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Expansive Language as a Tool for Social Justice: an interview with the Rev. Canon Dr. Ellen Clark-King

Expansive Language as a Tool for Social Justice: an interview with the Rev. Canon Dr. Ellen Clark-King

written by Dani Gabrielle

In November 2019 I was ordained a deacon at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The service was unique in that gender neutral language was used. Instead of “brothers and sisters,” the phrase “Companions in Christ” was used. I was grateful to be ordained with they/them pronouns, and to feel really seen as a nonbinary person. But using language like this has much broader implications than what it meant for me personally, for congregations within and outside the Episcopal Church. As a follow up to a previous article in Episcopal Cafe about my experience ( I interviewed the Rev. Canon Dr. Ellen Clark-King about language, social justice, and creating the service. Currently serving at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, she is soon to be the Dean of King’s College London.


This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Dani: Can you introduce yourself and include your pronouns?

ECK: Yes, I’m the Rev. Canon Dr. Ellen Clark-King, she/her/hers…Vice Dean and Canon for Social Justice at Grace Cathedral.

Dani: Can you tell me a little bit about the work that you do at the cathedral?

ECK: It’s got two main focuses…part is involved in overseeing the life of the congregation, and the office of the congregation as well. So looking after liturgy, and pastoral care and formation, not doing all those things, but making sure all those things happen. The social justice side is sort of looking out from the cathedral at the city and the world identifying what needs there are there, and also working to identify how the cathedral can best meet those needs and have an impact both in social outreach and in social justice itself.


Dani: Why is expansive language important?

ECK: Because we want to value all of God’s children and make sure that they, and everyone else, know that they’re valued too. I have a gender-queer nibbling, which is the gender-neutral term for a niece or nephew, so have seen in my own family the importance of honoring a person’s identity and inviting others I interact with to honor that identity too.

Dani: How is our language around gender tied to social justice?

ECK: Oh, in so many ways. I guess for me my first entry into this was from a feminist cis female perspective around the language that we use in worship. Both for worshipers and, more particularly, for God, and the way that that brings in some people and leaves out some others. And then seeing how this is even more true of my trans siblings and nibblings, and the importance of making sure that our world of care and respect is large enough that it has space for all these people.

And knowing that words are important. I know…that stupid childhood thing of sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Words hurt people every single day. From being marginalized to having their needs and their rights ignored, to being bullied and ostracized. I think language is at the center of who we are as human beings, who we are as a worshiping people and so is at the center of any social justice work we do.

Dani: How do you regularly include expansive language in your work?

ECK: I try when I’m preaching to use other images for God, gender-neutral ones as well as female-gendered ones. In talking of and to people in liturgy, I’m trying to break away myself, and help us break away from the brothers and sisters language that sort of felt inclusive 15 years ago maybe, but doesn’t feel inclusive anymore. And we’re increasingly inviting people to share their pronouns, where we don’t do that as a cathedral wide protocol at the moment, but we’re beginning to get into the way that people introduce themselves and invite others to introduce themselves.

Dani: What were the challenges of creating an ordination service with expansive language?

ECK: I think being respectful both to the Book of Common Prayer [and] to the variety of traditions that people bring with them to these services. Not only those being ordained, but those who supported them through their journey. And also wanting to be as inclusive and respectful as possible, so that we know that everyone who has come to be ordained is welcomed as they are, is called by God as they are, and shouldn’t have to step out of that identity to be named wrongly at an ordination service.

So it’s sort of balancing a prayer book which has non-inclusive language with a tradition and cathedral diocese that wants to be inclusive and welcoming.

Dani: What was exciting to you about creating an ordination service with expansive language?

ECK: Let’s be clear, this wasn’t my creation alone…it’s something that came from the cathedral or the Office of Liturgy, not just from me. I don’t want to be given the credit for this on my own. It’s something that we shared….

What was exciting about this? It was exciting to find ways that we could make the same meaning present in language that didn’t leave people on the outside of it. So finding new ways to have that same emotional content of the words be present, but in words that when they wrote the book of common prayer they never thought of using.

Dani: What’s your advice to others who want to create services with more expansive language?

ECK: Go for it. It’s my primary advice. I come from different parts of the Anglican Communion, from the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada which are not as closely wed to a Book of Common Prayer as the Episcopal church is. So I guess my attitude is possibly more willing to play with those forms of service…in a way that not everyone would be comfortable with. But I do think that we need to, while being respectful of our tradition, bring our tradition into this century. Bring our tradition into a form that is a broad space where people can find themselves and encounter God through our liturgy without feeling that again, that they have to step outside of their true identity to do that.

Dani: Are there any specific resources you would recommend?

ECK: I go to some, which aren’t particularly new now, but Shakespeare’s prayers for an inclusive church. Steven Shakespeare. Janet Morley’s All Desires Known, though again, she’s sort of writing from a more traditional feminist perspective than from a more up to date trans perspective…Rachel Mann…writes very movingly about the experience of both being transgender and somebody who lives with a disability too.

Dani: Thank you. 


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Simon Burris

Two things:

(1) I really do not see how gender-neutral language or a greater variety of pronoun usage will advance social justice; at least, not the aspects of social justice that I care about: more equitable opportunities in housing, employment, and education; more just interactions with governmental and corporate powers.

(2) I really do not see the Church as just another department of the secular world. I do not see “social justice” as what the Church needs or wants for itself.

I do not, for example, think that the relationship between members of the Body is comparable to the relationship between individuals in a secular community.

None of us (I hope!) is a child of the state! But we are all children of God, and hence it makes sense to refer to each other as “brother” and “sister” rather than as “companion.” To me, “companion” is too weak a word to describe what we are to each other.

(3) It seems to me that God has invited us to imagine the human species as being a binary-sexed species.

He created us as binary-sexed animals, so that we would depend upon each other for a continual survival of the species; and, I suspect, so that we would more easily see that our personhood cannot be separated from our given physical being. (That’s right: I think our life as sexed beings is a defense against Gnosticism!)

I also think that the occasional indignities associated with living as sexed animals is meant to teach us humility, and also to see kinship with other animal creation.

He has, in the miracle of the Incarnation, most gloriously participated in our binary-sexed life by giving us a male Son born of a female mother. Yes, I will insist that Mary did not “identify as a woman.” She was, in fact, a woman. An actual woman. A biological female.

And I am going to go out on a limb here and confess that I take it for granted that Jesus is (besides being God) a man. An actual man. A biological male. I insist that He does not “identify as a man.” I use the pronoun He/His/Him in reference to Jesus not because that is His “preferred pronoun,” but because the use of the pronoun “He” is, in this instance, accurate.

Dan Frank

Rev. Dani and Rev. Canon Ellen are trying to include all people with these words, where as terms like “an actual woman, a biological female” or “an actual man, a biological man” tend to exclude people. Respecting and embracing the identities of other human beings is a huge part of social justice, at least for me it is. Social justice doesn’t have to be starting a non-profit or legislating education bills; it can be as simple as getting somebody’s pronouns right.

Simon Burris

Oops. “Three things.” (As if this correction somehow makes up for my loquacity. Strong feelings, obviously.)

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