Our father? Our mother? Words matter

I was thinking about how much words matter this last weekend during my first vestry retreat. (Vestry, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the group of parishioners elected to attend to the business of the church.) We were given two lectures about prayer by an articulate Catholic fellow, Paul Delio. It was interesting and insightful and yet as the time passed I began to feel a bit oppressed.

I especially felt this way during his discussion of the Lord’s prayer and the beginning of it: “Our Father,” which Paul pointed out was originally “papa,” really — what a child calls  his daddy.

I was sitting there thinking that obviously Jesus was a product of his time, even if he kept pushing the boundaries of it. And the men who codified what became accepted as holy scripture were also men of their time. So of course it was father or papa or abba that made sense for that prayer at that time.

But it matters, this “father,” when it is always, always “father” and never, ever “mother.” Especially in my parish church, which makes no attempt at a more inclusive liturgy. All year long, for example, we give “Him” thanks and praise, instead of the gender-neutral “God” that is pretty customary in most Episcopal churches I’ve attended.

“I don’t think of God as masculine,” I told our group in the discussion that followed, when Paul assigned us to talk about ways we would revise the prayer for our own understanding (which, to be fair to Paul, is the opposite of oppressive). I told my group I considered the language patriarchal. Why couldn’t it be “Our Father/Mother?”

My priest didn’t have any issue with the idea of God not being masculine. That was, he told me, quite well-accepted doctrine. He did have issues with “Father/Mother,” which we didn’t get into. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he objected at least partly because it’s such an ungainly phrase, and in this case at least further from the original source.)

Still, though. Accepted doctrine? Then why IS it always “Father”?

Maybe it wouldn’t even occur to me to get disgruntled about all this if I hadn’t once had the joy of attending a church led by a gifted female priest who went right ahead and changed the prayers to correct for gender bias. The Rev. Lucinda Laird would alternate Her and Him, He and She, God the Father and God the Mother. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was also the God of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. The first time I heard it I was shocked. She could do that?

She could. (It no doubt helped that this was in the Diocese of Newark.) And I grew to love it. I loved that the girls in our church were growing up hearing that every Sunday as an ordinary expression of our worship. They didn’t need to feel that extra little distance between God and them that boys never heard. They saw a strong, confident, gifted woman leading a thriving congregation in thanks and praise.

I miss that. (Not that I don’t consider my current priest quite gifted, or my current congregation thriving.) And I’m not ready to get militant about it, and in any Episcopal church it’s really the responsibility of the priest and bishop in any case. (“Episcopal” literally means “governed by bishops.”)

But I offer it as a matter of thought, to consider how the language we hear in church might be excluding or distancing a good half (or more than half, in many cases) of the congregation hearing it.

And I feel I should point out that there are indeed more inclusive ‘official’ liturgies available through the Episcopal Church, including Enriching Our Worship, here. It’s a fascinating read for those who are interested in such things.

Even one of the bathrooms seemed rather spiritual at this retreat.

Even one of the bathrooms seemed rather spiritual at this retreat.

I’m also aware that I sound more than a lot like slightly annoying lesbian Carla in “The Awful Mess,” giving the poor interim priest a hard time about patriarchal structures as they walk through her kid’s upcoming baptismal service.

But as my main character Mary notices, at least Carla is engaged.

And that’s what I’m aiming to be.


Speaking of being engaged, thought I would let you know I’m fast closing in on the end of a first draft for “Bardwell’s Folly” — which is a good thing because I’m at nearly 100,000 words now and in my genre it’s usually not a good idea to get much longer than that! Next comes revising and then starting the fourth novel while I wait for word back from my beta readers. Huzzah!


14 thoughts on “Our father? Our mother? Words matter

  1. Those little words matter so much, don’t they? I will confess I’ve stumbled the long path from “um, of course God is male” to “they forgot to make the passage inclusive again!”. For me, the hardest hurdle was embracing the idea that if God was fully male and female (or neither, however we can describe that complicated oneness) then I had to be okay with this idea of God as mother. That was a hurdle because I had to get over the subconscious linking of my own mother to God. My dad I could forgive his human flaws and easily link his goodness to God’s, but I couldn’t do that for my mom (sorry mom). And then it hit me– this is exactly why it sucks so much for people that struggle with things their fathers (or men in their lives) have been or done and that subconscious link to God. Ever since that light bulb went off I’ve been pushing for inclusive language. It’s not just about getting a more accurate idea of who and what God is, but about making God accessible to those that have some significant wounds to be healed. We have to free God of this gender thing so healing, mercy, love, grace, forgiveness, and all that we know God is, can finally reach the people who need it most.

    Sorry- bit of a soapbox for me. I’m glad you posted this. 🙂

  2. As the mother of a son and a daughter, I’ve spent a good deal of time being sure that neither of them sees themselves or one another as superior or inferior due to gender. And, truthfully, it’s my girl who, as a tiny little person, would announce to passersby concerned with her mountain-goat tendencies, “It’s OK. I’m a daredevil!”

    Her brother is a more laid back type. He loves the current incarnation of My Little Pony; she wants her Hess truck every Christmas.

    It’s maybe easier for us, in many ways, because we don’t have a specific religion, although we frequently discuss spirituality and metaphysical concepts, as well as cultural stereotypes and assumptions. It doesn’t hurt, either, that we unschool, so both kids have less daily inundation and indoctrination into the male dominant paradigm. Yes, it’s their mom who stays home with them (cheerfully writing!) while Dad goes off to work (as a chef; I am a notably uninterested cook!).

    I think your points are valid. It’s easy to just accept prayers and exclusion of a gender because that’s “the way it is” – but it’s just as simple to think of a more inclusive way that disenfranchises no one.

    My god, if I have one, is that something in each and every one of us that is unique to us. That is sacred, and worthy of protecting and encouraging.

    Maybe you planted some seeds that will eventually grow and bear fruit. That would be cool!

    And so is getting to that finish line with your novel. Hooray! I’m in the early planning stages of next month’s CampNaNo project,and revising several fan fiction stories.

    May the remaining words flow and delight you! =D

    • I know a bunch of boys at the high school who were into MY LITTLE PONY — Bronies are a force in that fandom, which I find encouraging since the conventional wisdom is that boys will never watch a show about females. But I do wonder if keeping your kids home-schooled protects them from some of these peer-enforced gender preferences. Good for you. I wouldn’t have the patience to home school, especially if it means teaching math. 🙂

      • I enjoy sometimes watching with him, and always listening when he talks about it. He’s a fan of anthropomorhization, and “breaking the fourth wall” so Pinkie Pie is his favorite pony. He also enjoys the puns and the absurdities and inconsistencies. He watches a lot of MLP fan videos, and was introduced to both Weird Al and John de Lancie while watching. His grasp on literature has definitely benefited from his fan fiction reading, and his discernment has grown through editing.

        I don’t know if I would say homeschooling protects him from gender stereotypification, but he’s encountered a wider range of people than maybe most kids his age in little Stillwater might have – we have gay and lesbian friends, know polyamorous families, and have at least one acquaintance who shifted gender identity openly.

        Also, we’ve always wanted both children to know that their orientation isn’t something we are invested in – their happiness and sense of peace is much more important.

        Our type of homeschooling is radical unschooling. We don’t have a curriculum; instead, we support their passions, talk a lot, go places and do things, and provide a home rich in resources, autonomy, and time to pursue their passions.

        Math isn’t my thing. But it’s amazing how fast kids can learn how fast allowances or game points can add up. My son in particular loves games like Cookie Clicker (huge numbers), and Adventure Capitalist (just what it sounds like). He’s also an excellent and discriminating comparison shopper!

        Sorry I didn’t get to this comment sooner. I’ve been working on fan fiction and novel planning for next month, while also determined to do some home improving, family stuff, personal stuff, and learning how to revise a lot faster, and with a lot less angst, than I’ve had thus far.

        Happy Ides to you!

        • You, too! I imagine the paperwork New York State insists on must be even more annoying if your whole purpose is to UNschool them. (Confession: When I taught high school English I was vastly relieved that our principal only asked for lesson books maybe one week out of the year — and let us know when it would be. Such a lot of annoying paperwork dispensed with!)

  3. And, in other news, I just subscribed to your newsletter and noticed your business address. You weren’t kidding when you said we lived close together! It’s close enough, as a matter of fact, that we might have passed one another somewhere without even knowing it. Another confirmation that it’s a small world!

  4. And then for some of us, de-gendering God makes God much more distant and difficult to relate to. Muslims, believe it or not, think of God as neither male nor female, and therefore distant and removed from humans, so high above us that we are slaves rather than children. The close parental and personal living relationship with God that Christians aspire to becomes more difficult for some people if God has no gender. We want to know the gender of people we’re close to because it gives us a framework of reference when we interact with them. Think about it. When was the last time you interacted with an individual whose gender wasn’t immediately obvious? Right or wrong…just looking at the interaction objectively…how comfortable were you until you really got to know that person?

    • Interesting. To me “Mother” is as personal as “Father,” and I just don’t subscribe to the white gray-bearded guy theory of God anyway. Put up against the wonder of creation, I find that it makes the whole belief system sound like a total fairy tale. In any case, Jesus is the human who makes it easier for me to relate to God. And I’ve always taken my discomfort, if any, in meeting people of indeterminate gender as a sign of my own biases and limitations. I’ve come to understand gender as much more of a spectrum than an either/or, especially since some children are actually born with indeterminate gender.

  5. My favorite one was “Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer” Somehow that said it all to me instead of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”.

  6. Long ago, when I was still going to church I felt so included when a woman stood up and gave a prayer for women who felt “frazzled” For me that was a very female word. My mother only used it and not my dad. In fact my dad made fun of my mom for using it, saying it wasn’t a word. I felt very included hearing a woman’s voice for once leading a church service.


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