Shannon Johnston is the Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Prior to his consecration, Shannon was rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Tupelo, Mississippi. He also served as my 'mentor' after I was ordained to the transitional diaconate and then to the priesthood (my first parish to serve after ordination was the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in West Point, which is a few miles south of Tupelo).
One of the many things I admire about Shannon is his love for liturgy and his insights into church life. And so I always enjoyed reading his contributions to the Pastor's Page of the All Saints' newsletter.
Here's one of his contributions to that newsletter from June 2005 that's definitely worth a look. In it, Shannon discusses the traditional vs. the contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer.
Lead Us Not Into Translation
With our single service of worship at 9:30 for these summer Sundays, our "8:30 crowd" is having to adjust to the contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer that we use at the 10:30 service. So this seems to be a good time to revisit the reasons, behind the changes to the traditional wording of the Lord's Prayer. The changes are rooted in very important concerns; this is most certainly not a case of torturing a venerable text simply for the sake of using "modern" words or phraseology. So important are these concerns that I have chosen to use the contemporary version throughout the summer services in order for our 8:30 folk to be able to engage the issues at hand. For you 10:30 types, it's been a long time since I've taught this (you might not have been here when I did), and so I want to be sure that you are really on board as well.
I realize that the contemporary version is confusing for children, who invariably have been taught the traditional one. This is my own biggest reservations about using the modern wording. Also, some people don't like having to look at the page to read the prayer instead of saying it from memory. That is disconcerting, especially with a prayer you have known all your life. However, I do have a guaranteed solution for both concerns: memorize the prayer yourself and teach it to your children! And when you have to read the prayer from the page, consider that it is a good thing to be more deliberate in saying the Lord's Prayer; this brings more thought and intentionality. We should not be praying this greatest of all prayers simply "by rote." After all, these are Jesus' own words.
And that is the main reason the contemporary version commends itself and commands our attention—what Jesus actually meant in the prayer, and how we would understand His meaning through the words we use. The modern version is much clearer theologically for our ears today than is the traditional version (which comes from 14th century English!). The problems arise from the fact that some of those "traditional" English words and phrases had one sense of meaning for people in 1380, whereas for us today the implications are entirely different, and not to the good. For example:
(1) "Lead us not into temptation..."
Are we to conclude from this that God actually LEADS us into facing temptations? Surely not, as if God would toy with us in so unfaithful (and conceptually ridiculous) a fashion. That is terrible theology, whether child or adult. Pastorally, I've had to deal with a lot of fall-out from that misguided notion. It is much more to Jesus' point that we pray to be saved from (as the contemporary version has it) those actual times in human life that threaten to take us into serious depths of despair or faithlessness. Moreover, it's not mere and vague temptation that is at stake but outright trials, both those in which we are now embroiled and those we will face in the future. This petition also points to some of our deepest fears: dying and death, God's judgment, and the end-time. Obviously, "temptation'' is too weak a word to convey what is meant here.
(2) "Forgive us trespasses..."
In Jesus' own original language (Aramaic), he was getting at the hard reality of sin when it comes to being forgiven by God as we forgive others. The softer and less specific 'trespasses" carries neither the weight nor the sharp, jarring focus intended. Today, when the word "trespass" is used meaning sin, offense, or wrongdoing, it is euphemistic or poetic—a runaround that Jesus would hardly allow!
The contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer was produced in 1975 by the "International Consultation on English Texts," an official body of the English-speaking Churches throughout the world. It was intended to be the one version for everyone to use, regardless of denomination, so that we might have at least this personal legacy of our Lord in common.