Friday, January 24, 2014

Lord Jesus

I am an unrepentant kyrialist.

Yes, that’s pretty much a made-up word. It is not therefore insignificant, however. Quite the opposite. 

A case can be made that the earliest Christian creed consisted of just two Greek words, Kyrios Iesus, which works out to three words in English: Jesus is Lord. The expression Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy—is one of the oldest bits of Christian liturgy we have. As the tradition of Christian worship developed on the Latin end of the decaying Roman Empire, it became formulaically customary to conclude most any prayer with per Dominum Jesum Christum—through Jesus Christ our Lord—before the Amen. 

The word ‘Lord’ is so ubiquitous in Christian devotion and worship, and so rare in ordinary speech (at least, for English speakers outside the UK, where it continues to have some parlance), that it’s taken on the aspect of jargon, a bit of technical vocabulary with very little to connect it with anything outside what has come to be perceived as its native environment. When Christians began using the term, however, the opposite pertained. Everyone had a lord and everyone knew who their lord was. Even the lords had lords. There was a hierarchy of fealty that ran from the lowest rungs of society (slaves) to the highest (the emperor). 

So when Christians started announcing that “Jesus is Lord”—indeed, the Lord of lords--they weren’t just indulging in insider religion-speak. They were making a highly political statement, something not only very profound in a theological way, but dangerously seditious. It was seen as a zero-sum game: If ‘X’ is “Lord," then’Y’ is “not Lord.” If X=Jesus, then Y=somebody else who already claims lordship. Ultimately, that somebody else was Caesar. Is it any wonder the first several generations of Christians were persecuted, and a great many put to death?

So, while “Lord” suffers from over-familiarity, it is central to the confession of the historic Christian and Catholic faith. It is central to the vows and promises we make at Baptism and Confirmation (including, for Episcopalians, the much-vaunted Baptismal Covenant). 

In recent years, the notion of the Lordship of Christ is once again under attack, only this time from within the Christian community. Some, operating from a feminist perspective, have come to regard it as an emblem of patriarchal oppression, since the word inherently carries heavy masculine baggage. For them, it signifies more than itself; it points to an elaborate apparatus of male hegemony (one is tempted to say “domination,” but that is precisely the point at issue) in the Church, marginalizing and infantilizing half the human population, handicapping the gifts that women bring to the life of the Body of Christ. So there is pressure to, if not completely remove, at least drastically reduce the use of the word “Lord” in liturgical texts. In the Episcopal Church, the present edition of the Book of Common Prayer and the original edition of Lesser Feasts & Fasts came to life just early enough to escape this movement. But anything published since the mid-1980s—The Book of Occasional Services, all the Enriching Our Worship materials, and the proposedHoly Woman, Holy Men, reflects the trend of “de-kyrializing” the liturgy. “Lord” is consistently and nearly universally avoided (though, it has been done presumptively, stealthily, with no direct conversation over the issue).

I invite those who find kyrial language (no more quotes; it’s officially a word now after three uses) offensive to demonstrate any concrete damage it is alleged to have done. I further invite them to weigh that alleged damage against the weight of the Tradition—in scripture, in liturgy, in theology, and in devotion. Yes, I will acknowledge the possibility that certain persons—mostly women, in all likelihood—who have had particular life experiences that are unfortunate, even tragic, but, to the benefit of all, quite rare, may not be helped by associating any notion of God with the word “Lord.” But, I would submit that this is not sufficient grounds upon which to overthrow two millennia (more if you count the Old Testament as it has been mediated to us via Greek and Latin) of tradition. 

Liturgy drives theology—or so goes the contemporary wisdom. If we de-kyrialize our worship, we may not be saying right away that “Jesus is not Lord.” Not right away. But we will be opening the door to such a move by the next generation. As our society rapidly secularizes, Christians will need more ways, not fewer, by which to demarcate their identity over against the “Caesars” of consumerism,. nationalism, hedonism, and all the other false gods that demand just a harmless pinch of incense at their altar. Rather than laying aside the notion that Jesus is Lord, we would do better to double down on it, to explain it in ways that don’t cause unnecessary trauma to anyone’s psyche, and enable the baptized faithful to be more clearly and confidently who they are—the redeemed of God, the harbingers of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Kyrios Iesus.


Father Tommy Allen said...

Right on target!

PadreTampa said...

But you see Bishop, we really aren't eliminating "Lord" from our prayers, we are rather "expanding the our language" of our prayers.

Anonymous said...

I clearly remember a conversation I had with a fellow seminarian about inclusive language, particularly regarding the Psalms, as we recited them daily in the Office. As I was speaking with her, she actually broke down and wept. I know for a fact she had not suffered violence from men, but *the language* itself was, over time, hurtful to her. And this was a second career, iron-willed women of great strength and verve. I do not disagree with your kyrial language at all. Jesus is indeed Lord. However, I urge you to perhaps deliberately seek out the views of women on this, as I believe there is definitely something to listen to, and your second-last 'graph seems rather unpastoral.

FatherDanJones said...

If gender specific language is "hurtful" then the Bible is hurtful. Maybe we should just toss it so nobody will get their feelings hurt.

Dan Jones+

Anonymous said...

Well, we don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, that's for sure.

One could just as well make the case that because Christ came as a man and not a woman, the Incarnation is inherently exclusionary and demeaning to women. And if that's true, then it would be not only pastorally insensitive but morally wrong to be a Christian.

Fr. Slacker

Rob Scot said...

I have very little experience with 'Enriching Our Worship' and 'HWHM', but I am quite familiar with 'The Book of Occasional Services.' I don't think there is a conspicuous absence of the title Lord in the BOS. It's not employed in every single prayer, but it seems to be in most.

Some time back, on another blog, I came across a passing comment about the 'non-dominical crowd.' It was the first I had heard anything about this, so I tried to find more discussion online, but was unsuccessful (until now).

I certainly agree that this is a serious concern, and frightfully ill-conceived, if indeed it is as bad as presented here, that is, if there is a deliberate and systematic (covert?) effort to purge the title Lord from our prayers and liturgy, indeed from our very theology. I'm simply wondering if this is in fact an accurate picture. Are there really that many people and places in the Episcopal Church that are actively seeking to de-kyrialize our worship with the goal of effecting the language and theology of all TEC?

Anonymous said...

Responding to Anonymous' request for the views of women, I am a female student in an Episcopal seminary. Personally, the use of "Lord" does not bother or offend me. Jesus is Lord and was male, and the apostles were male, and since we are an apostolic Church it follows that our language will reflect that. Tradition is part of who we are, and while I am not against "expanding our language", I have experienced more spiritual violence from angry women in the Church than from men. I would like to see more focus on loving each other and less on changing language. Maybe then change will come naturally from the heart, and less from political agenda.

Anonymous said...

PadreTampa, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. There are bad women in the world just as there are bad men. All these fruitless and faithless ideas do is drain churches. It needs to stop.

Piper Hodson said...

I completely agree that the expansion of language in liturgy should not occur without conversation. I don’t agree that it has been happening without engagement, but some of the comments on this post make it clear to me why it would be a temptation to try it. The patronizing attitude about "getting their feelings hurt" dismisses very real pain with no sensitivity and no invitation to dialogue. An unwillingness to discuss the possibility of expanding language results in language acting as a barrier, rather than a bridge, to Christ. When expansion of language is dismissed out of hand as fixing something that's not broken, the message we are sending to those we claim to be inviting into relationship with Christ is that their experiences are irrelevant. They can accept traditional language in silence (because, after all, it's clear here that it is not worth our time to bother with trying to understand why they find it problematic or explore ways of understanding each other), or they can be gone. Several comments on this post are excellent examples of (to quote Bishop Daniel’s summary of feminist objections), “marginalizing and infantilizing half [or not half, just whatever portion struggles with pain triggered by the traditional language] the human population.”

I highly value the liturgy of the Episcopal Church and its ties to ancient tradition. It’s part of what drew me to it in the first place, in a particular Episcopal church where tradition is valued and protected while the invitation is kept open through dialogue about the whys and wherefores, through open conversation around the elements of tradition that are uncomfortable and painful for some and through a willingness to try different things (such as, at different times spread out over years of standard Rite I and Rite II, experimental, historical, and international liturgies). I have learned that when I am challenged with new language in liturgy, whether it’s historical liturgical language that makes me cringe or a modern liturgical adaptation that makes me roll my eyes, I am challenged to reexamine God in my own heart. That language clearly has meaning for a lot of people or it wouldn’t be out there, so what can I learn about God and Christ by opening my heart to the meaning that is there for someone and letting go of my own prejudices?

Words change meaning over time, and on occasion, we can enrich our worship by expanding tradition a bit.

St Michael's Episcopal Church said...

With regard to comment #3 from Anonymous, the bishop is bang on in his assessment of which group primarily is offended by kyrial, and other masculine/patriarchal language. In my seminary days in the early-mid 90s, that group was extremely vocal, especially if anyone read Scripture publicly from anything other than the NRSV. Or maybe that was just in Toronto where I was schooled.
Also, with regard to the BCP being published just ahead of that movement, the Canadian Book of Alternative Services (BAS) is a very poor knock-off of the 79 BCP, published in 1985 when the inclusive-language mvmt was gathering steam. The vast majority of Sunday collects, psalm prayers and prayers after Communion in that book have been neutered, with such opening lines as "Loving God", "Gracious God", "Compassionate God" = "Touchy-Feely God whose true nature we wish to mask." Its innovations are rather deistic which, because they stand alongside traditional texts that acknowledge God as "Almighty Father," makes the whole thing a rather confusing mishmash.
So I suspect the group the "expansive language" movement is really harming is, as Bp Daniel says, subsequent generations who use such liturgical texts who, recognizing the inconsistencies, may be led to question the veracity of the Gospel we claim to embrace and proclaim.