Several Sundays ago, when I was presiding as priest at an Episcopal service, something snapped in me. I was joyfully reading the text of the Eucharist, my hands uplifted and spread in the gesture called Orans, where the priest prays on behalf of the people. I say “joyfully” because, as a Catholic female, I never take for granted the power and privilege of the freedom to pray publicly at the altar. I am happy and grateful as a female to fully occupy the recounting of the story of salvation culminating with Jesus offering the bread and wine to his friends on the night before he was killed.
However, on this particular Sunday, I was unable to speak the words printed in the book, “The God and Father of us all,” pointed at by the deacon who helps me keep my place in the liturgy. This phrase is always spoken directly before the recounting of Jesus taking and offering the bread.
On this Sunday, without planning or premeditation, what slipped out of me was: “The God and Mother of us all.”
The reaction within and without was so powerful that I have been forced to re-examine the entire history of my relationship with God the Father.
I found myself asking a series of increasingly disturbing questions. How many times do I say God the Father, and other terms coding the Divine as male, during a service? What does this do to my relationship with the Divine and with the people, since I speak with such authority about the Divine? How does this land particularly on the girls and women? How many times have I said these words in my lifetime? How has this affected my mind and my heart? And: How can I be a feminist and not know the numbers?
So, I started counting.
For four Sunday church services we use the most recent version of the Book of Common Prayer. I picked recent Sundays and, using a tally sheet, counted up the number of times the words Father, Son, Lord, King, and he/him pronouns were used in referring to the Divine, in the service, hymns, and scripture readings. Out of curiosity, I counted up the number of times there was a reference to a female, such as Mary.
For the early service, the number of times male-referent words were used was 120. Mary was referred to once. For the later services, the male-referent words were used 90 times. Mary was mentioned once.
I am fortunate to be on the staff of a remarkably progressive church in a denomination that is known for being open-minded and tolerant. They particularly support and even celebrate my presence as a female priest. My feeling was that I had said and heard these male-coded words far more often than I felt comfortable with, but also far less than I had to as a child, and I think this is correct. I probably use and hear these words about half as often as when I was young, and this is important change.
However, when I dare to speculate about the number of times in my lifetime that I have been exposed to this language, the results are staggering, if not horrifying. I estimate I have, very conservatively, heard and used male language in reference to the Divine 200,000 to 400,000 times.
Counting is only the beginning, albeit a necessary beginning. Reckoning is basically to recount. Count again, count up. A day of reckoning: The time when one is called to account for one’s actions, pay one’s debts, or fulfill one’s promises or obligations. And the deepest challenge: reconciling. Make one account consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.