In the Autumn of 1994 there was a large gathering of United Church of Christ clergy at a church in the Metropolitan Boston Association of the Massachusetts Conference to discuss the use of inclusive language in liturgy, and especially in the sacrament of baptism. The United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship had retained the baptismal formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but there was increasing pressure for changing this usage, and indeed, a show of hands among the gathered clergy indicated that the vast majority of those gathered were already using alternatives on an ad hoc basis. The most popular form was “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,” but other ones were used as well.
I was at the time the UCC’s representative to the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity, and had been defending and explaining my denomination for years with my brothers and sisters from other communions for our reputation of often playing fast and loose with the broad tradition in the name of innovation or reform. I had given a paper to that body on the Gloria Patri and Inclusive Language two years before.
The November issue of United Church News carried the story of the inclusive language meeting, and I wrote the following letter to the editor, which appeared in the next issue, under the title “In whose name?”
November 16, 1994
To the editor:
I am deeply troubled by the use of alternative words for baptism as reported in your article “Inclusive language discussed” in the November issue of United Church News. Baptism “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” has been in continuous use in the Christian church across denominations since the first centuries of the church. The authority of these words is scriptural (Matthew 28:19), “dominical” (that is, they are words of our Lord), traditional (established over time) as well as ecumenical (established across space).
It is arrogant of us to say that our generation is wiser than previous ones, and must change this time–honored formula to fit the needs of the current age. The alternatives cited are preachy and didactic. They don’t baptize in the name of anyone, rather they explain what we are doing, as if God didn’t know. Underlying the revisions is the idea that our names for God are merely human metaphors to describe an un–nameable divine reality. But the Christian faith doesn’t speak of God in general, but God “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is true that apart from revelation we cannot adequately name God, but God has given us a name, so that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” specifically identify the Christian God. Deborah M. Belonick, in a discussion of the Christological and Trinitarian debates of the fourth century, concludes “In the theology of the early church, the traditional Trinitarian terms are precise theological terms. Therefore these terms are not exchangeable. Through them humanity encounters the persons of the Trinity, and through them relationships among members of the Godhead are defined.” She goes on to say, “There is no historical evidence that the terms ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ were products of a patriarchal culture, ‘male’ theology, or a hierarchical church” (Union Seminary Quarterly Review 40 (1985) pp 31–342).
The use of such “alternatives” gives us another god and another faith, opening up a Pandora’s box of individualistic and idiosyncratic revisions based on each person’s outlook. Such “alternatives” separate us from the practice of the universal church and contradict shared ecumenical agreements such as Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry and The COCU Consensus. The use of “alternatives” will mark the United Church of Christ as sectarian, and calls into question whether we are really a church as opposed to a collection of congregations.
Furthermore, “baptisms” using the revisions will not be accepted by other denominations, or even by other congregations in the United Church of Christ, whose governing rules call for membership by baptism “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Such “baptisms” will be a local rite only, baptizing the person into that congregation only, rather than into the body of Christ, the church universal.
I urge Pastors and Boards of Deacons to refrain from using such “alternatives”, and for Church and Ministry Committees to invite congregations who are using such “alternatives” to give an account of their practice.
Yours in Christ,
The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Floyd, Pastor
First Church of Christ, Congregational, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
The responses poured in and filled several pages of the letters section. All but two disagreed with me for the usual reasons. Of the two letters in support, one came from an elderly layman on Cape Cod who agreed with me that we should return to the King James Version of the Bible (a point I hadn’t made and don’t agree with), and the other was from my best clergy friend. It was neither the first nor the last time that the world wasn’t beating my door down to get my opinion.
I do note with some satisfaction, however, that today many younger clergy, many of them women, are not particularly preoccupied with this issue as so many were back then, and have quietly returned to the practice of baptizing in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”