Since the mid 1970s progressive churches have been trying to overcome gender bias in the language of public worship. Their efforts have been guided, in part, by the pioneering work of scholars such as Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell, and by editors, translators, and writers of liturgical material and hymnody. People old enough to remember how it used to be can affirm that the transformation has been substantial and dramatic.
Despite the fact that we have been working on these matters for close to forty years, congregations still are trying to find their way, as I saw illustrated by my summer travels among progressive churches in several parts of the country. Everything about worship in one of these churches seemed consistent with progressive principles: the liturgy itself was classic in form and inclusive in language and style. Congregants represented a wide spectrum of age, gender, and race. The pastor was a woman and liturgical leaders were consistent with the diversified character of the congregation. Everything seemed to be settled.
Except for the Lord’s Prayer. Following classic liturgical practice, it was printed as the congregation’s concluding prayer in the eucharistic liturgy, using the agreed ecumenical contemporary translation. An explanatory note, however, informed congregants that they could substitute other titles or names of God for the “Our Father” which was printed in the order of worship. As best I could tell, Father was chosen by most, but there was an undercurrent of other titles.
Conversations since then confirm that the appropriateness of this prayer is being discussed in other progressive congregations. “How can we justify the use of this title for God,” one person asked me recently, “when some people have been abused by their fathers?” The implied answer was “Of course, we can’t use this title any longer.” The liturgical result would be either to strike that classic prayer from the liturgy or to rewrite it so that the language is no longer objectionable.
Or to do as the congregation mentioned earlier has done, which is to require worshipers to wrestle with this theological-cultural issue during the most spiritually sensitive moments in public worship.
Thirty years ago, I published a slender book entitled Faithful and Fair: Transcending Sexist Language in Worship. It was my effort to interpret the movement for inclusive language so that pastors, musicians, and worshipers could respond creatively to the challenges it provoked. The book was developed around a short list of interim principles for a transitional period during which we were striving for truth and justice in Christian worship.
First, our goal should be the development of liturgical language that is fair to women as well as to men and that is faithful to our experience of God (15).
Second, there should be a deliberate and determined effort to extend the metaphorical foundation of the speech used to describe and address God (30).
Third, there should be a careful and selective reduction of masculine metaphors in services of worship (49).
Fourth, we should continue to read the Bible and offer certain prayers even though their phrasing depends so much on the metaphors of masculinity; our sermons and other liturgical comments will provide the contemporary corrective (63).
Fifth, leaders of worship should work with the natural processes of change (81).
Sixth, ministers will have to work with understanding, skill, and persistence in order to assist completion of the transformation of liturgical language now taking place (93).
Although remarkable progress has been made in the three decades since this book was published, neither American society nor the church has achieved practices that are faithful and fair in the ways that this book called for. Our uncertainties about whether and how to use the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples demonstrates that we still are in the interim period.
When I published this book, I identified four places where we should continue to use the Father metaphor in public worship. One of them was in the prayer that the gospel writers ascribe to Jesus. My rationale was based on the statement that it represents the piety and theology of Jesus. “There is no question,” I wrote, “but that Father was the most vivid expression of Jesus’ experience of God. By using this prayer, we are identified with Jesus’ own way of experiencing the Holy One of Israel.” This much of the paragraph I continue to affirm with little or no reservation.
The next sentence from this old book, however, might require revision: “Because Jesus is the fountain from whence our faith flows, I see no way around this continuation in Christian worship of a certain priority of Father as the significant family title for God” (71). This is, however, only one of the theological questions that progressive Christians have to think about as they try to decide whether (and how) they can be progressive and Christian at the same time. We’ll talk about this again.
Note: Copies of this book are available at the bookstore at Christian Theological Seminary.