Mind your language: Helen Johnson’s Thought for the Week

‘As a culture changes, its language adapts to express its values.’

'Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!' | Photo: by Hannah Wright on Unsplash

Coincidences happen. Usually they are acknowledged and promptly forgotten. But sometimes, something else seems to be going on. That’s what happened for me when I saw Carol Williams’ recent letter (15 October). She was writing about the importance of everyday language: the words we use and the ones that are new and strange to us.

Language isn’t fixed. Words are adopted from other cultures; sometimes existing words even change in meaning. As a culture changes, its language adapts to express its values. Carol is clearly concerned that the language used by Friends has become somewhat esoteric, and argues for a ‘return to the language of our common humanity’. Of course, that is important and worth discussing, but how does all of this link to a coincidence?

I saw Carol’s letter having just returned from a retreat at an Anglican centre. It connected directly with what I had just experienced. At the retreat, we had a structured meditation that had included the reading of the New Zealand Anglican Lord’s Prayer. I had never heard it before. It was very different from the version that I’ve been accustomed to. It reads like this:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth. With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen.

It was first published in 1989 and was revised and republished in 1997. Articles on the internet suggest that this version has been positively accepted in the New Zealand Anglican church because it combines the traditional Anglican approach to prayers with the distinctive spirituality of the Maori people and other cultures of the Pacific. I had noticed immediately how God is referred to as both masculine and feminine. As I sat in silence at the retreat, and on the train on the way home, I was thinking that, in terms of God-language, isn’t this more appropriate for Quakers with the equality testimony in mind? It certainly is for me.

So, language adapts to reflect our changing lives and experience. The language choices we make enable us to accommodate new ideas, technologies and perspectives. Again, language isn’t fixed; it is always evolving to reflect cultural change. The key would seem to be that it needs to be both relevant and inclusive – and, as might be expected in a Quaker context, open to discussion.

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