God, not our human fathers, defines the word Father for a Christian


What a pity that the Archbishop of York torpedoed an otherwise powerful and thought-provoking address to the General Synod on the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer with his widely reported aside that ‘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’. 

All religious language is of course metaphorical: human words never measure up to the reality they seek to describe.  When, for example, the Old Testament writers say that God is a ‘rock’, they were fully aware that this term can only give a window on to God’s full reality: it cannot and does not describe the whole.  They would also have been aware, I think, that some people would have had problematic experiences of earthly rocks when, for example, close relations had been slaughtered on them, or been unfortunate enough to have their heads crushed by millstones (cf. Judges 9.5; 53).

However, as has been frequently pointed out in recent days, over and above other metaphors – even scriptural ones – the term ‘Father’, although it shares the limitations of all human language, has a particular mandate, since this is the form of address that is both uniquely given by Jesus himself (Mark 14.36; Matthew 6.9) and uniquely inspired by the Spirit (Galatians 4.6) as the root and the origin of all Christian prayer.  ‘Whatever we say in prayer’, wrote St Augustine in the letter to the Roman noblewoman Anicia Faltonia Proba in 412, ‘there is nothing we can say that is not found in the Lord’s Prayer… but if anyone says something not in accord with this prayer, even if there is nothing intrinsically wrong with his prayer, it will be somewhat carnal’.

What I understood to be the archbishop’s central point was that the possession of a common Father – ‘our Father’ – has become more important than ever in a society, and indeed in a church, that is prone to divide and fragment into warring factions.  In this sense, the emphasis of the address was more on the adjective ‘our’ than on the noun ‘Father’, with what he views as the latter’s unavoidably problematic and patriarchal connotations.  And yet, rather than see God as essentially a much larger projection of human fathers, the New Testament – and indeed many other parts of the Christian theological tradition – surely invites us to see things from the other way round, allowing God, rather than human fathers, to set the true definition of this word.  Such an approach is suggested by the letter to the Ephesians: ‘I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’ (Eph 3.14).  God is the true Father, whose life of creativity and love as it were sets the gold standard against which all human fathers, with the many and undoubted limitations and deficiencies to which the archbishop alludes, will always be a pale and unsatisfactory imitation.

This leads to a final point: for the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428-348 BC), God is the ‘form of the good’, perfect, eternal and changeless, existing outside space and time.  Everything that we call ‘good’ in this world is a copy – always a very inadequate one – of this eternal form.  For Plato’s pupil Aristotle (c. 384-322 BC), God was the ‘prime mover’, unmoved, but causing all other things to move.  Whilst Christians would not disagree with either of these concepts, the unique contribution of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is to see a further and uniquely personal dimension.  Plato’s form of the good and Aristotle’s prime mover do not love us: in fact they are by nature cold, impervious and indifferent to us.  By contrast, throughout the Scriptures, God is encountered personally and relationally: ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Ps 86.15). 

At the very pinnacle of this personal relationship: its most perfect and supreme expression is Jesus’s own address to God as ‘Father’, into which St Paul teaches that we ourselves are drawn. 

This personal approach to the Father is not ‘problematic’ but true and good and beautiful.  Restored human relationships on the ‘horizontal’ plane, as expressed by the word ‘our’ indeed have their source and origin in the restored ‘vertical’ relationship through Christ and the Spirit that we have with the God whom we may now call ‘Father’.  To address God in this way is at the very heart of our Christian spirituality, our understanding of God and our proclamation to the world.   If we cannot enthusiastically contend for it, who will?