Remembering Rubem Alves (1933-2014)

Rubem AlvesRubem Alves, the Brazilian writer and theologian, died last week at the age of 80. I had the privilege to get to know him during one of his visits to the United States in the early 1980’s. He came to Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, where I was the chaplain at the time. One of my unofficial duties was showing hospitality to visiting scholars, and so over the course of a week or so, I shared several meals with him and  drove him around town to see the sights. I remember I took him shopping for his family at T. J. Maxx. He had a shopping list from his wife, and was very methodical about what to bring home to Brazil.

He was one of the most intellectually curious people I have ever met. A professor of philosophy, he was interested in literature, music (he wrote eloquently about Vivaldi), education and psychoanalysis (in which he was trained.) He was such great company, full of ideas and ready to discuss a world of topics. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a great laugh

He loved poetry and his 2002 book, The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet (SCM Classics) is an important work in the field of theopoetics.  He went on to publish over 40 books on a wide variety of subjects.  A popular lecturer and speaker he was also a columnist for his local newspaper.

He is often credited as one of the founders of liberation theology and his dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary was later published under the title A Theology of Human Hope (Corpus Books, 1969) with a foreword by Harvey Cox. It was an important early work in English on the subject.

I just learned of his death from a tweet from the World Council of Churches, memorializing his many contributions to the ecumenical movement. The remembrance of him from the WCC can be found here.

I recall him with great affection and give thanks to God for him.

Here is a quote of his:

“Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. . . . Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.” (From There is A Season by Joan Chittister)


Rome Disses Canterbury: A Sad Time for Ecumenism

Ecumenism is in my DNA.

When I was growing up my father worked for the National Conference of Christians and Jews for fourteen years (technically interfaith, I know, but with strong ecumenical bonds). From my early nurture in the Episcopal Church I was taught that all Christians are Catholic since catholicity is one of the marks of the church named in the creed (“One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.”) I learned that the divisions in the church were the result of human sin, and that we were to work for overcoming them and finding our God-given unity. We prayed (from the Book of Common Prayer) for God to overcome “our unholy divisions.”
I remember the excitement generated when Pope John the 23rd promoted “aggiornamento” that was a feature of the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council. The “windows came open for awhile” a Jesuit friend once said to me.

I recall a sermon in the late nineteen-sixties when our rector enthusiastically reported a historic service in San Francisco where Eugene Carson Blake and Bishop James Pike propose a process leading to the eventual union of the Mainline churches(which became the Consultation on Church Union: COCU.)
As a young adult I joined the United Church of Christ in part because of their great history of ecumenism, and their commitment to be a uniting church. I was ordained by the UCC and served for a dozen years as their representative on the Massachusetts Commission for Christian Unity (MCCU). There, I met wonderful, faithful men and women representing the whole spectrum of Christian communions. One highlight was I got to meet and talk with Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, one of the the great Roman Catholic ecumenists.
I studied the World Council of Churches Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry(BEM) document carefully, and used it in both my local ministry, and in my A Course in Basic Christianity.
So I was dismayed this week to read the reports about Pope Benedict offering “traditional” Anglicans the opportunity to come into the Roman Catholic Church with the promise of “Anglican Rite” status. My first response was sadness. The Vatican is basically telling the Anglican Communion that they are not really a church. I thought of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, someone I truly admire, having to sit there in a press conference and pretend he and his church weren’t getting disrespected.
The whole incident represents a giant set-back for a multi-generational ecumenical dream shared by many Christians from all communions, rooted in Christ’s own prayer to God the Father “that we may all be one.” That dream won’t die, of course, because the unity of the church is God-given, and in God’s own time and way it will be fulfilled. But silly me for thinking I might see more manifestations of it in my lifetime.
And how sad for those who will have to leave their church home. How will it all play out? The priests get to keep their wives but leave their parishes? And which Anglican rites will they be allowed to use? The Eucharistic theology in the various Books of Common Prayer is decisively Reformed in character, and has indigestible nuggets of anti-Roman polemic in it. My former Episcopal colleague Father J. Michael Povey writes astutely about this on his blog with the post Which Rites?
Whenever the church of Jesus Christ splits, it is a scandal. It weakens the church’s witness to the world. And when people leave their communion for another, it diminishes the diversity within that communion. The worst thing for a church is to be a bunch of like-minded people. I have often had to swim against the stream of my own denomination, but as my friend Gabe Fackre has always reminded me, “there are no safe harbors.” That is, there are no ecclesial utopias this side of the kingdom of God.
Here in Massachusetts many of the new members in Protestant churches are former Roman Catholics who come for one reason or another. We welcome them and extend them hospitality in our congregations as we should, because they are our Christian brothers and sisters. But to me it has always been bittersweet to see someone leave their church home, and it is a breach of ecumenical etiquette to bad mouth other communions.
I am guessing that the Vatican believes they are holding out an olive branch to the disaffected Anglicans. But the way it was done signals that any real Roman Catholic/Anglican dialogue based on mutual respect is finished for the foreseeable future. And if even they who share so much can’t work for common ground, what chance is there for us “separated brethren?”
So it is a sad time for ecumenism.

“Mystic Sweet Communion”

There are a lot of us here tonight: organists, choristers and choir members, family of the singers, parishioners, visitors. We make a grand congregation! But as impressive as we are, there is another important group involved with us in our worship that we shouldn’t overlook. The church from its beginning has pictured its life and mission, and especially its worship, as taking place in the unseen but very real presence of our ancestors in the faith. Our liturgies nod to it. We pray phrases such as “with the church on earth and the saints in heaven” or “ with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”

So how might we picture the presence of the communion of saints with us? “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” says the writer of Hebrews. The image is drawn from the stadium where the athletic games were held. The cloud of witnesses is the huge throng of spectators cheering on the competitors, who are admonished to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” just as a bicycle racer will try to have the lightest materials possible. This one is a foot race, though, and here Jesus is pictured as the lead runner, the pacesetter, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. . .” In 1980, when I was a number of years younger and many pounds lighter, I ran in my one and only marathon road race, the Paul Bunyan Marathon in Bangor, Maine.This 26-mile race began at the Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor and meandered through adjoining towns until it ended on the oval of the football stadium at the University of Maine in Orono. I will never forget the ending of that race.

You have heard about the “loneliness of the long distance runner.” There’s truth in that phrase, for even when you are physically prepared for these long races there is a mental and emotional side that is quite daunting. The first half of my race was fun and at about mile ten or twelve I was euphoric, but around mile twenty I began to run out of gas and I had to struggle to keep on running. A solitary debate began in my mind:“Can I finish?” “Should I quit?” “Will this cramp go away, this ache subside, this tiredness abate?” By the time I hit that oval track in the stadium at Orono I was just glad to be finishing. And then a strange thing happened. I was pulled out of my reverie by the sound of cheering, and, since I knew that my wife and her parents were the only ones present at the race who knew me, I wondered who the cheering was for.I looked ahead and saw that there was no one else on the track. What’s more, many of the cheers were naming me by name, “Way to go, Rick!”“You can do it, Rick!” which puzzled me still more.

What it was, of course, was the cheering of the other runners who had finished ahead of me. With my race time of three hours and forty–seven minutes there were scores of other runners ahead of me and there were many other spectators and they all had a program sheet with the names and numbers of the runners and I had my number pinned to my shirt. Those cheers were wonderful for my morale, and I straightened my shoulders a bit and quickened my step and put on a little burst of speed for that last lap.

I carry that image in my mind as the very image that the writer of Hebrews wants to evoke here. The communion of saints are the ones who have finished the race before us. They are in the stadium seats watching us, they have finished the course, and now “from their labors rest.” We in the church militant are engaged in the same task as they were and they cheer us on, encourage us, support us, and call us by name. They are the great cloud of witnesses.

The word “witness” has a nice double meaning. It can mean merely spectators, which carries through the athletic metaphor of the passage. But witnesses here are more than passive spectators. They are those who bear witness to the truth they have known. Keep in mind that the Greek word we have translated as “witness” is martyr. During the early generations of the church so many witnesses sacrificed their lives for their faith that in time the word “martyr” took on that additional meaning.

So these witness who surround us are not idle spectators. Do any of you remember the comedian Flip Wilson of “The Church of What’s Happening Now!”? He once said, “I’m a Jehovah’s Bystander.They asked me to be a Witness, but I didn’t want to get involved.” So the cloud of witnesses not only supports us by their presence, they bear witness to the truth of God they have known.

This is such an important way to think about the church. In this century we have been learning to think of the church ecumenically; to consider the breadth of the church across denominational lines and national boundaries. But how quickly we forget the length of the church, its trans–temporal reality across the generations.That is where the role of tradition comes to play in the church, the place where the communion of saints gets their say. As Chesterton put it, “Tradition is only democracy extended through time.” Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous epigram rightly distinguishes between, tradition, “the living faith of the dead,” and “traditionalism, the dead faith of the living.” Too often, traditionalism has given tradition a bad name.

But a church that forgets what the saints have learned from generation to generation will hardly be equipped to be the church in its own generation.So the church rightly remembers the communion of saints, and even more than that, claims that in Christ, we share with them in the divine life.

Let me change the metaphor so that we might imagine the communion of saints as a choir;a large choir, like one of those Welsh men’s choirs made up of a thousand voices. When I was in high school our choir would go to county–wide and state–wide choral events with thousands of voices.Do they do that any more?

So let us imagine that as we sing tonight we sing together along with the voices of the great cloud of witnesses. Let us take quite seriously the claim of our various liturgies that when we sing we join our voices “with all the faithful in every time and place.”

There is a wonderful sermon by Jonathan Edwards on 1 Corinthians 13: 8-10, called Heaven is a World of Love in which Edwards explores the metaphor of the communion of saints as a heavenly choir. First he beautifully describes heaven and all its social arrangements, and in so doing puts forth a protest against the social arrangements that we know so well on earth, for in Edward’s heaven there is no pride or jealously, there is decency and wisdom, and an equal prosperity among all. He says that “love (poured out from God) resides and reigns in every heart there.” And then he says: “Every saint there is as a note in a concert of music which sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together employed wholly in praising God.”

Heaven is a world of love, and here below the church with all its imperfections witnesses by word and deed to the truth of that love. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” So we are not alone. We carry out the mission and work of the church by sharing in the very life of God, and we are surrounded as well by so great a cloud of witnesses who cheer us on.

When I was a small boy I thought that God dwelled somewhere above the chancel of my local church, not exclusively, but especially there. And as I came to hear about the communion of saints I pictured them surrounding God, as one might see in medieval paintings, a big crowd of folks in white robes. Most of the people I had known in my short life were still living, so the crowd was for the most part an abstraction. My father’s parents, who had died before I was born were there, I was sure, and the little boy from my Sunday School class who had been run over by a car when his sled went into the road.Kim was his name.Kim was there, I knew.

The Puritans had a saying that, “The commonwealth of heaven becomes more dear with each loss below.” As I have grown older and have known many more people who have died I have returned to something very like that childhood picture I thought I had outgrown. I invite you to do so as well. In the eye of your imagination you will no doubt picture different saints than I picture. You will picture people you have known among the crowd of witnesses, a Sunday School teacher, a parent or a grandparent, a neighbor, perhaps even an organist or a minister. These were people who showed you what love is by loving, what service is by serving, what witness is by witnessing to what they had seen and known and believed. In our mind’s eye, too, there will need to be ones we have not known but have only known about. Those whose lives and art, whose words and deeds have cheered us on as we have run the race and tried to be the church. It is the great cloud of witnesses. It is the church, in heaven with all its glory, and on earth with all its brokenness and folly. It is like a great choir and its song goes on, on a grand night like this and wherever two or three gather in the Lord’s name. “Yet she on earth has union with God, the Three in One, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won. O happy Ones and holy, Lord give us grace that we, like them the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.”Amen.

(I delivered this sermon to the opening worship of the New England Regional Convention of the American Guild of Organists on June 22, 1997 at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where I was then pastor.)

“ . . . and to the Son”

The Gloria Patri and Inclusive Language
by Richard L. Floyd

The basic question before us is whether it is any longer acceptable to use the name of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” in Christian discourse, and, more specifically, in Christian worship. That this is more than an academic concern is apparent by the fact that my denomination, the United Church of Christ, in its Book of Worship, 1986, decided that it would not use that formulation in its liturgies, except in the baptismal formula (for ecumenical reasons), and, inexplicably, in the “Brief Order for the Service of Word and Sacrament” (p. 79).

As the first denomination to accept such a thorough-going agenda to eliminate masculine language about God, the UCC will be judged by history either to have been a bold pioneer blazing the trail for others to follow, or to have been merely the most zealous in acting out the persistent death-wish of mainline Protestantism by cutting its moorings to scripture, tradition, theology and ecumenism.

The issue is often cast in the terms of a feminist critique versus traditional articulations of Christianity, but the playing field is a far larger one than that. This discussion is a symptom of a major epistemological struggle taking place in the Post-Enlightenment world of which we are by necessity a part. The real issue here is whether God named as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” or by any other trinitarian euphemisms has any place in the “plausibility structure” (to use Peter Berger’s category) of the humanistic, scientific, and secular “world” which dominates cosmopolitan life in the West, including (I would say particularly) in the academy.

I contend that God so named has been deemed to have no place, and, therefore, attempts are taking place to find a God more in line with the plausibility structure. In the academic world from which our seminaries and bureaucratic elites derive their ethos, those attempts have been going on with vigor for decades. That this “plausibility structure” is itself a faith, an alternative faith I would contend, is seldom understood, but no less dangerous for being so.

I have been asked to examine the issue of trinitarian language in our liturgies with special attention given to the second person. I would like to focus particularly on the use of “the Son” in the Gloria Patri and compare its theological meaning with that of one of the major revisionist alternatives, “the Christ” as used now in the Gloria of the United Church of Christ Book of Worship. Clearly such an analysis cannot be undertaken apart from some reference to “the Father” and to a lesser extent also to “the Holy Spirit.”

The most often employed way to duck naming the first person of the Trinity “Father” is by substituting the word “Creator.” This substitution satisfies not only the feminist critics, but also others whose plausibility structure finds a nature-God more congenial than the God of the Bible. There are any number of problems that arise from this substitution, not the least of which is that “Creator” can aptly be used to describe the work of not only the first person but of all three persons since creation is a work of the Godhead, and not of any one person of the Trinity, as a quick look at Genesis 1 and John 1 will show.
This substitution of “the Creator” for “the Father” is used in what Geoffrey Wainwright has suggested is probably the most favored among the alternatives currently being used in North America: “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” This particular formulation risks the ancient heresy of Sabellius who saw in the three persons three aspects or phases of the activity of the Godhead toward the world. (“The Doctrine of the Trinity” Interpretation, April 1991, p. 121)

But for our discussion “Creator” is principally flawed as a substitute for Father because it in no way represents the intimate relationship between the first and second person signified by Father and Son, a relationship critical for understanding the dynamics at work within the Trinity and for any adequate soteriology which might be understood to arise from that relationship. The constellation of meanings around the notion of “inheritance” is also lost when we cease to speak of the relationship of the Father to the Son, meanings also critical for soteriology. The doctrine of the Trinity has profound soteriological implications, which have often been lost in liberal Protestantism’s reductionism, even before it started to muddle the language; witness Schleiermacher who was practically unitarian and never developed much of a place for the Atonement in his system except as the apotheosis of human sacrifice.

In discourse about the Trinity, theologians distinguish between the immanent or essential Trinity, what God is in God’s own being, and the economic Trinity, what God does in the world. The alternatives to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” suggested by the revisionists invariably substitute economic language for immanent language as a way to avoid naming God with the offensive masculine language, but what they do not accomplish is to name the Trinity at all. For example, “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” doesn’t name the Trinity, but merely describes three economic terms, all of which involve all the persons of the Trinity. They say what God does, but not what God is.

John Wesley anticipated the inadequacy of such economic formulas as substitutes for the trinitarian name when he wrote in a letter in 1771: “The quaint device of styling them three offices rather than persons gives up the whole doctrine.” (Wainwright, p. 121) He understood that the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” expresses essential internal relations within the Godhead, which are evidenced in the biblical narrative; relations of personal communion and cooperation among the persons of the Trinity that are not expressed by the functionalism of the alternatives.

Let us look at the Gloria Patri, the most widely used canticle in the church, as one of the principle liturgical expressions of the Trinity. The Gloria Patri is known as the Lesser Doxology to distinguish it from the Gloria in excelsis, or Greater Doxology. This ancient canticle of the church is an ascription of praise to the Trinity. The first part, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,” is based on the dominical great commission found in Matthew 28:19. It may have come into use as early as the second century in both the Eastern and Western church. Its use at the end of the Psalms to give them a trinitarian character is attested from the fourth century, which is also when its second half was added, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be . . . ” which was intended to counter Arianism by affirming that the Triune God of the New Testament is the same divine being as in the Old Testament, something the Arians denied.

Now let us look at what the UCC has done to the Gloria Patri, or Gloria as it now must be called since there is no father to be referred to even under the cloak of Latin. The Gloria from Book of Worship is:

Glory to God the Creator,
and to the Christ,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning,
is now,
and will be for ever.

In the UCC Gloria we have now begun to speak of the Trinity in code, known only to those who know that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are what we mean when we say “Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.” But when those of us who know the old code have gone, will new generations of Christians be able to speak intelligibly about the Trinity? One wonders.

Besides, the code is fraught with theological dangers. Perhaps most significantly, “Creator, Christ and Spirit” are even more susceptible than “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” to the Arian tendency to view Christ and the Spirit as mere creatures. This carries with it, to use Wainwright’s words: “the unfortunate possibility of divine authentication for a natural order in its fallen state. Without a christological and pneumatological qualification (i.e., without the redemptive work focused in the Son and the transformative work focused in the Holy Spirit, the three persons being in divine communion), the ‘Creator’ now becomes responsible for creation in its disordered condition . . . a danger when the notion is cut off from the full biblical narrative on the basis of which a properly trinitarian God was seen by the church to be a saving necessity—now graciously self-revealed.” (Wainwright, p 122) A “Creator” thus detached from the trinitarian substance, so carefully articulated by tradition to capture the nuances of the biblical narrative, leaves us in the precarious situation of having a Gospel for which we have no need. Most religions claim God as Creator, but the trinitarian faith has some very particular claims to make about God and creation that are in danger of being obscured (and, in fact, are obscured in some of the newer “Creation Theologies” of which the writings of Matthew Fox seem to be the most popular example.) Some of the Eastern religions might well accept a “Creator” deity with an anointed “Christ” as having some special divine status, as an avatar perhaps, but this hardly represents the particular claims of Christian faith about the relations between the first and second persons of the Trinity.

In light of these dangers to the integrity of Christian theology and liturgical expression I consider the present time to be an “Athanasian” moment. What is at stake is nothing more nor less than our doctrine of God. “Creator” and “Christ” will not carry the theological freight. Economic terms are not adequate substitutes for immanent terms, for in Christian theology what we know about creation follows rather than precedes what we know about the nature of God. As Athanasius said, “It is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name him from his works and call him Unoriginate.” Thomas Torrance puts it like this:

“To know God in any precise way we must know him in accordance with his nature, as he has revealed himself—that is, in Jesus Christ his incarnate Son in whom he has communicated not just something about himself but his very Self. Jesus Christ does not reveal the Father by being Father but by being Son of the Father, and it is through Christ in the one Spirit whom he mediates that we are given access to God as he really is in himself. In contrast with Judaism and its stress on the unnameability of God, the Christian Faith is concerned with God as he has named himself in Jesus Christ, and incarnated in him his own Word, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the arche, the Origin or Principle, of all our knowledge of God, and of what he has done and continues to do in the universe, so that it is in terms of the relation of Jesus the incarnate Son to the Father, that we have to work out a Christian understanding of the creation. It is the Fatherhood of God, revealed in the Son, that determines how we are to understand God as Almighty Creator, and not the other way round. It was through thinking out the inner relation of the incarnation to the creation that early Christian theology so transformed the foundations of Greek philosophy, science and culture, that it laid the original basis on which the great enterprise of empirico-theoretical science now rests.” (The Trinitarian Faith, p. 7)

Given Torrance’s observations about the name of the Trinity it is interesting to me that Phyllis Trible’s article on the “Nature of God in the Old Testament” (in the Supplementery Volume to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible) is cited in Book of Worship as a principal source for the decision to eliminate masculine language about God. Her point about the need to expand the vocabulary of images with which we talk about God to include female imagery is surely well taken, but there is no precedent in scripture or tradition where God is named using female names, and to do so, as Book of Worship has, is to embark on a radically new enterprise.

To add Mother to the name of the first person of the Trinity, as both the Inclusive Language Lectionary and Book of Worship have done is a curious decision, given the identification of mother language with Canaanite fertility religion in the Old Testament, and the place of Mary, the Mother of God, in the New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition. Elizabeth Achtemeier has repeatedly raised the charge that a “Mother/Father” God makes hash of the role of Mary as portrayed in scripture and tradition. We might do well to recall that the title Theotokos for Mary was primarily a christological affirmation of the unity of Christ’s person and only secondarily to promote the veneration of Mary. That its formulation in the fourth and fifth centuries roughly coincided with the trinitarian and christological formulations of Nicaea/Chalcedon that we have been considering in Confessing One Faith is suggestive that these issues should not be separated.

We could probably all agree that it is just and right and highly desirable to expand the metaphorical base of our speech about God, especially the lost traditions now being recovered from the scriptures, but that is not the issue here. What is at issue is which God will we be using our expanded metaphorical base to describe? Is that God named in ways that are consistent with the Word of God as attested in scripture and maintained by the great tradition of the ecumenical church? At those key moments when the church names God, especially at moments of praise and during eucharistic prayers and at baptism the church names the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as our ancestors have for nearly two millennia, not to describe God’s attributes, God’s works and deeds, but to confess which God it is we are worshiping.

The difference between describing God and naming God is critical for a proper understanding of these issues. There is, to take one example, an important distinction to be made between the descriptive use of the term “father” to show God’s compassionate care for humankind (as in Psalm 103:13) and Jesus’ use of the name “Father” as an address for God. “Father” in the former sense could as easily have been “mother”, and sometimes is in scripture. Some confusion exists in cases like this when all biblical images are reduced to the great grab bag of the category of metaphor. (See, for example, Sally McFague, Metaphorical Theology, 1982 or, much better, Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 1985) Clearly in the example above, the “father” who pitieth his children functions quite differently from the “Father” of our Lord Jesus Christ. The former is a metaphor, the latter, while metaphorical, is the name which Jesus chose to call God and taught us to do so as well, and, therefore, might correctly be put under the heading of “the scandal of particularity.”

Let me be quite clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying that God is male; Christian discourse about God and liturgical speech to God has been sufficiently apophatic in its adjectives (“infinite,” “eternal,” “immeasurable,” “incomprehensible,” etc.) to guard against the idolatry of ascribing sex or gender to the Godhead. To Mary Daly’s aphorism “if God is male, the male is god” Wainwright says that the decisive retort is to deny the conditional clause. God is not male. (Wainwright, p. 118.) I am also not saying that excessively masculine and patriarchal language in liturgy is not a problem for contemporary listeners, nor am I saying we shouldn’t make language regarding people inclusive where that was clearly the intent of the author. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has done well with this, in my opinion.

In the liturgies and proclamation of the congregation where I am Pastor we minimize the use of masculine pronouns referring to God and seek to find a wide variety of biblical images to speak about God. The battle about people language is over, I believe, and the church has reached a consensus that language about people must be brought up to conformity with the changes that have taken place in English. Accordingly, my congregation has amended its covenant to change “brotherhood,” “mankind” and other formally generic words that no longer are inclusive to their acceptable equivalents. This is a problem of English, as we recognize that no language ever stops changing. But the issue of the trinitarian name of God is not a translation problem, or a problem with the English language. That this issue of translation and language about people and the issue of “Father and Son” language in the Trinity are seen as identical has led to much of the current confusion.

The inclusive language issue is viewed by many as a simple issue of justice, and accordingly very frequently takes place without theological issues being raised at all. Let me cite a few personal anecdotes. When a colleague balked at the retaining of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in the baptismal service of Book of Worship, and I suggested that it had been an ecumenical necessity which avoided otherwise dire consequences the reply was, “That is why I hate ecumenism. Why should we have to refrain from doing what we believe to be right because of other churches?” Another colleague suggested that we depersonalize all language about or referring to God along the lines suggested by some process theology. I said that I thought an impersonal God would do little justice to the biblical narrative and would lead inevitably to Unitarianism. The answer was “What is wrong with that?”

A certain “political correctness” around this issue has seeped into denominational enterprises. Certain official publications of the United Church of Christ have taken to putting “sic” after masculine personal pronouns referring to God within quotations from historic figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr, St. Augustine and John Calvin. Seminaries that abandoned doctrinal policies generations ago embrace “language policies” with no sense of irony. A nationally respected scholar was dismissed as a possible preacher for a denominational conclave when someone said, “We can’t invite her. She doesn’t use inclusive language!” (more specifically, she still speaks of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”) It is difficult for me to imagine someone being barred in the same manner for having an inadequate trinitarian theology.

As a former seminary chaplain and chair of a Church and Ministry Committee I have witnessed repeatedly the conflict that results when seminarians trained by their professors to see these issues as paramount take their places in churches where their first order of business is to change the “sexist” Gloria Patri and Doxology. Congregations characteristically resist such attempts to tamper with the sacred things of their faith. Church history is replete with examples of the faithful people of God resisting changes in liturgy, especially of the parts of the liturgy that are theirs, that they either say or sing. Horace Allen has brought it to my attention that this is why we have little indigestible nuggets of older liturgies in the liturgies that replaced them; the people of God won’t give them up. Thus we have a Greek “Kyrie” in a Latin Mass, Latin words, like Gloria Patri in Protestant English liturgies, and an Elizabethan “Lord’s Prayer” in an otherwise modern language liturgy. In worse cases the seminarian or newly-minted ordinand sees only an intransigent congregation and they soon become her or his enemy, which is bad for congregations and ministers alike (although sometimes it does satisfy the well-developed appetite some ministers have for martyrdom.)

Given all this it should come as no surprise that we have spawned a reactionary organization. The Biblical Witness Fellowship, a conservative renewal movement within the United Church of Christ, has recently laid a charge of “apostasy” at the door of the national leadership for a long list of perceived failures in upholding the faith, among them the acceptance of the radical inclusive language agenda. That this is not good for the church goes without saying, but the vehemence of the charge and the defensiveness and lack of understanding from the leadership convinces me of a widening gap between the plausibility structures of denominational hierarchies and many people at the grass roots.

In my own congregation we have just looked at the issue of the Gloria Patri since our Minister of Music has written a new tune, and the question was raised whether we should use the opportunity to begin using the Gloria from Book of Worship. After much soul-searching on the issue we decided that since the church did not yet know its own mind on the subject we would retain the status quo, which does at least have nearly two millennia of Christian liturgical practice behind it.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops in their Criteria for the Evaluation of the Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use (November 15, 1990) offers this guideline: “In fidelity to the inspired Word of God, the traditional biblical usage for naming the persons of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to be retained.”

That seems right to me.

An address given to the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity on March 3, 1992 at Pope John the XXIII National Catholic Seminary at Weston, Massachusetts. This also appeared in Prism ,Volume 7, Number 2, Fall, 1992.

Where I Ruminate on the Several Meanings of the Lord’s Supper

I think when people differ over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper it is like the old Jain parable of the six blind men and the elephant, where each one is holding onto a different part, and so, not being able to comprehend the elephant in its fullness, cannot agree on just what an elephant is.

This is where I have found the Eucharist section of the historic World Council of Churches document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) so helpful, because it lays out all the parts at once.  In the past I would share this with the deacons whenever we got into a muddle over what the Supper was all about, and I relied heavily on this material for my section on the sacraments in my A Course in Basic Christianity.
So, for example, these questions:
  • Is the Lord’s Supper a thanksgiving to the Father?  Sure, that’s what eucharist means, and why the liturgy needs a Great Thanksgiving.
  • Is the Lord’s Supper a memorial to the Son?  Of course, it is at least that, which is why the liturgy needs the Words of Institution.
  • Is the Lord’s Supper an invocation of the Holy Spirit?  You bet!  Which is why the liturgy needs an epiclesis. (Notice the Trinitarian shape of these first three affirmations!)
  • Is the Lord’s Supper a Communion of the faithful?  Yes,  there is the congregation embodying the church.
  • Is the Lord’s Supper a meal of the kingdom?  Yes, it is a foretaste of the Great Heavenly Banquet, which is why several of our liturgies say, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God.”  (Notice the eschatology!)

In these five affirmations you have the Trinity, ecclesiology, and eschatology.  All of them need to be kept in view synoptically, or we go back to holding onto only one part of the elephant. Often it is not so much that we have been wrong in our affirmations about the Lord Supper, just unbalanced in emphasizing certain aspects and ignoring or neglecting others.

That is where ecumenism can be so helpful, when the mutual affirmation and admonition of fellow Christians enriches our understanding.