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.
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!