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The United Church of Christ’s main legislative body was taking care of a largely bureaucratic matter earlier this month when it endorsed merging five national boards into one, reports the Louisville Courier-Journal.

But in the process of revamping its decades-old constitution, the Protestant denomination’s General Synod endorsed an eye-catching change: It deleted the term “Heavenly Father,” replacing it with “triune God.”

The decision by the General Synod — pending regional ratification — prompted alarm among a conservative activist group in the predominantly liberal denomination.

“Rejecting God as Father in an age of fatherlessness is unthinkable,” said David Runnion-Bareford, executive director of Biblical Witness Fellowship.

Denominational officials say that’s an overstatement.

First, they note, the same synod voted separately to reaffirm the traditional language used in baptizing new Christians in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” That came in a historic agreement, already approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations to recognize each others’ baptisms.

But the constitutional change does reflect a long-term seismic shift in some Protestant (and some Catholic) circles, particularly with the influence of feminist theology, toward seeking ways of talking about God beyond traditional masculine imagery.

“Inclusive language has been a long-term project in the UCC for at least three decades,” said the Rev. Greg Bain, pastor of Grace-Immanuel United Church of Christ in Louisville, who just completed a term on the denomination’s national executive council. The synod “decided it was a broader definition to say the triune God,” he said.

Nearly 20 percent of United Church of Christ congregations were using alternative language for “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” for the baptismal formula, according to the denomination’s research. But Bain said the new agreement intends that such terms only be used in addition to, not instead of, the traditional formula.

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