The Lord’s Prayer: Unity, not uniformity

What a difference a word makes when it’s a word you’ve known your whole life long. There is something extra-confusing about saying something where *most* of the words are familiar… but just enough are different to trip you up. Like, for example, “sins” instead of “trespasses.” (Or even “debts”!) Yes, I’m talking about how we say the Lord’s Prayer – the prayer Jesus offered as an example, when one of his disciples asked him how they should pray (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).

At St. Dunstan’s, since I came to be your rector, we have used the contemporary Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father in Heaven…”). As liturgical leader, I have made that choice because the modern language makes the meaning of the prayer a little bit clearer for a child or someone brand-new to the church and its distinctive language. We don’t use “art” for “is” or “thy” for “your” in daily speech, so while that old-fashioned language is satisfying and beautiful in its own way, it can be disorienting and confusing.

Believe me: I don’t for a moment believe that the traditional-language Lord’s Prayer is dead – or wish it to be. It’s the one I learned as a child, immersed in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, and I appreciate the grace of its language. I happily use it at weddings, funerals, and in hospital rooms – because in a mixed crowd, it’s the most familiar, and because it’s the version most people my age and older learned as children, and so it’s the version deepest in our hearts and memories.

There are parishes where they switch versions with the season – for instance, they might use the traditional language in Lent, and the modern language in Easter. I have never thought that sounded like a helpful approach; instead it sounds to me like a recipe for confusion. Many of us carry both versions in our heads, but more or less manage to pick one and stick with it, once we’ve gotten as far as, “Our Father, who art…” or “Our Father in…” I fear that alternating which version we’re using would have the effect of muddling up the versions in our heads and making it even harder to start one and follow through!

But this fall we’re trying out a different kind of muddle. The inspiration came from a couple of different places. One was my experience last summer of the liturgies at General Convention, the Episcopal Church’s great gathering of the tribes in Salt Lake City. In the daily Eucharists there, we were invited to pray the Lord’s Prayer “in the language of our hearts.” That meant that people in that giant roomful of worshippers were praying in both English versions, and in many other languages and versions. Offered that freedom, I myself tend to pray the New Zealand version that begins, “Loving God, may your name be held holy and your kingdom come!…”  My experience of those moments was that instead of the familiar rhythm of many voices saying the same thing the same way, I was paradoxically both more tuned in to my own prayer – thinking the words, meaning them – and more aware of all those voices around me, praying the same thing in beautifully different ways.

The second source of inspiration is our middle school youth group. In their weekly practice of saying Compline (BCP p. 127) together at the end of a Friday night of movies, pizza, and games, they’ve developed a preference for the traditional-language Lord’s Prayer. Several of them have a habit of sitting together in the front row at church on Sundays – and when I’m celebrating at the altar, I can hear them praying with the traditional language, as everyone else uses the modern language version printed in the booklet.

So in planning our autumn worship, I thought, Why do we all need to use the same version at the same time? Everyone here either has a version of this prayer engraved on their heart already – or is ready to choose a version and do the work of memorizing it. It doesn’t matter to me, and it most certainly doesn’t matter to God, which version you pray. Some might pray it in a language other than English – the language of your first family, or of a country you love. Some might pray it in a version that translates the Gospel’s Greek rendering of Jesus’ Aramaic words into English in a different way, as does the New Zealand version. Some might pray in silence, the prayer of the heart. We don’t need uniformity in prayer to have unity in prayer.

So this fall I invite all of us to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the language of our hearts. It will sound and feel different. I invite you to try it out. We’re printing both the traditional and modern language Prayer Book versions in the booklet, but by all means, look farther afield if you are so moved. Find (or create) another version of this simple, ancient, encompassing, gracious prayer. And let’s pray in unity of spirit, and diversity of voice.