Thought for the Week explores why pronouns such as they/them, she/her and he/him can be a really important aspect of building community and honouring each other’s life experiences.
Thought for the Week by Revd Dr Ayla Lepine and Revd Lucy Winkett
Recently Ayla mentioned at St James’s during a service that their pronouns are ‘she/they’. Ayla encouraged people to talk about pronouns if they wanted to after the service, and lots of people did which was great.
The whole issue of the use of pronouns she/they/he/them has received much publicity in recent years and is a topic that often arouses strong feelings (in many different directions…).
Simplistic, and often aggressive newspaper headlines talk about culture wars, millennial angst or that rather brilliant word (which often sounds like a reminder of the spirituality of Advent) ‘woke’ used in a hostile and hurtful way. At its root the discussion about the use of pronouns is a recognition that a person should be able to say for themselves who they are and how they want to be referred to, and not be defined by an assumption made by someone else. This is not just a cultural development, there is an argument for this movement that is rooted in Christian theology and spirituality.
God calls each one of us by name, we are made by God and it is to God that we will return. In Christian terms, for a human being, the root of our security and identity lies in this profound truth: each of us has been created by God in the image of God as an interdependent part of the whole Creation. Whatever our identity, this is the most important aspect of who we are. From this foundation, we are liberated to explore who we are, and who we have been made to be, without fear. The use of different pronouns expresses this creativity in our relationship to God, and it also demands of us a willingness to listen to one another, especially if a person is asking for a different language to be used in order to tell more truth about who they are, and therefore who we are together.
There will be as many different experiences as there are people in this congregation as in every large group of people: sometimes people are nervous about making mistakes, maybe haven’t thought much about pronouns before, or some will equally be really committed to using them with themselves and others in everyday conversation, in personal and professional contexts, to demonstrate and amplify the importance of calling people what they wish to be called.
A couple of good resources are listed here for those who want to explore more: the website below explores this topic in depth and offers a huge range of practical examples, history, and insights no matter what someone’s experience or identity is.
What Are Pronouns? Why Do They Matter? — Pronouns.org Resources on Personal Pronouns
This video is also a powerful way to learn more about how people use pronouns and why:
Why Gender Pronouns Matter – YouTube
Though they often do, pronouns people use don’t have to ‘match’ – many people are ‘he/him’ but many use ‘he/they’ too. This combination often shows that the person is comfortable with either ‘they/them’ or ‘he/him’ pronouns to describe themselves. As Ayla has said, using ‘she/they’ expresses the reality that gender doesn’t quite fit with ‘she/her’ exclusively. As Ayla has commented; ‘I’m still figuring that out, and like it when people refer to me as ‘they/them’ and am still getting used to it’.
Pronouns are small, powerful fragments in many languages that help us to build relationships with each other. They can connect with a particular person’s name or be used more generally (especially when we don’t know someone’s name, or we’re referring to a group of people).
Assumptions about pronouns happen frequently, to say the least. Assuming that someone would use the pronouns she/her or he/him about themselves usually takes place based on how someone looks and sounds, and sometimes based on how they behave too.
When someone’s assumptions about a person don’t align with the pronouns that person prefers, it’s called ‘misgendering’. Particularly but by no means exclusively, letting people know what our pronouns are can be a really positive way to indicate that a community and an individual within it is trustworthy and can offer belonging and dignity, particularly for LGBTQ+ people.
In church culture, using the pronouns that people prefer is part of a wider culture of inclusive language. At St James’s, for decades now, the gender of people and the gender of God has been referred to as not (as in previous decades) exclusively male. When the Church of England revised all its liturgy in 2000, in ‘Common Worship’, the decision was made to move forward on the language for people (not ‘mankind’ anymore but ‘humankind’ for instance, not ‘all men’ but ‘all people’), but to leave the language for God as male. This was a choice made then. This year, 2023, the Church of England General Synod voted to interrogate this in a new project which will revise the liturgy further. Since the 1980s, St James’s has been doing this already, sometimes referring to God as male or female but more often than not in gender-neutral terms. The traditional use of ‘brothers and sisters’ in liturgical language changed in the light of feminist and womanist insights to ‘sisters and brothers’, and now more often, the congregation is addressed not in binary terms, but as ‘friends’ or another term that doesn’t insist that all human beings are identified as either male or female. This is an acknowledgement that the more we discover about God’s creation, the more we discover we don’t know, and the multiple identities of human beings are part of us finding out more of who God has made us to be. There have been many sermons preached on the Trinity for example, expressing God three-in-one and one-in-three where the best pronoun for God is not he or she but they.
No matter what someone looks like or sounds like, in our building up of God’s church and community, we are encouraging all of us to be aware that it’s crucial to not make assumptions, and to respect the person we see when they share what their pronouns are. For many people, particularly non-binary and trans people, who encounter so much prejudice and injustice in everyday life, using the pronouns they use about themselves is a mark of dignity and truth in seeing them and welcoming them exactly as they are. Using someone’s pronouns as they ask is a way of recognising and celebrating that person’s humanity. And perhaps, if you’re not sure, asking them. In the church, Scripture and liturgy affirm that human beings are all made in the image of God, as part of an interdependent creation, and we’re invited to walk alongside Christ, who embraces all people and offers us infinite love and grace.
Pronouns, these small and important aspects of our language, are a really practical way of making that real day to day. Committing to this too, as a congregation, can help us express our shared humanity as an integral and irreplaceable part of God’s beloved Creation.