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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Speaking of God

"Am I speaking with God?" - Zosimo
The United Church of Christ, at its recent biannual governance meeting in Tampa, FL, amended its bylaws to replace "Heavenly Father" with "Triune God".

Please note: It did not change the language of any of the historic Creeds. This was a change in the language of its bylaws.

I note that to correct Terry Mattingly, one of the darlings of the so-called "orthodox Christians", who headlined his piece at GetReligion.Org "Adios to God the Father".

Mattingly chided the "lame stream religious media" for not reporting this as a "major story".  He also wrote:
... since editing the ancient Christian creeds is a highly symbolic act -- even for flocks as hyper-Protestant as the UCC. Of course, this denomination also serves as the home base for a very articulate and important layperson -- President Barack Obama.
Ahem, Mr. Mattingly? Excuse me, sir, but this was about bylaws, not Creeds.  See, the UCCs are neither a 'catholic' nor 'confessional' church but a congregational denomination. Each level of the church operates more or less independently. 

And, oh, by the way, Mr. Obama hasn't been part of any particular denomination since he left the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's UCC congregation years ago.

What is it with these guys who think only 'they' have 'the truth' to report' and then unfailingly get it wrong? Does it seem to you that "Fox News" has a franchise of religious journalists in the institutional church who share talking points and phrases with each other?

Why is Mattingly so apoplectic about a change in the bylaws of a religious denomination which has a long history of advocating for gender-neutral terms for God?

The poor man looks like one of those soldiers who hasn't heard that the war is over and he's the only one left on a deserted hill, still polishing his rifle and shining his boots and ever-ready for the battle that ended years ago.

As National Convener of The Episcopal Women's Caucus, I have been listening to the growing buzz of conversation among men and women in The Episcopal Church about changing the language we use about The Holy Spirit.

Actually, many people simply want the language of our Prayer Book used in our worship to reflect the feminine pronoun used by growing numbers of people in the pew to describe the Holy Spirit. Some are advocating for a resolution at General Convention which directs that all future authorized BCPs and/or Supplemental Liturgical Texts use the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit.

One woman, a former long-time deputy and national leader in The Episcopal Church (not The Caucus), wrote me this note:
I am no longer involved in the national church. I am upset always that our current prayerbook in the Nicene creed refers to the Holy Spirit as "he"! There are 59 times in Jewish Bibles where the H.S. is SHE! You are a feminist leader in our church. I urge you to take this issue up!
Okay, my sister. You got it. However, if we're talking revision of the Prayer Book, I must tell you that language about the Holy Spirit is just the beginning of the conversation. 

Some folk feel strongly that the time has come and now is for the BCP to remove the italicized "he" to now read "s/he".

Still others are asking that we change the canons of the church to formally authorize what is happening formally and informally in worship in many churches around The Episcopal Church: the use of expansive language in terms of images of God and humankind.

Note, please, that I used the term "expansive" rather than "inclusive".

I am keenly aware that many people desire the use of pronouns because it is more reflective of their personal relationship with the individual and collective members of the Trinity.

Many other people also earnestly desire to keep pronouns out of the picture, using words like "Holy One" or "The Great Compassion" as more reflective of their relationship with God. Admittedly, it also carefully sidesteps the whole gender-based controversy rather nicely.

I'm not advocating saying "adios to God the Father". I'm talking about expanding it to include Father/Mother/Creator, Son/Child/Word and Holy Ghost/Spirit/Sustainer.

I'm talking about expanding our limited, human understanding of God - drawing the circle large enough - to include all expressions of our individual and collective images and language for God and humankind.

One former long-time deputy, now retired but still active in the local church (again, not a member of The Caucus) wrote:
At one General Convention I remember vividly a discussion with a priest who worked with prisoners. He said that he often talked to these men about praying to the Holy Spirit. When they had been horribly beaten and abused by their fathers, these men were totally unreachable when presented with a father God. Exploring the fullness of our faith would bring great rewards and help for those who need to find a way to God!
So, what do you think?

Is it time to amend our canons to authorize churches to have the flexibility to change the language of the BCP to be more reflective of the reality of "Common Prayer" that is already happening in our pews at at the altar?

Remember, please, that in the strictest sense of our canon law, not following the rubrics of the BCP is considered  a serious offense. No one really pursues that, thanks be to God. Most clergy who have devised creative liturgies and music not found in the authorized texts of the church do quietly check with the diocesan chief liturgical officer - that would be the bishop - for approval.

However, I should note that concern for the rubrics and canon law is the basis of some bishops decision, for example, that clergy in states with Marriage Equality not sign the marriage certificate, even though said clergy have presided at the marriage ceremony and blessed the covenant made in the presence of God and the people of God.

Some of them call that a "gracious, generous pastoral response". Others speak of "radical hospitality". 

I know, I know. It's pretty schizophrenic, right, but there's the truth of it.

Also remember that this discussion would turn all the ecclesiastical volume knobs to 11 when it comes to messing with the words of the Ancient Creeds or the formula for baptism.

Is it time to name and claim the reality of many who worship in our churches? Would that be the healthy, responsible, adult thing do or should we just keep doing what we have been doing and not upset the applecart which is already teetering under the discussion of Marriage Equality and the Election and Consecration of Queer people?

Is language a matter of justice, as many feminists suggest? Do we commit unintended acts of spiritual violence to people's souls - male and female - by limiting the public expressions of their relationship with God or not publicly affirming the variety and diversity of that expression in public worship?

How do you speak about God? And, does it matter to you how freely you are allowed to express your relationship with God in acts of public worship? Or, that the person leading the public worship uses language that expands the traditional church thinking about our Triune God?

What do you think?


susan s. said...

I have been referring to the Holy Spirit as "She" for years. And the pronoun Who works for me in a couple of places. I do not feel offended because the Prayer Book has not been changed. As you say, there are more changes that need to be implemented, and it's gonna be a hard slog along those lines.

We have one woman in our church who still uses some of the 1928 language during church. She whispers the creed, and reads the old prayers while we are saying the Prayers of the People. At least she didn't leave when the new Prayer Book came into use!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Susan. My experience is that people use their own language in the pews despite what is written in the BCP or being spoken by the officiant or worship leader. Sometimes, it sounds like the 'Tower of Babel' out there - which I rather like.

I like the idea of a GC resolution because it would be (1) educational and (2) hopeful for those who find our current language offensive and (3) an opportunity for evangelism - especially among young adults who find the language off-putting and archaic.

We have to start somewhere and not be daunted by the task.

susan s. said...

Oh, yes, I agree about starting.

I have to say that my 'conversion' at the age of 24 from Methodism, affects my feelings about "archaic" language that would be strange to some. I actually like it! It was what was being used in the '60s and the difference was lovely to me. I love to go to England and participate in cathedral services, singing that archaic language. Somehow I feel more connected to it in those ancient buildings.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Even more reason for 'expansive' language.

Hutch said...

Well, I often substitute "Mother" for "Father" and prefer gender neutral terms. I have had my Sunday school girls ask why we never pray to a mother or woman - how come they are all men. So - let's go for gender neutral or at least switch it around every now and then. I think "God" is so far beyond what any of us can imagine that some spectacular word is needed - I don't know what - but also, a word that you can feel comforted and loved by - and sometimes that has nothing to do with a parent figure.

Undercover Nun said...

I like to think that we sound more like the holy clamor at the Pentecost rather than like the Tower of Babel. :-)

That said, simply changing "inclusive" to "expansive" makes The Inclusive Language Debate so much more. Thank you for that!

I love you all!
Sister Heather, the Undercover Nun

Michael Monnikendam said...

I have debated the question of God the Father for years. In my personal theology, God transcends gender just like God transcends everything. I cannot wrap my little brain around a grandfather with a long white beard sitting in the heavens. I prefer to think of the "Creator". As far as the Holy Spirit goes, I have never even thought about gender in terms of the Holy Spirit. I have come to believe that the Creator wants me to be in relationship with the Creator. Male/female/transgender/supra-gender...whatever.
I feel that what ever brings one in closer relation with God is ok.

Dom said...

I'm a big fan of replacing much of the masculine language with feminine or gender neutral language. But "Triune God" just seems a bit stilted to me. (Maybe because I'm not used to it.)

Our rector (who is a man) once ad-libbed a Collect in a way that I really liked. The Collect, as written, started out with "Heavenly Father.....". Instead, our rector said "Heavenly Creator, who loves us like a true Mother, ..."

So my vote would be to change many references to "God the Father" to "Heavenly Creator", and to use a mix of male/female pronouns. As for the Holy Spirit, definitely a She!

By the way, are you familiar with Eucharistic Prayer 2 in "Enriching Our Worship 1"? It contains the lines:

"But we rebelled against you, and wandered far away;
and yet, as a mother cares for her children,
you would not forget us."

This is a really nice Eucharistic prayer.

JimB said...

I am fairly sure the Spirit is amused when she is addressed as a boy. I think the first thing we need to recall is that God has and gifted us with a sense of humor! Without that insight nothing about sex makes sense.

It seems to be the first rule of the extremist right-wing that truth is not allowed to hinder an attack. So small details like the UCC is not confessional and therefore could not be attempting a change in the Nicean formula or that item about Mr. Obama's having left the UCoC years ago just do not matter. They get in the way of the slash.

I am not a fan of the presiding (crucified place)bishop. In fact I suspect I am a left wing critic. But it is one thing to attack what she has actually done, left undone, said or left unsaid. It is another entire to make it up, which Mattingly did. And the way this works, we can count on various virtue-less organs to uncritically quote him.



Turtle Woman said...

In answer to your question "What is it with these guys? Why can't the get it right?" The part about the difference between creeds and bylaw changes... the answer is simple, this is just about male supremacy and patriarchy, it is always about constant attack on anything that would make God, well not male. So even if it's the bylaws, these guys are fighting in the trenches and will shoot at anything that moves... Remember, to them, any bow to feminism, and the "triune god" is a rather pathetic compromise, is the slippery slope. That's why they do this, that and the Fox News gang.

Turtle Woman said...

P.S. And I never attend any type of service unless women run it, and unless male language is completely and utterly gone. No place for me in "liberal" churches either. To liberate women, one must completely get the language out of the head. But that's just hard line me :-)

susankay said...

Once I stopped believing in a God who bore a strong resemblance to the Lincoln Memorial except for Goddish robes, I have never believed God was a man. Talk about making God in your own image -- assigning a gender to a transcendant wonder seems nutso.

We use "Enriching our Worship" and then tweek it a bit more -- I find it somewhat jarring when I attend church in another parish where they simply use Rite 2.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hutch - I often prefer gender-neutral terms, but sometimes, I need God to be the father - or mother - I never had. It's very personal.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Sr. Heather. I think "expansive" language is a real game changer.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Michael - I agree. It's about the relationship we have with our Triune God.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dom - I think that the Enriching Our Worship series contains some really fine examples of expansive language. What you wrote is a fine example.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jim, I can't remember the source but there is a poem (by Ruth Duck, perhaps?) that has the Holy Spirit saying, "He, He, He, He. ... hehehehehe" Your comment about the Holy Spirit laughing reminded me of that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turtle Woman - Wasn't it Mary Daley who said, "If God is male, then male is god"? Brilliant.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turtle Woman - I guess I'm concerned about any hard and fast "no" about any expression of God on any point of the spectrum.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susankay - I think Enriching Our Worship offers lots of really great alternative language that, well, enriches worship.

susankay said...

And note that my childhood vision of God-the-Father-as-Lincoln-
Memorial involved a God who was cast in granite and didn't move or breathe or do anything except watch. (He was a civil rights advocate, tho')

David and John said...

I am all for "expansive language" and the use of gender-neutral words, just not at the expense of revising the BCP or totally abolishing ancient, traditional terminology. We can expand our "liturgical vocabulary" and keep our traditions at the same time. It need not be an either/or proposition but rather a both/and situation.

Besides, we have enough troubles in the church today without bringing up revising the BCP or the hymnal. 30 years after the last BCP revision and we are still suffering the fallout (and this observation is from one who thinks the 1928 BCP badly needed revision and is glad it happened).

JCF said...

For over 20 years, when I profess the Nicene Creed at mass, I've jiggled the sentence structure to say of the HS, "Who" [I got the idea from a late 80s Inclusive Language Trial Liturgy I used at St Stephen's, Portland OR. It apparently was never heard from again.]

While I think of the HS as "She", I find "Who" works well in the Creed, publicly (for purposes of "not shocking the horses". And, Pneuma is neuter in Greek. So gender-free is a perfectly respectable way to go)

I would never call the HS "He" at this point. Nuh-uh.

I believe, passionately, in prayerbook-revision, BEGINNING ASAP. I would like an inclusive OPTION for the Creed to be part of this. [Whereas inclusifying the language for the couple in the Marriage Rite(s) is MANDATORY!]

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susankay - Isn't it interesting how some people will hold onto their childhood images of God and wonder why their faith life is stagnant?

susan s. said...

Oh, David and John. I totally agree with you on the second paragraph. I almost said as much in my comments.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

David and John - Expansive language means just that - we expand on what already is. Take the old and build on it to make more options.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - I agree with you about prayer book revision, but let me ask you, do you really think we're going to see another print version of the BCP in the next 30-50 years?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

susan s - Well, it's been more than a generation since the last revision and fifty years between the 1979 and 1928 BCP. There have been lots more changes in the last 30+ years than there were in the 50 years between 1928 and 1979. I figure, if we start talking about it now, we might just be ready in another 20 years.

susan s. said...

Elizabeth, I'll be 86 if I live another 20 years. I probably shouldn't be worried about it then. ;-)

MarkBrunson said...

God's just God.

None of us know what that's like. Call God the Great Father, The Triune God, The Great Mother, The Prime Mover, Krishna, Rama, The Cosmic Christ, or Arkvoodle, if you like. The only significance to the term one uses is the significance that one attaches to it. God is male and female, but neither. God is powerful, but weak. God is nothing, and everything. Death, life. Chaos, order.

Place too much emphasis on naming, and you make an idol you are trying to own.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susan S - I know I'm not losing any sleep over it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - Good insight. Thank you.

JCF said...

do you really think we're going to see another print version of the BCP in the next 30-50 years?

Is this a question about prayerbook revision, or a question about media format ("print version")?

Re the former: not if I don't keep raising a stink about it, apparently!

Re the latter: certainly, an iPad (et al successors!) app for the BCP (I assume such already exists? Besides the obligatory online version(s)) would be easier to revise than a dead-tree edition...

...but for holding close in pew, monastery or under a (other) tree, I still prefer print. But then again, I'm ancient (Yikes, almost 50! :-0)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - I'm talking about revision which has direct implication for print media. I love having the BCP and lectionary on my iPhone.

walter said...

I take you, Elizabeth, as a reflection on the actualizing potential of expansive language: it is a grounded position on how to transcend the culture of complaint around the gender issue debate about praying. In other words is a very sound position and bodes well for the completion of inclusive language while at the same time promises flexibility with tradition. The most beautiful thing is that expansion should take place at a personal level; the religious experience is something most personal and yet bodes well in public life of prayer. Inclusive versus expansive use of language in our praying could be another interesting distinction. Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by the teaching of Jesus and the apostles and the prophets, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns in unity with God and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever.

Walter Vitale

walter said...

That being said, Elizabeth, I hope we may all agree that any form of praying the Holy Spirit should be discerned from the offering of the Body of Christ and again the offering of the Body of Christ is a most personal religious experience that may be shared in The Sacramental Moment. Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by the teaching of Jesus and the apostles and the prophets, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns in unity with God and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever.

Walter Vitale