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Distinction Not Lost in Unity

Kallie Pitcock

Kallie Pitcock is the pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nachogoches, Texas.

As Jesus was a particular person and each individual in our communities is a particular person, so our congregations are particular communities in time, place, and culture.

I am the solo pastor and only full-time staff person at a rural church in East Texas. As an assembly, our life together revolves around planning and enacting worship. What we say and do in worship is formed in our beliefs about God, to whom we turn our devotion, and forms us as God’s people. What it means to queer worship also has everything to do with what we believe about God and about our life as a community. 

Any conversation about what it means to develop liturgy, and to queer it, must begin with who God is and how we understand ourselves. And as confessing Christians, a conversation about God begins with Trinitarian theology. Early church councils fought bitterly about how to define and describe the revelation of our triune God. These arguments centered on differentiation and unity. How can two things that are distinct also be unified? Today, we still need to practice working through this question together in our liturgical theology. In Holding Faith, Cynthia Rigby writes this about Trinitarian theology: “In the life of God, unity and distinction coexist, each wholly and without compromise. This is unfathomable to us, it seems, in part because, for us, ‘individuation’ and ‘participation’ stand always in conflicting relationship to one another.”1 In American capitalist culture, the concept of the individual and the whole may be in tension. But in worship, as in the life of God, the binary between the individual and the community breaks down as members become part of a corporate body, formed by a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three in one and one in three. The concept of the Trinity invites us to a deep understanding of what it means to be in community. Samuel Wells says it so well in A Nazareth Manifesto: “Being with is, before anything else, a description of what it means for the persons of the Trinity to be so eternally with one another that they are called one, and yet one in such a dynamic and creative way that they are called three.”2 In worship, part of how we profess our belief in this God is by being with one another. 

Of course, our understanding of the person of Jesus, too, is a part of who we understand God to be. Not only were early church leaders divided on the Trinitarian nature of God, but also impassioned arguments about the humanity and divinity of Christ took place. Some church leaders walked away from the Council of Nicaea in 325 giving priority to the divinity of Jesus over his humanity, but Gregory of Nazianzus challenged this with a single sentence: “What has not been assumed cannot be restored; it is what is united with God that is saved.”3 Jesus united us with God by becoming human in the life of one distinct and particular person. As Barth writes, followers of Jesus look to Emmanel, God with us, as our primary lens for understanding who God is. Here again, God is about being with. We know God is with us because God became human. Though he was fully human, in Jesus’ very being is the source of all being. Though we find God’s expansive love in Jesus, we also find the particularities of a common human life. Cynthia Rigby says it well: 

The scandal of particularity, or the idea that the humanity of God, known to us in Jesus Christ, is some things and not others. Like all humanity, it is one gender and not the other, one ethnicity and not another, one height and not another, one race and not another. Jesus was a male and not female, Palestinian and not Anglo, 5–10″ and not 6–2″.4 

Enacting worship in real time and space with real materials is a way for us to say what we believe: that God is with us in the particulars of life. Ours is an incarnational theology. Wrestling with the relationship between unity and particularity also teaches us how to treat one another. God’s identification with particularity begins within God’s very being and is present through all creation. God’s divine image is not just in some, but in all. Followers of Jesus have come to understand that because God has revealed God’s self to us in the form of one particular person, particularity itself is sacred. All the particulars of life are called beloved, and in baptism, those particularities are made one without loss of distinction. 

The flesh and blood humanity of Jesus, God-with-us, that theological cornerstone that we call the scandal of particularity, is an important invitation to understand the reality of queerness. Queerness is both particular and expansive. Mihee Kim-Kort writes so beautifully about the expansiveness of the language of queerness in Outside the Lines:

Queerness has undergone numerous challenges and transformations. It began as a way to describe certain expressions of sexuality and gender, and now includes other markers of identity, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, and more. It is rooted in matters of gender and sexuality, but queerness is not meant to be exclusionary. In fact, any kind of exclusion would be counter to queerness, because queerness is about bodies, and we all have bodies. We move through this world in our bodies, and we’re constantly interacting with other bodies. This matters.5

There are clear similarities between the way queer theories negotiate the relationship between particularity and expansiveness and the way our conversations about the Trinity and the person of Jesus do. Both call us to be with and for one another, seeing our differences not as a threat, but as a gift. In Reformed theology, worship is a response to God’s grace for all persons. In the act of gathering for worship itself, we affirm this good news, which is itself queer, not exclusionary, and lived out through particular embodiments and actions. The PC(USA)’s Book of Order says, “In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction” (F-1.0403). And the Directory for Worship of the PC(USA) reminds us that 

God has poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh; Scripture promises that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. The book of Acts and the New Testament epistles record the challenges and controversies of an emerging Church that would be “no longer Jew or Greek” (Gal. 3:28), but one in Jesus Christ. As the Church has grown and spread over two thousand years, it has taken root and flourished in cultures and lands all around the globe—bearing witness to the love of God for all the world and Christ’s sovereignty in every place (W-1.0304).

Part of attending to particularity is about using inclusive language to reference humans and diverse language to talk about God in worship. Just as we affirm the importance of diversity in our communities and strive to be with and for one another in all our particularities, we also recognize the diversity in the names and images for God found in Scripture. This impacts the language we use in worship in our prayers, song, liturgy. Some ways to attend to language in worship include

Seek to maintain a balance between hymns about God (Jesus), about individual relationship (me and Jesus), and about communal relationship with God (we and Jesus). 

Expand the language of the service to include both gender-non-specific language and gendered language in prayer and throughout the sermon. There is a balance to hold here between particular and expansive language. Using no specific language about gender or sexuality may flatten, avoid, or remove particulars that matter, but those particulars should not be exclusive. 

Look for hymns from other countries and languages than your own. There is a tension to hold here, since care must be taken not to misrepresent or appropriate from cultures or narratives that the congregation as a whole cannot claim as their own. Singing from diverse authorship can help us to develop empathy for our siblings in Christ and unite us with others around the world, but it’s important to take time to develop a conversation with the congregation about the nuances here.

Look at the service as a whole when planning and be attentive to how much male, female, or non-specific gender language is used and and how often first person singular (I / me), first person plural (we / us), second person (you), third person singular (she / her / he / him / they / them), and third person plural (they / them) pronouns are used. The English language lacks a second person plural pronoun, which is used extensively throughout Scripture. Around here what we call our “Texas translation” substitutes these pronouns in Scripture with “y’all,” which becomes a way to expand the language in the service while developing specific contextual awareness.

Whether you name for the congregation that these changes are meant to queer worship and break down binaries, or whether you carry out these changes across time, attention to language forms the assembly. Hearing, singing, saying, and praying expansively reflects our life in Christ. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, the body is made up of many parts. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.” Queering worship life and language is about particularity and unity.

As Jesus was a particular person and each individual in our communities is a particular person, so our congregations are particular communities in time, place, and culture. In planning and enacting worship, we hold the tension of our particular context with the reality of unity in diversity through Christ. Ruth Duck reminds us that as leaders develop liturgy, it is their task to foster “the congregation’s understanding of God, one another, and themselves; and so it is important to consider whether words and worship form a wholesome theology appropriate to the denomination, time, and place. While building on the familiar, worship planners are also responsible for introducing material that may push the boundaries of faith and express the life of the Spirit more fully.”6 Determining what to include in a worship service should be done prayerfully and in community. Part of what it means to queer worship is to hold this tension between deeply contextual and highly inclusive. In worship, we engage the good news through the narratives of our faith in a way that both comforts and challenges, holding the inherent queerness of the paradoxes of our faith. 

Our lives are formed and molded by the stories we attend to and the practices we prioritize. There are a million priorities vying for our attention, and our senses are pulled in many directions, but worship offers a unique and countercultural kind of formation. “Our gathering with other Christians in a participatory meeting constitutes the most basic symbol of Christianity,”7 writes Gordon Lathrop in his book The Assembly. “Joining an assembly enables actual participation in this people who are being made people of God, actual reception of such mercy, and actual witness-bearing to God’s mighty acts for the sake of the life of the world.” The conversation about how to queer worship is a conversation about our liturgical theology first, which of course influences the specifics of what we do in worship. What does it mean to gather, and what do we believe about God? Queer worship recognizes at once the particularity of each of those gathered and the common life of the whole, affirms diverse language for God, and proclaims God’s identification with humanity. 

To queer worship is to affirm that it matters what we do on a Sunday morning and how we do it. Our faith itself invites us into the meaning of queerness, so many of the ways we might think about queering worship won’t seem strange or even new. The following are some lived examples of what it might mean to queer worship in the specifics of a Sunday morning. 

At the Font 

There are many opportunities to approach the font in worship. Some include during the assurance of pardon following the confession, at a remembrance of baptism, or at a time of commissioning. On any of these occasions, a worship leader may dip their hand in the water and make the mark of a cross on their forehead or on the foreheads of others. One way to queer this practice would be to invite people to mark one another, recognizing our connection with one another in baptism. Congregants can be invited forward as if for intinction, and an usher or the pastor can mark the first person, then that person can move and become the one who marks the one behind them saying, “You are a beloved child of God; you are claimed, loved, and belong.” These actions affirm that every person in the room has the power to speak the words and mark the forehead of another, giving each and every person voice and opportunity to give and to receive. This way of approaching a remembrance of baptism may also be carried out with anointing oil in a healing and wholeness service or service of commissioning, or during foot or hand washing. 

Response to the Word 

Following the sermon, the Book of Common Worship allows for an optional response to the sermon in addition to a spoken creed or confession. This could be a time for the offering of personal testimony. This requires planning and preparation. Offering the opportunity to the whole congregation while asking some persons directly to offer testimony often encourages greater participation. Take care to build an atmosphere of trust. If they are authentic to the individual, testimonies will follow different forms and may include grand changes and events or be unresolved. All will be a witness to the presence and power of the Spirit in each particular life and in the life of the community. Some prompts that can help to generate testimonies include 

Tell a story of a time you felt helpless.
Tell a story of a time God surprised you.
Tell a story of a time you felt cherished.
Tell a story of a time you were overcome with awe.
Tell a story of a time you felt set free.
Tell a story of a time someone helped you. 

The goal of testimony is to be yourself, fully naming the reality of your life without fear of rejection within a community of belonging. This practice may not be one that your congregation has practiced, but sharing testimony in the context of worship can be very powerful for a community. 

Intercessory Prayer 

There is often little opportunity for direct conversational engagement among those gathered during worship. The time of intercession is a wonderful opportunity to share joys and concerns. A regular practice of turning to someone near you and sharing a personal joy and a concern during a time of prayer in worship opens those gathered into meaningful relationship. The presider might also invite prayers to be shared aloud during a prayer, then close the prayer with the Lord’s Prayer, an opportunity for all voices to gather into one by the power of the Holy Spirit. This practice is one that can queer a very familiar practice with intention, upholding particularity that is not lost in unity. 

At the Table 

In congregations who use screens and/or printed worship guides, the guide itself can leave the people in the room divided, distracted, and not fully present. During important moments in the service like communion, a worship leader may invite the congregation to put down any paper guide and leave the screen empty while you gather at the table, just as you would at a dinner table at home. This may allow all to be as present as possible to the Christ who has invited them and prepared the meal. Without guides, congregants may be anxious, but liturgy can be written or sung in an echoed or repetitive format, using gestures or other indicators from the presider to guide the congregation. In her book Pray, Praise, and Give Thanks, Gail Ramshaw includes multiple eucharistic prayers with an echo format. For the echo to work, phrases need to be three words or less. Sharing the Great Thanksgiving in this way brings every voice and person to the table without distraction or distance. If your congregation uses name tags, saying a person’s name as they come to receive the elements would be another opportunity to recognize the particularities of those in the gathered assembly. 


At the end of the worship service, a charge is given, sending the people out into the world to be the hands and feet of Jesus, taking with them all they’ve received in worship. This presents another opportunity to invite those gathered to look at one another. A leader may invite one side of the room to turn and face the other or invite each individual to turn to someone near them and charge them as printed in the bulletin, taking turns. This commissions the congregation not just through the voice of the presider, but also through the many voices gathered in their community.

“Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud,” hymn #11 in Glory to God, includes some of the many names for God from Scripture. This is one example of a liturgical text that can be used in worship to recognize the ways in which, in the very identity of God, distinction and unity are not in conflict. God’s identity shows us how to live into our queerness, where distinction and unity are not in conflict. The queerness of our Trinitarian God refuses binaries and resists neat boxes to categorize identity. Questions of queerness have been part of theological debate from as early as the first church councils in their discussions about homoousias between the persons of the Trinity and the hypostatic union in the person of Christ. In our conversations about queering worship, we are joining the long unfolding of God’s self-revelation, affirming that God in Christ is indeed light from light, begotten not made. We must not succumb to erasure of particularities as worship leaders; no singular gender or image should be removed from our worship life as we seek to bring diversity to our language. One example of an effort to hold our inheritance and unity with the whole church while expanding our language is the Riverside baptismal formula that many use: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all.” This formula gives space to allow for a more expansive understanding of our living God without constricting our language. Using Mother and Father may still present a gender binary, but we can also recognize these two names for God as parts of a spectrum, not exhaustive but suggestive of the many names and metaphors we can use to describe God. The materials, language, and ritual actions used in worship are formed first and foremost in who God is. This forms us in the image of the one in whom we know our own belovedness. We church leaders must remember that worship is about being with God, in communion with our Creator. God meets us in worship to experience wonder and beauty and to cry out for intervention in the brutality in this world and in our lives. Jesus was born into particularity that we might know exactly who we are, precious in our own particularity, and made one without loss of distinction in the body of Christ. All glory and honor, power and might be to our God forever and ever, Amen. 


  1. Cynthia L. Rigby, Holding Faith: A Practical Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2018).
  2. Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 195.
  3. Rigby, Holding Faith, 94–96.
  4. Rigby, Holding Faith, 94.
  5. Mihee Kim-Kort and Rachel Held Evans, Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2018), 3.
  6. Ruth C. Duck, Worship for the Whole People of God: Vital Worship for the 21st Century (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 82.
  7. Gordon W. Lathrop, The Assembly: A Spirituality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2022), 1.
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