The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, sparked a theological discussion after suggesting the traditional opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, a staple in Christian worship for millennia, may be “problematic” due to their association with patriarchy.
In his opening address to the Church of England’s ruling body, the General Synod, Cottrell reflected on the opening phrase “Our Father”, sourced from the New Testament books of Matthew 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4.
He stated, “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.”
This comment, made in passing during a speech primarily about unity, will undoubtedly stir dissent among members of the Church of England, a community long marked by diverse viewpoints on sexuality, identity, and equality.
In response to Cottrell’s speech, Canon Dr. Chris Sugden, chair of the conservative Anglican Mainstream group, underscored that Jesus Himself directed individuals to pray to “our father” as outlined in biblical text.
Sugden questioned, “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, a proponent for female bishops, responded that Cottrell had “put his finger on an issue that’s a really live issue for Christians and has been for many years.”
She elaborated: “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 Church of England announced it would mull over whether to discontinue referring to God as “he”, following requests from clergy to employ gender-neutral terms.
It established a commission to probe gendered language, noting “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”.
Cottrell’s address was predominantly focused on the term “our” instead of “father”, hoping to encourage members of the fractious synod towards unity.
Cottrell told Synod members, “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.”
Among the divisive issues within the Church of England, same-sex marriage has been a flashpoint. This year, the Church approved a decision permitting clergy to provide blessings for gay and lesbian couples following a civil wedding.
Initial blessings were scheduled for this summer, contingent on the Synod’s final approval of prayer wording at their meeting. However, discussions about the presentation of the prayers, potential changes to rules on gay and lesbian clergy marrying, and the possibility of lifting the requirement for celibacy in same-sex clergy relationships have been deferred until November.