By Michael Fitzpatrick
Igenerally support strategic revision of our liturgy in the direction of expansive language, because I think such language is biblical and because God is more (though not less) than the images that have nourished the Church the past two millennia. I also have great respect for the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers’s gifts as a liturgical scholar. And I deeply share the concerns she raised in her recent interview in Sojourners (Aug. 7) on how overly masculine and patriarchal images have contributed to sexual abuse and inequality in the Church. The recent penitential liturgy at General Convention atoning for the Episcopal Church’s complicity in sexual abuse was long overdue, and Meyers served an essential role in its development and execution.
Nevertheless, I found myself somewhat perplexed by her remarks in the Sojourners interview, because these remarks seem to contradict her much more reserved comments made just a year earlier in Anglican Theological Review (Summer 2017). There, she insisted that BCP revision was not necessary even given the need for expansive language and changes to the marriage liturgies. But in her more recent interview, she suggested that BCP revision is strongly needed to incorporate a new conception of God.
In Sojourners, Meyers mentioned a conversation between an Episcopalian and a peer:
And their image of the church was, you know, God is this old white haired old man with a beard and what does he have to do with me? This kind of stilted and narrow vision of God. And my friend said, “Oh, the Episcopal Church isn’t like that. We’re much more open and accepting and welcoming.”
I wish Meyers had observed that her friend’s response was inadequate. We don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God. We are part of the historic Church, which has never believed in such an idea. C.S. Lewis debunks this tired trope in his wonderful essay “Is Theology Poetry?”
What did the early Christians believe? Did they believe that God really has a material palace in the sky and that He received His Son in a decorated state chair placed a little to the right of His own — or did they not? The answer is that the alternative we are offering them was probably never present to their minds at all. As soon as it was present, we know quite well which side of the fence they came down. As soon as the issue of Anthropomorphism was explicitly before the Church in, I think, the second century, Anthropomorphism was condemned. The Church knew the answer (that God has no body and therefore couldn’t sit in a chair) as soon as it knew the question. But till the question was raised, of course, people believed neither the one answer nor the other. There is no more tiresome error in the history of thought than to try to sort our ancestors on to this or that side of a distinction which was not in their minds at all. You are asking a question to which no answer exists. It is very probable that most (almost certainly not all) of the first generation of Christians never thought of their faith without anthropomorphic imagery: and that they were not explicitly conscious, as a modern would be, that it was mere imagery. But this does not in the least mean that the essence of their belief was concerned with details about a celestial throne room. That was not what they valued, or what they were prepared to die for. … The earliest Christians were not so much like a man who mistakes the shell for the kernel as like a man carrying a nut which he hasn’t yet cracked. The moment it is cracked, he knows which part to throw away. Till then he holds on to the nut: not because he is a fool but because he isn’t.
It’s a mistake to think that the anthropomorphic imagery of the historic Church is taken for being a literal picture of God as a bearded man on a throne. Of course, imagery can be misused, and we may have legitimate disagreements about the use of particular words. For example, Thomas Aquinas insisted that God had no body (ST I.Q3.A1), yet he thought that Father was more appropriate than Begetter for describing the first person of the Trinity (ST I.Q33.A2). These kinds of arguments about our gendered metaphors and Trinitarian names are rightly queried by feminist theologians. Nonetheless, Aquinas’s opening injunction against misusing anthropomorphic language represents an almost universal trend (acknowledging a few strange exceptions, like the poet John Milton).
Being a welcoming and accepting church has nothing to do with disbelieving God is an old guy with facial hair. Being an orthodox, Trinitarian church has everything to do with disbelieving it.
However, Meyers replied
And then this person came to church on Sunday and it was all father, he, and this imagery of kingship and lordship and not the sense of God that my friend was trying to communicate. Our worship didn’t reflect people’s experience of God and themselves as children of God and the world as we know it today. So I think it’s vital to revise the prayer book so that it does reflect God as we’ve come to understand God today.
Alas, the conclusion does not follow from the premises, nor are the premises theologically compelling. That we speak of God as Father is not only historic, but a practice following the language of Jesus, who taught us to have intimacy with God as a father to his children. This language is not about old-man images, but about the intimacy with God that Jesus gave us: we have been adopted into the relationship he has with God naturally.
God is more than the associations of specific masculine roles, but not less. God is more than a king, but is the creator and ruler of this world, and the imagery of kingship has nourished this understanding for two millennia. Jesus is Lord is our oldest and most fundamental claim as Christians.
While God may be aptly gestured toward by other images, God is faithfully represented by historic images. A push for more expansive language should not be predicated on subtractive ambitions. After all, there is a big difference between saying that we need more (expansive) language and saying that our current language speaks falsely. When we say the latter, we risk negating the experience of God of all those who bequeathed Christian faith to us. Bishop John A.T. Robinson warned of such arguments 55 years ago in his book advocating expansive language for God:
To speak thus one is in danger … of condemning a whole generation—indeed many, many generations—of God’s children. It is still the language of most of his children—and particularly his older children. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with it, any more than there was with the symbolism of a localized heaven. (Honest to God, p. 43)
Finally, Meyers’s argument simply does not entail that it is vital to revise the prayer book. Those who see an old man in the language of the liturgy may need a transformation of their minds, as do we all; it is not obvious that the liturgy needs to be changed to fit what what each of us thinks we need. Such adult formation into a “new mentality” is what Louis Weil advocated in his conversation with Meyers in the same ATR issue in which her more cautious essay appeared (pp. 510-11).
It is quite possible that some do not understand the significance of our traditional language, and our first task must be to understand this inheritance before we seek to change it. Consider the language of power in the song of Miriam in Exodus 15, and that found in Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 2 — the language of women of Ancient Near Eastern background. Will we so quickly dismiss them because of their use of masculine or royal imagery? Part of the power of such language is that it pulls us out of the myopia of our modern contexts, and allows us to see God with the eyes of a different culture and experience.
Second, even if some of us have a new, surprising understanding of God, why does this require revising the prayer book? Consider the doctrine of the atonement. There are many theories of the atonement, and no one theory has the historical consensus of the Church. Some theories are deeply offensive to some Christians. But that does not imply a need for liturgical revision per se, because our liturgy speaks (magnificently) of the atonement, not of any particular theory of the atonement.
Similarly, our liturgy speaks of God, not any one person’s conception of God, and we should not look to enshrine any particular age or mentality in the historic liturgy of the Church. We sing the Gloria, the Magnificat, and the Lord’s Prayer because these are the liturgies that the Church has found to transcend the fads and temperaments of any age. Today’s new ideas will only be supplanted in 20 years; a new prayer book will be obsolete as it comes off the press. Our language for God should be historic and timeless, not provincial and idiosyncratic.
Third, what is this new conception of God? Meyers mentions such an idea but never explains what it is. I certainly have no idea what it is. When I look at our liturgies, I see what Christians have believed everywhere for all time. That is catholicity. I’m always open to bold new theology, but I seek to know better the God whom we and our forebears have always known. I am not seeking a new god, nor do I think most Episcopalians are seeking one. Until we hear more about this new conception of God, I can’t see why we would need prayer book revision to buttress it. If Meyers is so confident in this new vision, she should present it before the whole mind of the Church for examination, and assist us in presenting it to our ecumenical partners, so we can test the spirits and see whether such a new idea really needs to be enshrined in the Church’s historic liturgy.
Indeed, this is essentially what she insisted on in Anglican Theological Review:
The 2015 General Convention resolution calling for a plan for comprehensive revision of the prayer book came from within the General Convention. Because it had not been discussed in the church before the convention, it reflects primarily the mind of the convention. However, the prayer book represents our common worship, and decisions about revising that book ought to reflect as broad a consensus in the church as possible. (p. 507)
Her remarks here are on target, and justify hesitating on BCP revision. But this makes her comments in Sojourners all the more mysterious, because she advocates revising the BCP to introduce a conception of God that reflects primarily the mind of a subcommunity within our current circumstances. It’s hard not to think that Meyers has transgressed her own principles of prayer book revision.
In our correspondence, Meyers has suggested I may be ignoring the important differences between the audiences she is speaking to in these publications, with her ATR comments intended for academic consumption, and her Sojourners remarks given with popular readers in mind. But I’m not sure of the relevance this has. Transition from academic to popular writing should never reverse one’s arguments, or lead to one violating the principles set forth in academic work. Moreover, I find her comments in ATR crystalline and incisive, fully accessible for popular audiences and discussion, whereas the Sojourners article is far more confusing.
To gesture at a new conception of God without giving clear definitions and examples is not accessible communication. I fear that, contrary to Meyers’s intentions, this interview will do more to spread a dismissive attitude in the church, an attitude that claims that continuity with the historical language of the church is unimportant — instead, what’s important is today’s provincial understandings. My hope is that these reflections on Meyers’s remarks will remind us once again that before we can expand our language, we must expand our vision of the Church and liturgical history.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Stanford University and a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California. He currently serves as the President of the Episcopal-Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford.