How Many Gender Differences Must a Liturgy Know? - by Teresa Berger

Teresa Berger

I listened to an interview on public radio recently in which a 16-year-old explained, “I am a non-binary, pan-sexual human being. My gender at birth was female. I came out as lesbian in my early teens. I am now edging toward transitioning to being male, but for now, I am not comfortable with the ‘trans’ label.” The concrete problem under discussion in the interview was the issue of checking a gender box for that all-important teenage ritual of getting a driver’s license.

Only two options were available where this 16-yearold lived – the traditional binary of “male” or “female.” New York City, on the other hand, by now has 31 recognized genders. Facebook includes well over 50 gender options. And Christian worship services? How many gender differences must a liturgy know?

Lest you think such markers of difference are irrelevant where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, Galatians 3:27-28 makes clear that issues of naming differences are at least as old as the New Testament. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminded a divided community of its baptismal identity, an identity that is supposed to outweigh familiar markers of difference: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Binaries Spoken and Unspoken

Paul’s claim is cited frequently as proof that in the church, social differences – gender differences included – should not matter. Yet a closer look reveals a more complicated picture. Gal 3:27-28 names differences according to some basic binaries familiar in Paul’s world: Jew vs. Greek, slave vs. free, man and woman. At the same time, the text leaves other important binaries invisible, such as young and old, and rich and poor. Furthermore, Paul occludes in his list some markers of difference that muddle the binaries he names, for example eunuchs and persons with intersex conditions. All this goes to say that naming differences – even if done in order to subvert them – is never an easy task, because the differences we choose to acknowledge are never innocent. They always highlight (some) and occlude (others).

This brings me back to our own times. Struggles with naming differences, particularly gender differences, continue in Christian communities today. This is true whether you belong to a community that explicitly supports “diversity of genders and gendered experiences,” or to a community dedicated to “calling the church back to men” in response to perceived “feminization,” or to a community suffering from gender fatigue. The terrain of struggle is forever shifting, with worship being a particularly marked site.

Let’s take, for example, the changes in hymns sung in worship. There was an upsurge in hymns after the 1970s that explicitly named women together with men as protagonists of salvation history. The core image in these hymns remained rooted in a traditional gender binary. A couple of texts by John Bell offer striking examples, such as his “Women and Men as God Intended,” or his “Sisters and Brothers, with one Voice.” These hymns grew out of and lent voice to the struggle for women’s rights both outside and inside the church. I welcomed and sang many of these hymns with abandon. By now, however, some of these women-specific linguistic gains have been overtaken by newer genderspecific concerns. Thus, the addition of “sisters” to the traditional “brothers” has been supplanted, at least in some faith communities, by the search for a language that does not reproduce the traditional male-female binary.

31 Genders

The reason is that that binary excludes, for example, non-binary and gender-queer persons. Ruth Duck’s hymn “Sacred the Body” is an example of language that does not reinforce the traditional gender binary. The hymn text calls for respect for “persons,” “bodies,” and “difference,” without ever locking such respect into a binary model of sexual difference. Duck’s text tellingly lacks any specific naming of “male and female” bodies. Maybe there is a lesson in this hymn text: Christian worship may not need to name every specific marker of difference that surfaces in a particular cultural moment. Concretely, with regard to gender differences, we may not need hymns today that sing out loud all 31 recognized genders of the City of New York. What we do need, however, is language beyond the limited and limiting traditional gender binary, as we struggle with how best to name and honor diverse ways of being, and of doing gender in the world.

Maybe the complexity of adequately naming differences is one of the reasons for the popularity of Marty Haugen’s hymn “All Are Welcome.” The inclusivity and elasticity of the “All” allows some communities to envision a rainbow flag while singing, and others to imagine an interracial future for their community of faith. A transgender person, on a spiritual journey, might feel affirmed in this hymn – as might a pregnant woman carrying a child in her womb with severe disabilities whom she seeks to welcome against all medical and societal pressures. Or an undocumented immigrant might be allowed to feel safe for a moment. Yet unease with a simple “All” remains. The struggle over gender differences is not so easily settled, in liturgy as in the rest of life. How to honor and welcome each other’s differences is a profound challenge, of which the right naming of differences in worship is only one small part.

The Hyper-Marked Moment

I think it is safe to assume that questions of gender will continue to shape Christian worship, even (or especially?) as traditional gender codes crumble at least in some contexts (this is by no means a global phenomenon). In the contemporary culture of the North Atlantic world, gender appears hyper-marked for now, not least in terms of media visibility. Christian communities that gather for worship in this cultural current will feel its impact. In the future, however, it may well be that gender will not be as hyper-marked as it is today. That could actually be welcome news for Christian communities, because it might allow them to rediscover that worship of God can be an invitation to resist the absolutizing of sexed identities, whatever these may be.

And if the use of the voice in praise of God is one of the continuities between this life and life beyond the grave (as at least Tertullian argued in his reflections on the resurrected body1), then the practice of worship might actually be thinkable beyond gender. For a contemporary culture in which gender is hypermarked, that might be startling, and maybe even good news indeed.

Teresa Berger is Professor of Liturgical Studies and Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Theology at YDS. A native of Germany, she holds doctorates in both liturgical studies and constructive theology, and she writes about how these disciplines intersect with gender theory. Her books include @ Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds (Routledge, 2017) and Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History (Routledge, 2011). She also posts at the liturgy blog Pray Tell.


1 In De Resurrectione Carnis, 59-62, Tertullian argues that the mouth of the resurrected body will continue to sing the praise of God while other bodily functions (e.g., eating, and sexual relations) will cease because they have become unnecessary.