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Expressing the Bible's message in 'an unbiased manner'

By Curtis J. SitomerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 1983

When the Rev. Linda Spoolstra tends her flock in the small Massachusetts community of Swansea, she stresses the female as well as the male qualities of Jesus. She talks of his traits of gentleness, compassion, and love of children - often more associated with women than men.

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The pastor, a Baptist minister, is not a feminist. But she is one of a growing band of clergy - both men and women - across the United States who use ''inclusive'' language (which deemphasizes gender and stresses scriptural equality of the sexes) in their sermons.

Until recently, this has been an informal and little-publicized practice. However, according to the National Council of Churches, about 100 Protestant pastors in 30 states have for some time taken liberties with the biblical letter to place greater emphasis on the feminine.

Now an NCC lectionary committee is pushing for widespread acceptance of this concept by encouraging member churches to adopt a newly published Inclusive Language Lectionary (ILL) to help them ''express the Biblical message to all persons in an unbiased manner.''

However, with the ink of the first of three lectionary volumes barely dry, the idea is already sparking deep-felt controversy. Its detractors see it as a veiled move to influence future alterations of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a device to inject politically liberal - and feminist - values into the church, and an effort to distort the ''revealed Word.''

The interdenominational group of scholars, which has put in six years of study on the project, insists that these are unfounded fears. The lectionary is an ''experimental, voluntary worship aid,'' says NCC general secretary Claire Randall. It's not a Bible, she points out, but a cluster of scriptural selections designed to be read aloud by pastors and congregations. The initial volume is keyed for use in the month before Christmas.

The Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, professor of theology at Boston University - a member of the committee - stresses that nothing new is being introduced into the Scriptures by making its language more inclusive. ''(It's) something that's already there, integral to the meaning of the Gospel,'' Dr. Thistlethwaite maintains.

Why is the lectionary needed?

Virginia Ramey Molenkott, professor of English at William Paterson College in New Jersey, says that much of the language in common translations distorts the meaning of Scripture and encourages ''agism, classism, racism, and sexism in one devastating package.'' Professor Mollenkott, who is a member of the executive committee of the religion and literature division of the Modern Language Association, comments: ''There are many thousands of women still paralyzed by sexist religious imagery and pronouns. They need to hear the liberating word that they too are made in the image of God.''

The ''liberating word'' offered in the ILL falls into three categories: language about God; language about Christ Jesus; and language about people.

References to God as ''Mother'' as well as ''Father'' are featured prominently throughout the work. Other changes include use of ''Sovereign'' instead of ''Lord,'' ''Realm of God'' instead of ''Kingdom of God,'' and ''Ruler'' or ''Monarch'' instead of ''King.''

In referring to Jesus, the pronoun ''he'' is frequently replaced by the noun ''Jesus.'' Instead of ''Son,'' ''Son of God,'' and ''Son of Man,'' the lectionary uses ''Child,'' ''Child of God,'' and ''the Human One.''

To show that the Scripture intends to include women in many references to ''man,'' the word ''brethren'' is often recast as ''brothers and sisters'' and a person's proper name substituted for ''he'' or ''she.''

The ministerial community gives the ILL mixed reviews. Certain segments are flatly opposed to it. The Lutheran Church of America recommends against using it for worship. The Rev. Dr. James R. Crumley Jr., bishop of North America's largest Lutheran body says ''it is often inaccurate, and sometimes written in a poor and inadequate linguistic style.''

Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America says his church disassociates itself from the lectionary. Some fundamentalists talk about ''tampering'' with the Word of God. Those who don't use the Revised Standard Version of the Bible tend to be neutral or wary. And even the NCC itself has not officially endorsed the ILL committee's product.