humans. Such approaches make changes such as: "Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands" to "Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands."

71 percent said they preferred the traditional "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" formulation over renderings such as "Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer."

A sizable number of readers, although a minority, made pleas to allow congregations the option of using inclusive language.

Just 29 percent said they believe more openness exists in their congregations today than five years ago regarding use of inclusive language, while 44 percent said there was not more openness and 26 percent said they were uncertain.

The Reporter said 57 percent of female readers said they favor traditional language for people compared with 56 percent for men.

And 69 percent of the men prefer traditional male references to God while 66 percent of the women do.

The survey also revealed that members of the clergy are more receptive to use of inclusive language than lay persons. Twice the percentage of clerics as lay persons support inclusive language for persons and God.

In an editorial, the Reporter encouraged congregations to use the findings as a basis for further discussion, adding, "As Christ's followers, we should approach such discussions with a dual awareness. First, strong convictions exist on all sides of the issue. Second, we need to engage each other not in anger and bitterness but in a spirit of love and reconciliation."