By Hannah Bowman

Discussions of inclusive language founder on the trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Either the decision is made to leave the trinitarian invocation untouched, or substitutions are made that are wholly insufficient, such as holy and undivided Trinity, in the language of Resolution A068 of the 2018 General Convention (which avoids the question of the intra-trinitarian life entirely), or the entirely heretical and Sabellian Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Elizabeth Anderson’s recent essay “Translating the Trinity” offers a prudent path in its recognition that our understanding of the meanings of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have changed over time and as the terms were translated, so that we perhaps draw unwarranted univocal conclusions from these terms when their meanings were originally more expansive (Father, for example, not only expressing parental affection but also ontological status as the sole source of life). 

At this time, Father and Son are overloaded — and therefore irreplaceable — not only because of their biblical usage and original meanings, but also the layers of meaning attributed to them in thousands of years of liturgical use. No single formula will suffice to replace the traditional formula, even in private devotions. But perhaps, drawing on Anderson’s suggestions of the variety of meanings contained within the original words for the trinitarian persons, we should consider how best to include multiple trinitarian formulas within our liturgies. Ideally, such a true “expansion” of our language would also spark deeper catechesis and exploration of the mysterious nature of the Trinity.


I see the liturgical functions of trinitarian language as threefold:

  • Metaphysical, conveying the relations between the persons of the Godhead
  • Relational, expressing the intimacy with which God relates to us and we relate to God
  • Soteriological, expressing the ways God acts in the Cross most central to our faith

What would it look like to apply different trinitarian formulas to our liturgies depending on which of these functions we wish to emphasize? I will here interact with Anderson’s proposals and those from E.S. Kempson, while adding further nuances and observations of my own. Finally, I offer a sample version of Eucharistic Prayer A, modified in light of my essay and theirs. 

The Metaphysical

A metaphysical formula for the Trinity would emphasize the relations between the persons — something sadly lacking from most attempts to discard the traditional language. The relationships were key to the development of trinitarian thought. Jürgen Moltmann reminds us that God’s fatherhood is not based on his relationship to the creation but rather that “God the Father is always the Father of the Son” (The Trinity and the Kingdom [Harper & Row, 1981], p. 183). To maintain the traditional relationships of begetting and proceeding,  I propose leaning on what Anderson identifies as one of the original meanings of Father: source, font, or spring. 

Source or Source of Being draws on the inherently generative nature of the Father. Word or Only-Begotten Word, in addition to its biblical pedigree, expresses the intimate way in which the Son derives his uncreated being from the Father. Spirit or Holy Spirit — well, we all seem to agree that the Holy Spirit is unobjectionable, so why look for further metaphysical trouble? 

Source, Word, and Spirit is a formula consistent with orthodox metaphysics. But it is, without doubt, lacking in the poetry and emotional intimacy we associate with Father and Son. We need to consider an additional set of terms to express our relation to the Trinity.

The Relational

E.S. Kempson offered an excellent biblical trinitarian formulation that meets the needs of emotional intimacy in Abba, Christ, and Holy Spirit. My only proposed revision — in line with a goal of emphasizing, in this relational formula, the ways in which the Trinity is revealed to and for us — might be to replace Holy Spirit with the biblical terms Paraclete (a word, I admit, I wish were more broadly used in general), Advocate, or Counselor. Just as Abba expresses our close relationship to God and our ability to call on God in the same terms in which Jesus did, and Christ expresses the second person of the Trinity as he is revealed in his primary relation to us, Paraclete, Advocate, and Counselor express our encounter with the Spirit.

Abba, Christ, Paraclete, though an unfamiliar formula, offers an alternative picture of the Trinity based in the ways in which we encounter the trinitarian persons in our experience.

The Soteriological

Of course, dividing the metaphysical and the relational in this way runs the risk of separating the immanent and economic Trinities, considering the way we see God in the world as somehow different than the truth of the interior life of the Trinity. We might remember here a principle of Karl Rahner: “the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity and the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.” 

The foundation on which this unity rests is the ultimate criterion by which all our understanding of God is judged: Christ and him crucified. 

Moltmann identifies the cross as the ultimate revelation not only of Christ but of the nature of the Trinity. He quotes Patriarch Philareth of Moscow describing the Trinity this way: “The Father is crucifying love, the Son is crucified love, and the Holy Spirit is the unvanquishable power of the cross” (Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 83).

Perhaps such terms do not lend themselves easily to liturgical usage. But surely the concepts of the Crucified God, forsaken, and uniting should inform our expansive language and Trinitarian thinking.

What do these liturgical terms look like in practice? I offer examples from Eucharistic Prayer A in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, making substitutions in line with the Source/Word/Spirit and Abba/Christ/Paraclete possibilities I have discussed, depending on whether the Trinitarian references seem to emphasize metaphysical or relational aspects of the divine life. (The soteriological, I believe, is present from the context of the prayer, in this case.

I have also taken the liberty of substituting Lord with the biblical but non-gendered Head or Christ in reference to Jesus Christ, and with God elsewhere in the opening dialogue, and have replaced “him/his” with “Christ/Christ’s” as per the expansive language version authorized at General Convention in 2018.) While these prayers feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable — even to me — I hope they offer a first step toward a less-gendered liturgical idiom that nonetheless maintains continuity with the historic prayers of our tradition and that does not sacrifice deep wrestling with the mystery of the Triune God.

Eucharistic Prayer A (inclusive language)

The people remain standing. The Celebrant, whether bishop or priest,
faces them and sings or says

  Christ be with you.
People And also with you.
Celebrant Lift up your hearts.
People We lift them to our God.
Celebrant Let us give thanks to God.
People It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and every-
where to give thanks to you, Almighty Source of Being, Creator of
heaven and earth.

Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and
Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever
sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Celebrant and People

Holy, Holy, Holy, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God.*
Hosanna in the highest.

The people stand or kneel. Then the Celebrant continues

Holy and gracious God, our Abba: In your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your eternal Word, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Source of all.

He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

At the following words concerning the bread, the Celebrant is to hold it,
or to lay a hand upon it; and at the words concerning the cup, to hold or
place a hand upon the cup and any other vessel containing wine to be

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Head, Jesus Christ, took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink
it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Celebrant and People

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

The Celebrant continues

We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, Abba, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.

Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Only-Begotten Word, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in Christ. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints
into the joy of your eternal kingdom.

All this we ask through your Word Jesus Christ: By Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Source of Being, now and forever. Amen.



* The original version of this post/liturgy said, Blessed be the one who comes in the name of Christ, but various discussions have convinced me that this is a better choice.

One Response

  1. Matthew Kemp

    This is a laudable effort to address numerous concerns in this debate. However, I have to question the choice of using “Christ” as a replacement for “the Lord,” particularly in the salutation and Sanctus/Benedictus. These are arguably references to God the Father or to the entire Godhead.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.