The hymn "Faith of Our Fathers" may not sound quite right at one Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, where parishioner Carol Sue Johnson deliberately booms out "Faith of Our Parents."
Word editing isn't necessary when the church sings the hymn "Rise Up, O Men of God." Reflecting a growing trend toward "nonsexist" language for liturgy and songs, the new Lutheran Book of Worship has changed the old hymn to "Rise Up, O Saints of God."
Other denominations have also officially expunged masculine references, or "non-inclusive" language, from prayer texts and other documents. The Episcopal Church eliminated such language from the new Book of Common Prayer that was presented in 1976 and formally adopted at this year's General Convention. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing Reform Jewish congregations, made similar changes in prayer texts, beginning in 1974. So far about 85 percent of Reform congregations have adopted them.
In addition, the Lutheran Church of America's Division for Parish Services adopted "English Language Guidelines for Using Inclusive Liturgical Language" two years ago.
The Lutheran guidelines advise Christians to "choose words to describe God with care," and suggest a host of neutral images for God, such as: Sustainer, Liberator, Maker, Defender, Creator, Redeemer, Nurturer, Guide and Advocate. While "the term Father may be appropriate for expressing the personal relationship with God," the guidelines said that the term "Parent" may suggest "a relationship which we may at times wish to reflect."
Not all denominations have moved so quickly. A majority of Roman Catholic bishops voted in November to excise male references from the Eucharistic prayers at mass and other liturgical prayers. The proposal failed because it did not get the required two-thirds majority.
Under the proposal, the word "men" simply would have been lopped off the Eucharistic prayer that says that Christ's blood was "shed for you and for all men." The revisions also would have introduced more inclusive language for such phrases as "sons of God," "touch the hearts of all men with your love," and "we come to celebrate our sonship in the Lord Jesus Christ." Instead of using male references, priests would have had the option of using such phrases as "men and women," "the human family" and "all persons."
Ironically, the reference "all men" dates back only to 1969 when some Vatican II provisions for saying mass in the vernacular were instituted in the United States. The Latin mass had used the term "pro multis," which translates as a neutral term, "for many." The translators at a time before the women's liberation movement burst on the national scene -- chose "all men" to convey the idea that Christ died for all humanity, not just "for many."
Some Catholic celebrants -- especially in smaller, intimate settings such as on college campuses -- are changing the liturgy anyway, without official sanction.
Rabbi Chaim Stern, editor of three new prayer books published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), said "I am now persuaded that it is illegitimate to use masculine -- or feminine -- language about God. What we ought to use is neutral language. This question is not a 'tempest in a teapot.' Language is crucial in the structuring of consciousness."
The Rev. Alla Bozarth-Campbell has argued that "in Genesis, we are told we are created in God's image, male and female. That means God includes both male and female dimensions and also transcends them both."
Campbell, who was one of the first women to be ordained an Episcopal priest, has founded an ecumenical community that uses a liturgy that substitutes "Blessed Be God, Creator, Saviour and Sanctifier" for the traditional "Blessed Be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
"I don't believe any Christian theologian views God as a great granddaddy in the heavens," she said.
A Jewish Sabbath Prayer book prepared in June 1978 by the Brown University Women's Minyan, or congregation, uses exclusively female references in many of the prayers. "According to Jewish tradition, God has both male and female attributes," said the book's authors Naomi Janowitz and Maggie Wenig. "Yet, in most prayerbooks God is portrayed in exclusively male terms."
The new translation of the traditional Sabbath service addresses God in striking phrases like: "Blessed is She whose womb protects all creatures. Blessed is She who nourishes those who are in awe of her. Shelter us in the soft folds of your skirt. She soothes those in pain and cradles the abandoned."
Some biblican translations have been labelled as "chauvinist" or representative of ancient patriarchial society, rather than the teachings of God. Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen stirred the debate recently with an article in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today that attributed many of the male references in the Bible to the "male chauvinism" of the translators.
The couple, who teach at Bethel College and Seminary in Arden Hills, Minn., argued that the translators "grew up in a society that assumed males should dominate home, church and society at large." They asserted that Christians exploring Bible teachings on male-female relationships "are thrown off course by translations that may reflect more of the translator's interpretations and biases than the actual words of the Bible."
One translation, they point out, ranks the husband as "supreme" over his wife, though the original text uses the less domineering word "head."
But is the furor over language based on a biblical premise, or does it merely represent another feminist battleground? Many supporters of language changes point to the Old Testament judge, Deborah, and the New Testament leaders, Phoebe and Prisca, as evidence that women participated fully in the early church.
Feminine references to God start from the frist chapter of Genesis in which the Spirit of God moves over the waters before creation "like a mother bird hovering over her nest," said Barbara Withers, associate director for youth education of the National Council of Churches.
Other references portray God comforting Israel "As one whom his mother comforts," and God crying out "like a woman in travail."
Most passages cited by advocates show God performing the "motherly" functions of comforting, nurturing, sustaining, clothing Adam and Eve, giving birth and bring forth from the womb like a midwife.
"While masculine references to worshipers are being eliminated and widely discussed in many denominations, the traditional creed of "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" is still holding out against a mounting assault.