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What’s in a name? Episcopalians move to change their words for God

Deputies meet on July 5, 2018, during the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention in Austin. Photo by David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

AUSTIN, Texas (RNS) — For some watching (and blogging and tweeting) the debate on the floor of the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention this week, it sounded as if someone were trying to give God a sex change.

Bishops, priests and lay delegates, who have been meeting in Austin since July 5, are discussing legislation that would make changes to the Book of Common Prayer aimed at stripping away some of the masculine descriptions of God in favor of more “expansive” language.

During the hours of debate over the weekend, delegates butted heads over tradition, theology and what it means to be welcoming. One argued that children of all genders should hear language that allows them to feel made in God’s image. Another speaker, a delegate from an urban parish that serves poor families, said the masculine nature of God is crucial for children growing up without a father. 

“Both sides are worried about alienating the people we’ve got and not being welcoming to the people we don’t have,” said the Rev. Cathy Tyndall Boyd, rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Va.

The Rev. Iain Stanford testifies in favor of nongendered language during testimony on resolutions dealing with prayer book revision in Austin. Photo by Melodie Woerman/Episcopal News Service

Some also had practical concerns: Revision opponents suggest that the approximately $1.9 million it would cost to develop the language, with an expected $8 million to print and distribute the new books, could be better spent on evangelism, racial reconciliation efforts and training new church leaders.

The discussion has attracted attention outside of the Episcopal Church as well as within it: Traditionalist Christians, including those whose own denominations are considering similar changes, worry that gender-neutral terms for God undermine the concept of the Trinity.

But the Rev. Ruth Meyers, a liturgy professor at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif., said the proposal shouldn’t be seen as an attempt to neuter God.

“This is not about eliminating language about God the Father, about Jesus the Son,” she said. “This is about expanding the language of God so every person can see and understand they are made in the image of God.”

Indeed, many comments from the convention floor stemmed from concerns other than gender.

The book needs clearer language on salvation and atonement theology and the stewardship of creation, some argued. A prayer currently said over the bread and wine during the sacrament of the Eucharist describes humanity as “rulers of creation,” which could be changed to “stewards of creation.”

Delegates also suggested broadening the cultural perspectives in the prayer book. One priest lamented a prayer of thanksgiving that opens with “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage,” a line she said could alienate Native Americans.

Concerns were also raised over what some said were inadequate Spanish, French and Haitian Creole translations of the prayer book.

The Episcopalians aren’t the most progressive denomination when it comes to language. Twenty years ago, they issued a supplement to the prayer book that incorporated gender-neutral language, but by comparison, the Unitarian Universalist Association is expected to make all language in the church bylaws gender neutral at its General Assembly this summer. Judaism’s Reform movement has used gender-neutral language in its prayer book since 2007.

But perhaps because Episcopalians represent such a wide range of political and theological beliefs, they consider the prayer book the “primary symbol of our unity.” Nothing riles them more, they often joke, than tinkering with it.

Originally published in 1549 after England broke from the Roman Catholic Church, the book is used in varying versions by the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church last updated the Book of Common Prayer in 1979, revising the 1928 version, with its “thees” and “thous,” by adding modern prayer language and new rites. The changes inevitably drew outrage from traditionalists.

Revisions to the Book of Common Prayer are being debated at the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Episcopal News Service

Sensitive to these feelings, delegates have embraced the painstaking deliberations at convention, said the Very Rev. Samuel Candler, chair of the prayer book legislation committee.

“There is the movement of the spirit even in parliamentary procedure and even in committees,” he said.

If so, the spirit moves very slowly. Passing a resolution requires approval from both houses of the church’s bicameral governing body — the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, the latter consisting of clergy members and lay people elected from each diocese — which adhere to a strict order of debate. 

On Wednesday (July 11), the House of Deputies passed the bishops’ amended version of the resolution, which does not seek to overhaul the prayer book but calls for a task force to study other liturgical options with gender-neutral language. It also encourages bishops to engage with their local congregations in experimenting with worship and new liturgical texts.

The Rev. Susan Russell, a deputy on the committee handling the prayer book revision, said the compromise opens up a “middle way — listening to those desiring to preserve the language of the 1979 prayer book and those yearning for more expansive and inclusive language.”

“My analogy is it’s like choosing to add onto an existing house rather than remodel it from scratch,” Russell said.

The Rev. Mary Sulerud knows well the challenges of retooling divine language. While attending Virginia Theological Seminary in the 1980s, she participated in trials for supplemental liturgies that used gender-neutral terms for God and highlighted the role of women in church history. Some of those prayers were used in Enriching Our Worship, the liturgical resource developed in the 1990s as a companion to the Book of Common Prayer.

Now canon for discernment and congregational vitality in the Diocese of Maryland, Sulerud said the response then, as now, was mixed.

“Some people welcomed it. Some people were barely hanging on. It was complicated.”

(Eileen Flynn is a writer based in Austin, Texas. She teaches religion journalism at the University of Texas.)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the House of Deputies vote on the bishops’ version of the resolution.

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Eileen Flynn

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  • Some would argue that since Jesus referred to God as Father, as in “Our Father, who art in heaven…” God is therefore a male. I would counter by saying that Jesus was using terminology appropriate to first-century Palestine in which a man was always the head of the family unit in order to help people conceptualize God. Such terminology is no longer necessary or even appropriate when a household is headed by a woman (or even two.) I would also counter by saying that the suggestion that God has great big enormous male genitals in the sky is completely ludicrous. Although, who knows? It might be true – the entire universe might fit neatly into one of God’s testicles, so what do I know? In the end, none of us knows anything for sure – it must all be taken in faith.

  • All of that is probably only relevant if you care about the Episcopal Church’s latest salvo as the Church of What’s Happening Now.

    Theologically it is simply silly.

  • And yet that giant sucking sound is the energy that you put into trying to impress everyone that you’re an expert on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion whenever there is an article here about either. But neither are a church or communion of which you are a member.

  • If they actually want to remain Christian, it’s a waste of time and money.

    The fact that they don’t think it’s a waste of time and money seems to indicate they’re moving away from Christianity.

    The Catholics took a look at some of these issues back a couple of decades ago and came up with:

    http://www.bible-researcher.com/vatican-norms.html

    which preserves the sense of the original language.

    More interesting is the fact that some priests in the Episcopal Church have been using gender neutral baptisms despite any lack of authorization: “in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier,” or “in the name of the Creator, and of the Liberator, and of the Sustainer”.

    The Catholics also looked at that:

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20080201_validity-baptism_en.html

    and I have always told parents whose priest used one of those formulas, or worse, to get the child baptized for the very first time somewhere else, or do it themselves.

  • “It is not that when men cease to believe in God they will believe in nothing, they will believe in anything” – G.K. Chesterton

    “I want a Church that moves the world not one that moves with it.” – G.K. Chesterton

  • Our creator made us in Hebrew. Names and titles such as Lord and God are made up and are not there in original manuscripts! Worshiping the wrong names causes terrible suffering. We must worship who Yeshua said in Matthew 4:10. They got his name wrong too – Its not Jesus.

  • “The changes inevitably drew outrage from traditionalists.” Because we humans have a long tradition of creating God ‘in our image and likeness’ and that’s the way we like it.

  • Actually, scripture also includes female references/mother metaphors for God. When we assume God is male, we risk limiting our knowledge of God at best and worshipping an image that we have created or adopted as truth at worst.

  • We should have had women writing all the scripture in the first place——but alas, it didn’t happen. One question would be: Did they want to? (Or do they want to now?) Ladies, be pro-active. If you aren’t, then the spirits of Sarah Palin, Phyllis Schlafly, Michelle Bachman, Paula White and others of the same mindset put you in a box and keep you there. You got stuck with veneration of the Virgin Mary mainly as your role. You deserved veneration of Mary Magdalene. I’m rambling I know, but religion needs some redefinition by women. Might as well get started. Heck, what we have right now in the USA is a hijack of Christianity by Donald Trump and the Chamber of Commerce Gang. Why not you ladies? Seriously, why not mothers, sisters, wives and single girls of the USA doing a TAKEOVER of the whole religious enterprise? Think I’m nuts? What you are enduring a this moment of history in America is far, far, far nuttier. Your father in heaven put a golf course developer in charge of your life and future? Think about where you’re a-goin’ with this.

  • “…. “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage,”….

    Corrected :

    ” Almighty Figment, your apostles have given us Sin, Satan and Suffering. ”

    I prefer :

    ” I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints….”
    Sinner : Billy Joel
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhjNm20XbXw

    ” It ain’t necessarily so ”
    Sinners : George & Ira Gershwin
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBOgH5f36cQ

    “….whatever Venus commands is a sweet duty, ”
    Sinner : Carl Orff
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTxggoE48wk

    “….no one ever wrote a tune for godless existentialism….”
    Sinner : Steve Martin
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmwAD7nHqaY

    ” Imagine there’s no Heaven….”
    Sinner : John Lennon
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwUGSYDKUxU

  • http://www.bible-researcher.com/vatican-norms.html

    All of those are in the Old Testament, involve metaphors typically in poetic settings, making analogies to nurturing and birth.

    The document the Catholics prepared as guidance would result in those passages being translated as written, but avoids “in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier” and “Our Parent who art in heaven …”.

    What is being proposed in the Episcopal Church is a direct attack on the Scriptures.

    Reasonable use of images as aids to prayer or meditation is part of the Christian heritage. The opposition to it was an aberration.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_Iconoclasm

  • “El” and “Elohim” are no more or less made up than “God,” for which they are accurate translations — a god or deity, or “the” God. You are of course correct that “Lord” is not in the original text (except when “lord” *is* in the text, e.g. Gen. 32:19, Psalms 110:1, etc.).

  • Yahweh or Jehovah if latinized. The tetragrammaton is all over the OT but ignored all but 2 or 3 times in the King James version.

  • Women never wrote scripture for the simple reason that they weren’t allowed to learn to read or write by the men in their lives, as is still happening in places like Afghanistan today. Keep people down by preventing them from learning how to read or write and they’ll stay down – right where some people want them to be.

  • Yes. They were not allowed to write the stories we repeat and repeat. Can they be allowed now? Are there enough of them who might want to? Is it really, really, really true that no editing or new additions are possible? Does anyone even discuss such things?

  • I can tell you are a traditionalist but even Christ used a nurturing female metaphor in describing what he wanted to do. Pretty sure that any new liturgy will be developed by a group over extensive period of time and will not eliminate the BXP And actually I lik the images used for the Trinity – while most Christians say they believe in the Holy Trinity, they can not explain it – I see that language as helpful. And Paul and others can ve thanked for the choice of langauage.

    And with repect to the Lord’s prayer, it has stuck in my mind the current Pope’s suggestion that it be changed to delete the oe line as it makes no theological sense. But I doubt our parent will fly and will stay intact as the BCP offers too strong a tradition of scripture based liturgy.

  • Evidently, the traditionalists believe that a finite, empirical human language can accurately interface with an infinite, extra-empirical reality. That takes a whole lot of anthropocentric hubris.

  • Makes me NOT desperate. Nor you either, for that matter.

    Honestly? Not one poster here has died (nor even lost one night’s sleep) because of the Episcopalian playbook merely following traditional (i.e. biblical) language for God over the years. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that language.

    Please tell your Episcopalian friends to get rational, Charlotte. Just staying alive past 2020 as a denomination, ought to be their one goal. One foot in Hell and the other on a Banana Peel, is really not a pleasant situation!

  • while your words–One foot in Hell and the other on a Banana Peel–have a certain gaudy technicolor allure, do you really believe that they reflect, in any meaningful way, the attitude or god or of a godly person ?

  • Believe me, we’re all trying to do “a spoonful of sugar” on these church controversies, especially at a time of great stress and division. I try to do my part.

    But at some point, one needs to stand up and just speak honestly about where things are really at. Just say the real deal out loud for one second, without all the cotton candy.

    The Episcopalians’ house is on fire. They are voting on whether or not to douse the already-rampant flames with more gasoline. It’s a very good time for some straight talk.

  • If by “traditionalist” you mean an adherent to 1+1=2, you are spot on.

    If Christ used “a nurturing female metaphor”, it was not as a name for a deity.

    When he talked to God, he called him “Father”.

    He called himself the Good Shepherd.

    He called his church his bride and himself the bridegroom.

    The question is not what YOU find helpful.

    The question is “what does the revelation say?”.

    As far as the BCP goes, the Episcopal Church long ago left the Scriptures behind. At this point General Convention believes it can authorize anything, so it will.

  • I’m sure it isn’t. Just staying alive past 2020 as a denomination does not seem to be a feasible goal.

  • So, does Ruth Meyers believe she really could neuter God if necessary? Out of Berkeley they will come. Try cutting off global warming first.

  • Evidently the traditionalists think the Scriptures are revelation, that if “Father” was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us, “in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier” signifies something other than Christianity, and doing all this “so every person can see and understand they are made in the image of God” is anthropocentric hubris.

    It is also nuts.

  • Does God The Father have a belly button? C’mon ye fundy freaks, answer the question.

  • I believe the giant sucking sound is at your end.

    I will leave it up to readers’ imaginations as to what it might be.

    So, I look around my library and I find the Francis Hall theology series, every BCP from 1549 through today, all the Prayer Book Studies from the 1950s forward, the Zebra book, and so on.

    The poseur appears to be yourself, David, along with being a little j-ck-ass.

    Well, perhaps a big one.

  • The first unconventional reference to Jesus I heard was when i was at the local Baptist church where the pastor called Jesus ‘daddy’ Which took me aback but then remembered Christ used the familiar term Abba.You speak from your own frame of reference. And that is fine because it suits you. Many churches for example, do not use wine at communion. The BCP is not likely to be retired but confined to one service. And no rock bands playing Christian praise music either. Many churches do not use wine at communion.

  • He also referred to himself as wanting to be a mother hen gathering her chicks. And fortunately Episcopalians need not concern themselves with how evangelicals see Scripture – freedom of religion allows them to worship and create as they choose.

  • To be accurate, Episcopalians currently do not see themselves as needing to concern themselves with what the Scriptures say whatsoever.

    Since they decided that: (1) the Spirit was moving them to do new things and (2) there was no higher religious authority than the triennial General Convention, including the Anglican Communion, the sky is the limit.

    Your reference, btw, is to Matthew 23:37.

    Once again that is a metaphor or analogy, not a gender specific reference to the Son.

    No matter; what Scriptures say is essentially irrelevant to the Episcopal Church.

  • In your opinion. Each province in the Communion has some latitude and of course, some consequences with respect to the Anglican Communion. The only gender not in dispute is Jesus the man. The idea of gender as being largely metaphorical is taught elsewhere in other denominations and was an early church teaching in the 4th c by Gregory of Nanzanius.

  • There simply is no doubt at all that the moves being discussed are not only innovative but radical. That is the opinion of the vast majority of Christians based on how they handle the very same issues, e.g.:

    http://www.bible-researcher.com/vatican-norms.html

    Gregory of Nanzanius was neither Council nor Pope.

    There is no gender dispute – the genders are baked into the Scriptures.

    The bottom line is that the Episcopal Church, a tiny province of a relatively small communion of Christians, is announcing that IT has deciphered the precise meaning of these gender references, IT has determined that they are irrelevant, and IT is going to fix them to suit.

    Somehow this apparently obvious “truth” slipped right by the rest of the Church for nineteen plus centuries and still not being “correctly” interpreted by such benighted groups as the Orthodox, Catholics, vast majority of the Anglican Communion, Lutherans, et al.

    There would seem to be little doubt as to why its membership continues to decline.

  • The slippery slope started when they allowed women to play dress-up pastor. They no longer believe in God.

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