Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 10:32 GMT
Our Mother who art in Methodism
Methodist Central Hall in London, scene of the annual conference
The Methodist Church is publishing a new service book, which challenges the traditional Christian understanding of God as masculine.
In one of the new services, God is addressed as "our Father and our Mother".
The book took eight years to produce, and 15 senior Methodists were involved in its compilation, meeting 30 times before reaching final agreement.
They point out that medieval Christian writers, like Julian of Norwich, used to refer to God as Mother, and that there are Old Testament precedents as well.
But they reaffirm the orthodox Christian doctrine that God is, in essence, neither feminine nor masculine.
But he says there was opposition from many Methodists to the idea of addressing God as Mother. It was a vote in the Methodist church's annual conference that settled the matter.
The new book also offers nine different services for Holy Communion in place of the single one used at present.
This reflects the growing trend in Methodism to hold communion services, modelled on the Anglican eucharist and the Roman Catholic mass.
In doctrine, there is very little difference between Methodists and Anglicans, though attempts to unite the two churches have so far failed.
The book also has several funeral services, including one for a stillborn child, another for the burial of ashes and a service for use on first hearing of a death.
The marriage service does not speak of the bride being given away, but says instead that she is "presented for marriage", a phrase that can also be used of the groom.
And, of the many new prayers in the book, perhaps this evening prayer represents some of the most notable work: "Lord our God, at the ending of this day, and in the darkness and silence of this night, cover us with healing and forgiveness, that we may take our rest in peace".
The new worship book will used for the first time on Easter Day.