Pod people: Trinitarian editing 2.0

It was a simple little headline, dashed off for one of our “Got news?” posts, which is the catchphrase that we use when we see religion-beat stories that intrigue us, but have yet to make an appearance in the mainstream press (or have been downplayed, for some strange reason).

In the headline I asked, “Adios to God the Father?

Please note that the headline does not say, “Adios to God?” It says, “Adios to God the Father?” So I was not asking a question about, well, chopping off one corner of the Christian Trinity. I was asking a question about a Christian denomination voting to edit language concerning the Trinity, voting to move away from ancient, apostolic, orthodox language which speaks of the Trinity as revealed in the form of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Obviously, anyone who has followed trends in the world of liberal Protestantism in the last quarter of a century knows that there is nothing new about these bodies experimenting with gender-neutral language for humanity and God. What fascinated me was the decision by the trailblazing United Church of Christ to formally vote to drop a reference to God the Father from its constitution. In such a free-church, non-creedal, congregational body, I thought the constitution was a pretty symbolic document.

The point of my short post was not to express shock that this would happen, since it wasn’t shocking. I wrote this as a “God news?” piece to ask a real question: Would this action by the UCC really be “news” to anyone? Would it be interesting to the reading public? In my experience, readers are interested in this kind of symbolic event, especially about worship issues.

Apparently, this was not “news,” as much as it was a matter of “opinion,” since mainstream coverage of the topic was nil and the topic jumped straight to the new semi-opinion level of blogging. That answers my question, at the level of newsrooms. The whole topic did set off some sparks.

Thus, I brought this topic up for another round in the latest GetReligion podcast (click here to tune in), just to take another shot at saying clearly what I had briefly said in the original post. Besides, it’s always interesting to be accused of saying one thing, when you actually said something else.

Those looking for a sort-of-news summary of this affair will want to check out the work of Peter Smith at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He notes, accurately, that a small circle of conservatives left in the UCC protested this action, while the vote undoubtedly expresses the beliefs of the liberal denomination’s core leaders and churches. He added, however, another interesting note:

The United Church of Christ recorded 1.08 million members last year, down nearly 3 percent from the previous year and down by about half since its peak in the 1960s.

It was formed by a merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church — itself formed by a merger of two historically German Protestant groups, with several congregations in the Louisville area — and the Congregational Christian Churches, whose organizational ancestors included the Puritans.

In the podcast, I list three reasons why this unsurprising UCC action still struck me as newsworthy. Smith’s comment raises another question: Is the editing of the Father God language a story inside this declining church body, a flock that — outside the Northeast core — still contains some rather conservative and independent thinking congregations? Even if this language remains somehow optional, how will the constitutional change play in the heartland?

Also, astute readers noted another interesting and newsworthy angle — the formal approval of a “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism (.pdf)” between the UCC, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.

However, that story gets complicated, too. UCC press materials noted:

The two primary roadblocks to the agreement centered on language used during the baptismal rite and the manner in which water is used. … Research found that nearly 20 percent of UCC churches were using alternative language for “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” for baptismal formula. …

Ancient churches, you see, do not recognize the validity of baptisms that do not use the orthodox language of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Thus, the new agreement is supposed to guarantee that this doctrinal formula will be used in all baptisms, to assure validity among these churches. However, it seems that in some corners of the UCC the operative idea is that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” language may often be mixed with other references to God as Mother and/or a Trinity of gender-neutral descriptors of divine function, not personhood, such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.”

So, is a combo-language rite of this kind OK with Rome and others? That’s an interesting, and perhaps newsworthy, question.

Also, does this mean that highly independent UCC pastors and congregations are now required to use some gender-specific “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” Trinitarian language in their baptism rites in order to keep faith with Catholics and others in this agreement? That’s another interesting, and newsworthy, question.

After all, read this interesting item from the Rev. Chuck Currie, a UCC pastor in Portland. After covering some of this baptism language territory he notes:

I do not use the traditional language of “Father, Son and the Holy Spirit” during baptism as I try to refrain from using gender specific language for God in most cases. …

Actions taken by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ speak to but not for the local church. Therefore, as a minister in the UCC I am not bound by any agreement made regarding baptism and may (and will) continue to use the language that I currently do. Inclusive language is important in theology and a important trait of many UCC congregations and our denomination as a whole.

Now, that’s real life in the UCC — right there.

So what is the official UCC policy on this ancient, creedal issue in baptism? Is it up to the local pastor and her or his flock? That would seem to be the case. So do officials of the Church of Rome now need to deal with UCC baptisms on a case-by-case basis, to see if the terms of this important agreement were honored at the local level? It would appear so. So what did this breakthrough document accomplish?

Sounds like news to me. Enjoy the podcast.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • BC

    This synod of the UCC also voted on an agreement with the Catholic church on the very question of baptism: http://www.uscatholic.org/news/2011/07/catholic-reformed-common-agreement-baptism-clears-last-hurdle

  • Martha

    Fascinating quote – how does gender-neutral language deal with the person of Jesus Christ?

    After all, He was pretty much male, which is why he is referred to as God the Son; does the Reverend Currie mean to imply that that state only operated while He was on earth and that now He has ascended to Heaven, He has abandoned His physical body and all associations of sex/gender? Or that the Resurrection was not a ‘physical’ event so that the appearance of Christ was not in the same body but in a spiritual form?

    And can anyone identify the gender of the Holy Spirit, anyway?

  • Dave

    Since the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary I would assume that gender to be male.

  • EssEm

    It seems that coming to common agreement on Baptism between Rome and the UCC is a waste of time, since the synod does not bind the local churches. I was once an enthusiast for ecumenism, but most of it now seems to me a pointless passtime.

  • Asshur

    From a Catholic POV, this decision renders the baptism agreement with the UCC absolutely void and null. In the case that a UCC baptized wants to enter the Church, fry om now on, MUST be baptized conditionally as there is hardly any way to guarantee the use of the Trinitarian formula at the UCC (and this is an vital canonical requeriment for us)

  • Ed

    If the UCC goes forward with this, it will indeed nullify the agreement, as anyone not baptized in the traditional Trinitarian format will need to be baptized not conditionally but absolutely. I agree with Asshur, however, in that folks may not recall the format, so we may perform what we hope are conditional baptisms with some of them actually being absolute. The following link is an explanation of the Catholic POV on this, and it contains a link at the top to a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith response to a dubium (which is much briefer): Romano/CDF on Baptism

  • Asshur

    @Ed
    It’s important to remember to non-Catholics that for those Sacraments we deem indeleble (which can only performed once, i.e. Baptism and Order. Marriage also, but it’s a bit special in this regard) there are sacramental formulae which have to be used in case there is a reasonable doubt that it was once performed validly on the subject, it’s what we call “conditional baptism/ordination “.
    The Catholic-Reformed agreement was meant to avoid such doubt directly; but the UCC decision puts everything on the starting point ag

  • bob

    This has come up a number of times in Orthodox Church. Places that used to use Christian language in baptism inventing new and interesting trinities mean converts from there will be real live baptismal candidates, not chrismation as in the past. It’s funny to recall how Bishop Pike famously thundered his resentment at Pres. Johnson’s daughter being baptized Cathoilc when shw married and left the Episcopal Church. He was before his time and so was she!

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    As I recall from coverage,she was baptized conditionally…. and a year before she married.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I work with converts in our church–and we have to not only get a baptismal certificate from a baptized Protestant coming into the Catholic Church, but we now also have to have assurances from the Protestant church that it baptizes in the Trinitarian formula. Otherwise, we must–and logically– treat the person as probably unbaptized.
    The irony in much of this is that the Catholic Church–and the Orthodox Churches– get a lot of negative flak in the media for holding fast to the teachings and practices of the earliest Christians and then are accused of being anti-ecumenical.
    However, who is being anti-ecumenical here??? Those who stay true to the original Faith??? Or those who, without a bit of ecumenical concern, re-define the Faith in a manner no Catholic or Orthodox could possibly accept.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Since the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary I would assume that gender to be male.

    Dumb, dumb, dumb, for more reasons then I can count.

    In response to the original question, “Holy Spirit” is (I believe) a feminine phrase in Aramaic/Syriac, a neuter phrase in Greek and a masculine in Latin. Make of that what you will.

  • Xander

    Martha asked: “Fascinating quote – how does gender-neutral language deal with the person of Jesus Christ?”

    In my experience, those who prefer eschew “Father” for the First Person of the Trinity often nevertheless use “Son” for the Second Person, who was incarnate as a human male. It’s suggesting that the First Person, who is spirit, is male that they want to avoid.

    While I think very valid points have been made about the UCC’s polity and its position(s) on the baptismal formula, it strikes me as a bit odd that this whole discussion was prompted by the removal of “as heavenly Father” from the UCC Constitution. To be honest, it seems much closer to (lower-case o) orthodoxy to me without the reference to the Father. Whatever the motive for making the change, the old wording grammatically equated “the triune God” with “the heavenly Father” rather than identifying the Father as the First Person of the Trinity. It almost sounded Mormon.

  • str

    Dave and Hector,

    the Holy Spirit did not “impregnate” the Virgin Mary in any way that would make the Spirit male.

    OTOH, no grammatical gender in any language makes the Spirit female – do you understand the concept, Hector: grammatical gender?

    Neither the 1st nor the 3rd person of the Trinity are actually male or female – but that doesn’t mean that the traditionally used male gender is wrong – it would be worse to treat God as a neuter and misleading (and strange, considering that person #2 is undoubtedly male and will be eternally) to treat Him as female.

  • http://monex.to/wiki/E._Keith_Owens E. Keith Owens

    .In general the name Father signifies Gods role as a life-giver an and powerful protector often viewed as immense with infinite power and that goes beyond human understanding. For instance the 239 specifically states that God is neither man nor woman he is God .

  • str

    And what is the “239″?

  • http://nicholasmyra.blogspot.com Nicholas

    Just FYI, the old guy with horns over on the left of Jesus being baptized is not God the Father. It’s an iconographic personification of the river Jordan.


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