God has no gender. And the Lord? There’s not much Lord in this church service.
At Tucson’s largest Episcopal church, St. Philip’s in the Hills, the creators of an alternative worship service called Come & See are bucking tradition by rewriting what have become prescribed ways of worship.
For the faithful, that means God isn’t referred to as “him,” and references to “the Lord” are rare.
“Lord” has become a loaded word conveying hierarchical power over things, “which in what we have recorded in our sacred texts, is not who Jesus understood himself to be,” St. Philip’s associate rector Susan Anderson-Smith said.
“The way our service reads, the theology is that God is love, period,” St. Philip’s deacon Thomas Lindell added. “Our service has done everything it can to get rid of power imagery. We do not pray as though we expect the big guy in the sky to come and fix everything.”
St. Philip’s isn’t the only local church to re-examine its language. Other local religious leaders already are eschewing the use of “Lord” for similar reasons.
First Congregational United Church of Christ in Midtown even has a different name for The Lord’s Prayer. They call it “The Prayer of Our Creator.”
“We do still use the word ‘Lord’ on occasion, but we are suspicious of it,” First Congregational pastor Briget Nicholson said. “Inclusive language is important. Our United Church of Christ hymnal does have hymns that will say ‘Father’ and ‘God.’ but the next verse will always then say ‘Mother’ and ‘God.’ It’s gender-balanced.”
In the strictest Christian sense, “Lord” comes from the Greek word kyrios, which Greek culture in the first century understood in much different ways, Anderson-Smith said. Evidence suggests the word was used in talking about Jesus as the fullest embodied revelation of God, but it had a lot less to do with hierarchy than what the word means now, she said.
“Jesus was for an egalitarian community. He did not have room for titles or status. And it is recorded that many of the disciples called him Lord. But they had a different idea about worshipping him,” she said. “Jesus was a rabbi and teacher. It was a relationship of mentoring, looking up to him for that kind of companionship.”
Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Midtown has kept references to “Lord” minimal for years. Rector Gordon McBride said he personally — in writing, preaching and spontaneous prayer — has not used the word in more than a decade. He associates the word with a God that is powerful, separate, and perhaps brooding over creation.
References to “Lord” became prevalent in singable, rhymed versions of the Psalms translated into English during the 16th century by Myles Coverdale, McBride said. The changes became significant to the Episcopal Church and its larger Anglican Communion because those are the Psalms in the church’s Book of Common Prayer. Much of the liturgy is based on the Psalms, a collection of 150 self-contained poems and prayers in the Old Testament.
The most recent version of the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1979, is what’s used in American Episcopal churches. But the book was published just prior to a consciousness of patriarchy in linguistics, said McBride, a history professor before he became a cleric.
“There are lots of problems in that prayer book that are just so patriarchal it’s laughable — language loaded with ‘Lord’ and power references that owe their existence to the Coverdale 16th century translation, the time of the Tudors, Henry VIII,” McBride said.
And there’s no question “Lord” has patriarchal connotations, he noted.
“I’m sorry, but if there is a Lord, by implication there is a Lady,” he said.
St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church has been minimizing its use of Lord for two decades, senior pastor David Wilkinson said.
“We usually change ‘Lord’ to ‘love’ or ‘soul’ or ‘light,’ ” Wilkinson said. “It’s pretty much a hierarchical, patriarchal image we’re getting rid of.”
A lifelong Episcopalian, retired middle school teacher Jane Chilcott calls the reduction of “Lord” usage she’s heard at the Come & See service “refreshing.” She also likes the references to a genderless God, because that’s how she’s always viewed the divine.
“I’m a great advocate of change, but not just for change’s sake,” said Chilcott, 78. “A lot of people are turned off by traditional liturgy because it sounds like they have to literally believe these credal statements. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Faith is very personal.”
The Come & See Sunday night alternate service changes wordings of long-held Episcopal worship traditions, such as when the minister says, “The Lord be with you” and the congregation responds, “And also with you.” Instead, Come & See parishioners hear the minister say, “The peace of God be always with you.”
Rewriting liturgy is not only about gender and power balance, noted Lindell, the St. Philip’s deacon.
“We don’t stress the blood and gore of the crucifixion and the so-called sacrifice of the Mass,” he said. “I think that calls attention to Jesus’ death but it doesn’t call attention to why we are Christians. It seems to me, being a Christian isn’t just about the birth and death of Jesus. It’s about living in the world with his life as an example.”
Similarly, McBride stressed that changing liturgy isn’t about political correctness, but about conceptualizing God.
“If God is understood and viewed as within creation, acting inside of it, loving, compassionate, hopeful, creative — all of those produce a very different way of imagining the Christian life and living it out,” he said. “If you are always calling God ‘Lord,’ you are sticking him into that outside place. It seems to me, in order to avoid doing that, one of the first things you do is call God something different.”
While most Protestant churches still refer to God as “him” and pepper their liturgy with references to Lord, there’s been a shift among the mainlines for the past 20 years, said Ruth A. Meyers, academic dean and professor of liturgics at the Seabury-Western Theological School, an Episcopal seminary in Evanston, Ill.
Such changes in liturgy often are called “expansive language” and can be found in supplemental Episcopal Church materials, including one titled “Enriching Our Worship,” published in 1997, she said.
“Over the 12 years I’ve been here, I’ve noticed students are more and more familiar with those materials. We are seeing it increasingly used,” she said.
But the changes are up to individual pastors, and tradition still weighs heavy.
“If we continue to water down and make ourselves politically correct, there won’t be anything left. God is the king of the universe. We are to bow before him. He is king, savior, Lord and master. … God is the great patriarch of heaven and Earth,” said Mark Roessler, pastor of Catalina Foothills Church, part of the non-mainline conservative Presbyterian Church in America.
“We call him ‘Lord’ because he is Lord,” said the Rev. Joe Bettridge, senior pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Tucson’s Northwest Side. The church is part of the mainline Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
“If you read the Bible, he — God — created everything from nothing. That’s pretty powerful to me.”
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