Sometimes at St. John’s we use alternative prayers during our Rite II services. For example, the readings frequently conclude with “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people,” instead of the more traditional “The Word of the Lord.” We also say an alternative translation of the Nicene Creed lately, our confession of sin changes from time to time, and our opening acclamation is not always the familiar, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” but instead, “Blessed be the One Holy and Living God.” These options come from materials that are supplemental to our Prayer Book in a series of documents called “Enriching Our Worship.”
The first book in the Enriching Our Worship series was published in the late 1990s. It was intended to give worshipping communities more options than the familiar Rite I and Rite II liturgies. Enriching Our Worship, frequently referred to by liturgy geeks like myself as “EOW,” contains language that is even more contemporary than the language found in Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer. The tricky thing about language is that it evolves. Changes in language happen slowly, so we don’t always notice them. But they are certainly there! Have you ever been to England and attempted to read something written centuries ago on a plaque on the wall of a cathedral? Did it seem to you that it was written in a language other than English? That’s because the English language has changed drastically over the centuries. If you have ever picked up an old copy of the epic poem “Beowulf” in its original script, you probably noticed you didn’t understand a single word. Yet “Beowulf” was in fact written in Old English.
Words creep into our language as needed. Sometimes we borrow words from other languages. Although English is a Germanic (or Anglo-Saxon) language, closely related to German and Dutch, it is heavily influenced by Latin languages (especially French). You can often tell where a word came from by noticing its flow. Softer sounding words are frequently from Latin, while short, rough words are from Anglo-Saxon origin. Think of the difference between “cow” (Anglo-Saxon) and “beef” (Latin). Or “freedom” (Anglo-Saxon) compared to “liberty” (Latin). Academia is heavily influenced by Latin, so verbose English literature often contains a lot of Latinate words. Think of the difference between reading, “The infant observed the immature canine consuming its sustenance” and “The baby watched the young dog eating its food.” Both sentences mean the same thing, but the second (influenced by Anglo-Saxon words) is more to the point and easier to understand. Long story short, words change over time and so do their meanings.
One concern noted by Christians following the release of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is that there is a lot of masculine language, both for God and for us. For thousands of years, God has been referenced with masculine pronouns. However, God has no gender. Some people have a difficult time picturing God as a man. For others, this is of little or no concern. EOW texts help us soften the language so that we have more freedom to make up our own minds. “The Word of the Lord” implies that God is male because “lord” is a masculine noun (think lords and ladies). “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” implies that at least the first two persons of the Trinity are male. “Blessed be the One Holy and Living God” does not assign gender to God. In all fairness, I would argue that it is safe to refer to Jesus as “he” because Jesus certainly came to us as a male. Similarly, in the Creed, the older text uses masculine pronouns for all three persons of the Trinity. Referring to the Holy Spirit, we say, “with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.” In the EOW version of the Creed, we remove a gendered pronoun by saying, “who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” We also remove the controversial “Filioque” clause. Filioque is another Latin word that means “and from the Son.” This text is removed because it was discovered that it was not in the originally agreed upon Nicene Creed and was added centuries later. Although this change is not based on gendered language, the Anglican Communion, and subsequently the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, have decided to remove the Filioque in all approved translations of the Creed printed after 1994. If and when we get a new Prayer Book, the Filioque will not be there. At St. John’s, we’re ahead of the game in getting used to leaving it out.
I believe it is important to use all of the worship materials available to us and to become familiar with them. I do not have any problems with using masculine pronouns for God, and I do not have problems using feminine pronouns for God. I believe God is beyond gender. However, I am aware that some people do have sensitivities to masculine pronouns. Unfortunately, our language is limited. EOW was designed to be used at any time during a Rite II service. It is perfectly acceptable to say the EOW version of the Creed and the Prayer Book version of the confession of sin. It is ok to end the readings with “the Word of the Lord” and for the deacon to proclaim, “the Holy Gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ.” Pay close attention to the words we use in worship. Pay attention to how different word choices make you feel. Does a change in the language throw you off? Are you comfortable with it? Do you trip over subtle changes? These are all wonderful things to notice. When you notice them, you are actively doing theology.