Henry Francis Lyte was an Anglican priest who served in Ireland and England. Starting his ministry as a theological liberal he became more evangelical in his views, marrying Anne a committed Methodist. He ended his days as a sympathiser of the Oxford Movement which sought to make the Church of England more Catholic in liturgy. Faithful in prayer he was totally convinced of the fallen nature of humanity and was a faithful pastor to his people – yet feared any socialist ideology thinking it would lead to revolution. A skilled linguist and musician, he was a poet of some skill and is best remembered for today’s hymn and Abide With Me. Lyte’s father deserted the family when he was young. One of his own children died in infancy. Knowing all this about the poet priest we can appreciate the stanza “Father-like he tends and spares us / well our feeble frame he knows.”
There is a helpful tendency in contemporary Christianity to use language to express the truth that God is both without, and beyond, gender; male language about God often reveals more about the writer than the One of whom the words are written. Lyte’s words about God as a gentle father are moving when we realise his own father was absent, and knowing Lyte’s own loss of a child. Often when we use pronouns about God, even more inclusive ones, we tend to play to gender stereotypes. God the Mother is gentle and kind, God the Father is strong and mighty etc. What strikes me in today’s rendition of the Psalm is the idea of God the Father tending to us in ways we might commonly associate with a mother.
In our own age it is often very tempting, for the very best of motives, to play into gender stereotypes and forget that, in a free world, there are many ways to be female and many ways to be male.
O God, like a mother bear you fiercely protect your young, like a loving father you run to welcome the estranged home, like a bright light you expose our dark places, like a lover you know and accept our weaknesses. Help us to move beyond the stereotypes used in our world to control and oppress, that as your people, women and men, we may dance with you in joy and freedom. Amen
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship. He attends the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney.