by Pastor Doug Kings

At our last book group session, we talked about the dramatic shifts that have occurred in theology, Bible interpretation, and world view from ancient and medieval times to our modern one. One challenge for the church is that much of its worship resources still reflect the old world, not the new, whether that be liturgy, prayers, creeds, or hymns.

Many (but certainly not all) older church goers prefer the older words because of their familiarity and the nostalgia they invoke. The preference of some for the King James Version of the Bible is an obvious example. Inevitably, with time, this is gradually changing.

American Lutheran churches began transitioning to contemporary English in the 1960s. In the 1970s two major publication events gave this movement a giant leap. One was release of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which discontinued all use of “thee and thou” in reference to God. This was a significant theological as well as grammatical shift for it affirmed that one could address God in ordinary everyday language.

The second landmark was publication of the Lutheran Book of Worship (the “green book”). Reflecting the use of the NRSV, all the liturgical texts, readings, and prayers in LBW were now in contemporary English. While many older hymns were included, quite a few were dropped or retranslated into modern English. Many new hymns were added, including some from non-Western cultures.

LBW was generally well received, and its predecessor “red book” (SBH) soon disappeared from most congregations. The current ELW (a new red book) continues the trends begun by LBW but is not nearly as big a step forward as LBW was. And for that reason, I found ELW to be a disappointment. Adopting contemporary English was an important and necessary first step. But doing so actually pointed to what is the next step to take: adopting contemporary ideas and new metaphors to express such ideas.

A number of years ago, a congregation member surprised me when he said he disliked the contemporary English version of the creed. I knew that Paul, a retired engineer, was progressive in his thinking so this seemed out of character for him. But then he explained: “Now that its in plain English, I have to pay attention to what it says. And I don’t like it. I don’t agree with a lot of what it says. When it was in King James English, I could just mumble it by rote and not think about what I was saying. Now, unfortunately, its meaning is loud and clear.”

I understood immediately what he was saying. His perspective gave me a new appreciation of the Episcopalians who still cling to the Elizabethan English of the Book of Common Prayer’s Rite 1. It also gave me insight into the loyalty of some Roman Catholics to the Latin Mass. Clarity in worship and prayer is not necessarily a good thing.

I’ve come to believe that this conundrum is a major obstacle to creating meaningful worship. And our church leaders have only themselves to blame. For centuries, modern theologians have understood the inadequacy of much of the ancient religious language and imagery embedded in the church’s language and ritual. Since at least the end of World War 2, this has been common knowledge in mainline seminaries.

But while pastoral students were taught such things in the classroom, they were strongly discouraged from putting such ideas into practice in their congregations. People won’t understand, you’ll just stir up a hornets’ nest, don’t make waves, etc. were the kind of messages experienced pastors gave to pastors-in-training. Thus pastors became the oddest of professionals in that they were told to not use all that they learned in their training.

For a century or more, the church has been in a long downward slide. Many have left due to serious offence or injury. The various sex scandals have been disastrous. But many more have drifted away, or never entered in the first place, because church life has seemed to have little relevance to their lives. Young people with little or no church experience find much of its ritual and language incomprehensible. Yet there is still reluctance—and anxiety—among church leaders to genuinely consider the needed reforms. 

We’ve waited so long it’s hard to know where to begin. But one place we can look is to the churches arising from non-Western culture who still retain connections to their indigenous traditions. Many such Christians have worked hard to integrate valuable elements of their indigenous spirituality with Christianity. They have often created less dualistic and more wholistic spiritualities, affirming the value of nature, for example, and the inherent unity of spirit and matter.

Celtic Christianity is a paradoxical European example, as are Christian communities from African, Asian, and Native American traditions. Less well know cultures that have influenced Anglican Christianity are the Polynesian and Aboriginal. A book group member shared with us a revision of the Lord’s Prayer (used by his church in Chicago) that is in the 1988 New Zealand Prayer Book. Much of the contents are in Māori as well as English.

What is valuable to me, however, is not just the use of multiple languages but that Māori ideas and images also appear. Here is one way to open us up to an expanded range of symbols and concepts to appreciate and express our spiritual experiences. As followers of the man who spoke of God’s presence using images of birds, flowers, seeds, partygoers, dishonest managers, and much more, it’s hard for us to say there is a limit to this.

I share the prayer without comment for you to read and ponder and perhaps, even, to pray. I would be curious to hear of your reaction.

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.

Blessings in your life and ministry.