by Bob Phillips
Some time ago a good friend and fine Christian pastor, who is to the left of me theologically but still very much in the Gospel ball park, implemented a change regarding the Lord’s Prayer in Sunday worship. “Our Father who art in Heaven” was replaced by “Our Parent in Heaven.” He received serious pushback from the congregation, with both more traditional and more progressive laity expressing concern and dislike over the change. He asked me why I thought there was such a negative reaction.
I mentioned issues of style and substance. The style issue was one of process. Modifying any long-standing practice in church worship or programing or property without serious prior discussion and buy-in is risky business regardless of theology. Look up the word “tradition” in a dictionary and you likely will find a photo of a local church building or a Sunday congregation sitting with a scowl in the pews. Unless a profound moral or spiritual issue is at stake (such as changing the ‘tradition’ of not permitting Hispanics into the church building), consultation, collaboration, transparency and broad support can make a huge difference.
The deeper issues relate to the nature of the infinite-personal “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:31). Mainline Protestant seminaries largely have shifted God-talk away from personal pronouns. I first heard God referenced in prayer as “Our Heavenly Parent,” in 1974 at Princeton Seminary, though only that one time in my year on campus. The shift is not entire nor complete, but woe be to the typical seminary student of today whose research paper or sermon refer to God as “Him.” Woe be to the candidate for ordination who in trial-run sermon or theological paper presented to the Board of Ordained Ministry uses “He” or “Him” in reference to God. God, according to the Powers-that-currently-be, has no gender.
Well, hello, historic Christian theology never taught otherwise. God, so goes the argument, has no “private parts” reflecting maleness. Again, there is no contrary argument from Christian tradition, scripture, reason or experience. Referring to God using male terminology can make those wounded by patriarchy feel uncomfortable and out of place. Speaking of God as “Father” can drive a wedge between a wounded soul seeking Gospel consolation with a background of an abusive father. While a total elimination of “Father” becomes awkward…unless Jesus really didn’t understand how to properly address or speak of God…all such masculine uses are to be severely limited. Thus speaks current wisdom.
Now we are to speak of God not as “Him” but as the new invented word, ‘Godself.’ Granted, when I was a chaplain at a major psychiatric hospital in New Jersey, I was taught that inventing words was an indicator of paranoid schizophrenia, unless one is a theologian, in which case such inventions are a sign of break-out thinking and book sales. Listening to a preacher, or a bishop, hobble the natural flow of an otherwise helpful sermon by spinning language such as to only refer to God as “God” and never by pronoun, much less as “Father,” can become distracting, even painful to hear.
The bottom line is this. If we believe Jesus was and is God incarnate and if Jesus in the days of his flesh most often referred to God as “Father,” attention must be paid. Dismissing Jesus as a helpless stooge of the patriarchy does a real hatchet job on one’s theology of the incarnation. If we worship the Force, not the Father, then impersonal references to deity arising from divine functions rather than relational essence would make sense. “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” offers a description of the functions of the Triune God, but followers of the Hindu Lord Krishna or ancient Baal also could use those terms, whereas “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” have a unique Christian pedigree and copyright. If our prophetic inspiration is Obi-wan Kenobi and his appeal, “Trust the Force, Luke” (not St. Luke but the other guy), then references to the Omnipotent, Omniscient One will do just fine. That sells lots of movie tickets and has made the Methodist-Buddhist George Lucas a wealthy dude, but it is not Bible.
That gets us to ‘Our Parent in Heaven.’ My father died of a lingering illness when I was forty. We were very close. In the forty years our lives overlapped I called him ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy’ and on playful or pseudo-formal occasions, ‘Father.” Never did I have a conversation with him where I addressed him as ‘Parent.’ Frankly, had I done so my grizzled Navy Bosun warrant officer Dad would have responded, “What in &^%$ did you just say?” For that matter, I have never called my nearly 95-year-old mother “Parent” when talking with her. She, like my Dad, is a parent but the term itself refers to a technical function, not a personal relationship. We speak of a biological parent, knowing that such a turn of phrase leaves the quality and quantity of human relations entirely unknown. “Dad” or “Mom” are words freighted with meaning.
This is not an extended article on scrubbing all masculine references to God or injecting feminine pronouns to describe him. After all, Psalm 91:4 speaks in feminine terms of God, “He shall cover you with his feathers and under his wings you shall sing for joy.” This reflects the maternal protective and nurturing dimensions of God without spinning him into a cosmic chicken.
So to the pastor who made the change in the Lord’s prayer and was surprised by the negative reaction, I offer this. At the human level, many find the term a cold way to refer to the One who seeks and offers the most authentic intimate relationship possible for any human being. At the level of mental muscle memory, also called the comfort of tradition, the shift in language just seems out of place. Arguments of the classic prayer as an inherent microaggression against those with bad family experiences can be aimed against virtually any relational word used in the Bible or in life. Reclaiming the redemptive power of the word also is an option, rather than simply canceling all words or phrases that may offend…someone.
Individuals, of course, are welcomed to speak to their ‘Parent’ in Heaven if that is their choice. Using the word in settings such as public prayer, where choice is ‘take it or leave it,’ invites push-back, no matter how well-intended the linguistic shift. As differences in the understanding of God’s nature and name continue to grow, more such kerfuffle moments will occur.
A growing number of United Methodist clergy will use fewer to no public references to God as ‘Father,’ or to personal pronouns used in prayer or sermon that address God or speak about God, a reliable indicator of Progressive Methodist leadership. Other Methodist churches, especially of the arising refreshed traditional perspective, will find continued comfortable use to God as Father, without apology or guilt, when the natural flow of a sentence or thought refer to such as Psalm 100:3, “Know that the Lord, He is God.” To all points of view, the Wesleyan vision remains. As Charles Wesley made clear in the hymn, Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown, when it comes to the essence of the person and identity of God, “Thy nature and thy name…is love.”
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)