The archbishop of York has suggested that opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, recited by Christians all over the world for 2,000 years, may be “problematic” because of their patriarchal association.
In his opening address to a meeting of the Church of England’s ruling body, the General Synod, Stephen Cottrell dwelt on the words “Our Father”, the start of the prayer based on Matthew 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4 in the New Testament.
“I know the word ‘father’ is problematic for those whose experience of earthly fathers has been destructive and abusive, and for all of us who have laboured rather too much from an oppressively patriarchal grip on life,” he said.
His comment – a brief aside in a speech that focused on the need for unity – will divide members of the C of E, a body whose differences on issues of sexuality, identity and equality have been highly visible for years.
After Cottrell’s speech, Canon Dr Chris Sugden, chair of the conservative Anglican Mainstream group, pointed out that in the Bible Jesus urged people to pray to “our father”.
He said: “Is the archbishop of York saying Jesus was wrong, or that Jesus was not pastorally aware? It seems to be emblematic of the approach of some church leaders to take their cues from culture rather than scripture.”
Rev Christina Rees, who campaigned for female bishops, said Cottrell had “put his finger on an issue that’s a really live issue for Christians and has been for many years”.
She added: “The big question is, do we really believe that God believes that male human beings bear his image more fully and accurately than women? The answer is absolutely not.”
In February, the C of E said it would consider whether to stop referring to God as “he”, after priests asked to be allowed to use gender-neutral terms instead.
It agreed to launch a commission on gendered language, saying “Christians have recognised since ancient times that God is neither male nor female, yet the variety of ways of addressing and describing God found in scripture has not always been reflected in our worship”.
Most of Cottrell’s speech was devoted to the word “our” rather than “father”, as a way of urging the fractious members of the synod to be a little more brotherly and sisterly in their discussions.
He told members of the synod: “We remain stubbornly unreconciled, appear complacent about division, and often also appear all too ready to divide again […] We have got used to disunity. We think it’s normal when in fact, it is a disgrace, an affront to Christ and all he came to give us.”
One of the most divisive issues within the C of E, same-sex marriage, led to a decision earlier this year to allow clergy to offer services of blessings to gay and lesbian couples who have undergone a civil wedding.
The first blessings were expected this summer, after final approving of the wording of prayers by the synod meeting this weekend. But the presentation of the prayers, plus new rules on whether gay and lesbian clergy may marry their partners, and whether to lift the existing instruction that clergy in same sex relationships must be celibate, have been delayed until November.