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Can the Lord’s Prayer connect with young?

05 January 2024

A Chinese boy’s attempts to understand the language point to wider challenges, suggests David Wilbourne

LAST autumn, while the Archbishop of York had a “godly” hunch that teaching the Lord’s Prayer in schools would help young people to reconnect with the Church (News, 13 October), my friend Rita walked his talk. She was tutoring a Chinese boy in English before he started at Ampleforth College; and their lessons focused particularly on the Lord’s Prayer, which is said daily in class. While his pronunciation showed promise, the content utterly baffled him; so Rita asked for help.

Elizabeth Jennings wrote about a Chinese sage who’d spent days writing the perfect poem. But, reading it to a peasant woman, he

crossed out every
               word that was foreign to

A woman of simplicity who knew
labours of the soil and the 
               who had no

Dealings other than this with
     poetry. . .

. . . she was a world he could only
    enter through her. Hay 
              crude meals, lust

Subdued his wit, bodied out his
verse, cancelled cleverness.

World-entering galore was going on: the Chinese lad entering a public school’s world; Rita entering his world; I entering both their worlds — all using a prayer in which Christ omniscient had cancelled cleverness, making to our world the gift of just a few words.

I knew nothing of the Chinese boy’s world. As for Ampleforth’s world, I had taken ordinands there on retreat, joining the pupils for their packed Sunday mass. An Ampleforth monk once visited our eucharist in Helmsley, armed with a clipboard, conducting my annual review.

I knew Rita’s world best of all. Bridging British and Asian culture, she was a brilliant head of modern languages at our local comprehensive. She not only taught our daughters German, but spared me reprising ’Allo ’Allo’s English policeman when I confirmed a German national. She once played Jesus in the Palm Sunday Passion — I’d chosen her because her care for pupils and staff was positively Christlike. She’d even trained staff at Bettys, famous Yorkshire bakers; so she knew all about daily — if expensive — bread.

My world included studying the Lord’s Prayer for my degree, and I have been writing and lecturing about it ever since. I resolved to cancel all that cleverness. . .

THE prayer crops up twice in the Gospels. St Matthew’s Jesus provides a succinct corrective to over-long prayers by religious experts. In St Luke’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus request a prayer because John the Baptist had provided his disciples with one.

Matthew’s more stylised version reflects Jewish liturgical practice, suggesting its already widespread use in public worship when he crafted his Gospel. Luke’s form is considerably shorter, just 38 words, and is probably original to Jesus. Rita recalled an assembly in which I had given a word to 38 pupils and conducted them in order, amazingly getting a group of teenagers to pray it.

We explored how young Chinese people address their father, noting that Jesus regularly called God Abba, Aramaic for “Daddy”: an intimate address, cutting across formal, distant expressions used elsewhere. The Welsh translation is “Dad”, closer to the original than English’s stuffy “Father”.

At the meeting of the General Synod last summer, Archbishop Cottrell had acknowledged that some find “Father” problematical, with its patriarchal associations (News, 14 July). We concluded that a minority’s understandable unease with a word that had a divine precedent was not cause to abandon it, any more than “Give us today our daily bread” should be dropped through fear of offending coeliacs.

The latter petition was a very loaded one. Its obvious meaning — give us sufficient food for today — would be heartfelt by any on the breadline. We explored how special breads, from manna to eucharistic, were paralleled in Chinese culture. We were bemused that one of Jesus’s 38 words, epiousion (translated as daily), didn’t occur anywhere else in antiquity, so was hardly common usage. The best, if baffling, translation was “Give us tomorrow’s bread today,” as in “Bring on the Kingdom and food of the Kingdom now.”

WE REALISED that, in Middle Eastern culture, names caught a person’s essence — like the Valleys’ undertaker, David Davis, nicknamed Di Twice. Moses asked God for a name, but received the elusive reply, “Yahweh, I am who I am,” infinitely bigger than anything that he could imagine. Cue Somerset Maugham: “A god who can be understood is no god.” Hallowing God’s name means not exploiting him, or making him subordinate.

How would “Forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors’” work out in the schoolyard, where standing up for yourself was king? I emphasised that God floods us with forgiveness, and that we should let that flow rather than fester. The River Jordan I referred to as parabolic, entering and leaving a Galilee teeming with life; but the Dead Sea is so low-lying that the Jordan enters but cannot leave, with all the salts accumulating, making it toxic, like salt lakes in China,

In short, inspired by Jennings’s “Chinese Sage”, we treated Jesus’s prayer like a poem, deploying Eliotesque compression, where each word flags up a series of images. Throughout, I was mindful that, if Archbishop Cottrell’s hunch gets legs in 2024, our Chinese lad won’t be the only one baffled by the Lord’s Prayer’s strictures. . .

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in York diocese.

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