The language of the liturgy
I AM not a Methodist, but as a lecturer
in an ecumenical college with a strong Methodist component, I
am often invited to speak in Methodist churches and every time
I am warmly received. I hope my offering the following observation
would be taken as coming from a grateful and concerned friend.
In recent times significant liturgical changes have been taking
place in the Western churches. Changes, of course, are needed;
the language of worship cannot remain static in a rapidly changing
world. It must communicate the Gospel in an idiom that modern
people could understand. But the change in some cases goes beyond
updating. It seeks to purvey a different theology.
If we examine the United Methodist Hymnal, which is now used
in most of the English-speaking Methodist churches in Singapore,
we would have noticed that in many of the hymns and virtually
all the responsorial psalms, the masculine pronoun for God is
scrupulously avoided. In this respect, the UMH has outdone the
NRSV Bible in its use of inclusive language! The strategy is
to repeat the word God over and over again (e.g., Hymns 66, 73
and the Psalter).
At first glance this might seem like a small innovation, but
the change is not totally innocent when we consider the motivation
behind it. The reluctance to use the masculine pronoun for God
is no doubt an attempt to accommodate the sensibilities of feminists
over what they perceive to be Christianity's bias towards maleness
as reflected in an excessive use of male metaphors for God: father,
husband, master, lord, etc.
In two previous articles in Methodist Message I have pointed
out that this is not the case. (MM, October 1999, Page 9; MM,
November 1999, Page 9). The fatherhood of God has nothing to
do with the maleness of God, but is the language of divine revelation
that underlines God's personal and relational nature. I am not
saying that the UMH has jettisoned the concept of God's fatherhood.
There are texts (the Lord's Prayer) and hymns (e.g., Hymn 144)
where God as Father could still be found. But by refusing to
use the masculine pronoun in place of God, it is in fact interpreting
the masculine pronoun as carrying sexual connotations. It is
this underlying assumption that I question.
The pronoun, as any grammar book will tell us, is a word used
in place of a noun. Its function is to establish identity; that
is to say, he/she/it refers to the preceding noun. Its meaning
is entirely dependent on the noun it replaces. Now, if God is
not understood as male, then the "he" replacing "God"
could not be understood as male either. There is therefore no
possibility of misunderstanding "he" if the noun it
replaces is not understood as male.
The reticence on the part of the editors
of the UMH to use "he" is not because of a need to
be more theologically precise; I suspect that it is due largely
to the need to be seen as politically correct. As a matter of
fact the UMH strategy, if consistently applied, would create
theological confusion rather than clarity in some instances.
For example, the repetition of God in Gen 1:27 will only result
in sheer confusion: "God created humankind in God's own
image, in God's image God created humankind." Are there
two gods involved in the creation of humankind?
I may sound like I am nit-picking, but what ordinary lay people
need to realise is that such kind of changes in the liturgy will
have far-reaching consequences for both theology and praxis.
Worship is where Christians learn their primary theology, subliminally
through direct participation. Liturgical language is the dynamic
language of a worshipping community and, for good or ill, it
will inevitably shape the worshippers' understanding of the reality
that the liturgy embodies. We cannot be too careful, especially
when those changes are driven by a dubious ideology. We might
then ask, what can we do about it?
May I suggest two things? First, the church must be more critical
in its use of liturgical resources from the West because they
affect not just a few isolated individuals but an entire church.
Denominational affinity is no guarantee that the imported commodity
is wholesome. Modern ideologies know no ecclesiastical boundaries.
Second, the local church might want to consider developing its
own liturgical materials by selectively drawing on the wider
Christian tradition to ensure theological integrity. The process
may be long, tedious and expensive, but it will be an education
in itself. It will make for a more discerning church.
The Rev Dr Simon Chan is Dean of Studies at Trinity
Theological College and spiritual adviser of Herald Assembly of
EDITOR: We note with appreciation
the Rev Dr Simon Chan's point. The Methodist Church in Singapore
does not have a hymnal of its own. We continue to use the United
Methodist Hymnal of the United Methodist Church because it contains
Wesleyan heritage and theology.
We asked the Rev Chong Chin Chung, District Superintendent (City-East)
of the Chinese Annual Conference, and a part-time lecturer in
liturgy at TTC, for his comments, and this is what he said: "The
use of pronouns in liturgy may be a cause of concern for those
who wish to be politically correct. The United Methodist Hymnal
has made acceptable changes in the light of a 'rapidly changing
world'. So far nothing has appeared to confuse the lay people
in Singapore. The Chinese translation of the text has escaped
any possibility of confusion with the use of a pronoun that has
the character for God, i.e.