United Methodist Church Likely to Get New Hymnal; Will it be More 'Gender Neutral'?

Participants sing during the opening worship of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference held in Tampa, Fla., April 24. | (Photo: UMNS/Kathleen Barry)

The 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church will decide on beginning the process of developing a new official hymnal to be more relevant, and if approved, it could pave the way for some pastors to call for "gender neutral" language.

The United Methodist Publishing House and Discipleship Ministries announced Friday that their respective boards have endorsed the proposal for a new hymnal to be presented to the General Conference, the denomination's highest decision-making body, next year.

"The hymnal has been a vital tool in carrying the theology of The United Methodist Church for generations," the Rev. Tim Bias, General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries, said in a statement. "That function remains important for a new, relevant, and widely used version of The United Methodist Hymnal."

After the approval next year, a new hymnal collection will be presented to the 2020 General Conference, and, if approved, will be made available to congregations and communities of faith, according to the UMPH statement.

The revision would use "the latest digital technology to resource faith communities and individuals who seek to worship God in ways that transform lives and change the world."

It would enable the UMC to use cloud technology "to periodically curate a very large collection of music and worship resources in ways that can be customized to meet the needs of different contexts," the Rev. Brian K. Milford, UMC's Book Editor and Chief Content Officer of UMPH, said.

Part of the collection would be uniform across all versions, according to the statement. Another part would contain additional hymns, songs, and worship resources that could be selected based on the preferences of the congregation or user.

In an article on its website, the Discipleship Ministries, which will have primary responsibility for the content of the new resource, describes issues related to worship and congregational singing.

"God is spirit, beyond gender, neither male nor female, as far as we know not possessing X or Y chromosomes. Yet, for the first 2,000 or so years of Christianity, referring to God in male terms and images has been the norm, a practice some would like to change and some would like to continue," the article says.

"The biblical image of God as Father is ubiquitous in our liturgy, ritual, and hymnody while feminine biblical images of God are largely unused," it continues. "Jesus, Son of God and son of Mary, is male, and yet there are those who wish to minimize the use of male pronouns for Jesus. One example is replacing "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" with "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord" in the Communion liturgy."

It adds: "The Holy Spirit is also genderless. Which pronoun do we use when one is required? 'It' would seem inappropriate because God is always personal and never an 'it.' That leaves us in English with he and she. In some languages, French for instance, the Holy Spirit is referred to with the feminine pronoun, but seldom so in English. Many are likewise uncomfortable using the masculine."

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