It was probably not the Archbishop of York’s intention to ignite a media firestorm over the words “Our Father”, yet it was both predictable and entirely unnecessary.
The actual topic of Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s address to the General Synod, the highest governing body of the Church of England, was, ironically, Christian unity. His focus was actually on the word “Our” rather than “Father”.
But in a completely unnecessary aside, he then said, “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—then those of us who say this prayer together, whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, even if we determinedly face away from each other, only turning round in order to put a knife in the back of the person standing behind us, are sisters and brothers, family members, the household of God.”
With this casual concession to certain theological critiques of the patriarchy he moved on, as if there were not profound biblical, theological, not to mention pastoral and ecclesiastical principles at issue—beginning with the teaching of Jesus. Predictably, both conservative and liberal critics piled on in the media, with predictably demoralizing impact for the Church of England.
Conservatives were right to criticize the Archbishop for taking his cues from culture rather than scripture, and its record of the example and teaching of Jesus.
It is Christ Himself who invites those who trust in Him to call on God as Father, and it is in Christ that God has become our Father, and has taken us into loving communion with Himself. If we think of fatherhood in terms of cruelty, abuse, and oppression, the Son’s humble and self-giving service shows us—both women and men—the truth of the Father’s tender mercy and steadfast love.
“He is a father of the fatherless, and defendeth the cause of the widows” (Ps. 68:5).
It is that revelation that releases us from false and oppressive models and experiences of merely human fatherhood. Failure to be open to receiving thus a higher understanding of God’s revelation in Christ is to risk turning away from the very possibility of redemption itself.
Remaining limited to the things of this world by rejecting openness to revelation in Christ that invites us to transcend them is surely to embrace regression rather than the ineluctable progress our secular culture presumes to embody (despite ever-mounting evidence of its limited success).
Then again, since the Archbishop has hitherto embraced the concept of being a “father in God” himself, now that he has attained the insight that such language is offensive, he will doubtless be considering the viability of his own episcopal position itself. Embracing the path of secular progress may, after all, have its price.