I couldn’t be much more ambivalent about Fathers’ Day if I tried. I’m married to a man who is a wonderful dad to our children. He is loving, caring, thoughtful (even if they don’t always see it like that). He has always done as much parenting as I have, if not more. Men like my husband deserve to be celebrated and congratulated publicly for what they do.
On the other hand, I have no relationship with my father, and never really have. So when I read about the effects of absent fathers on children, I get very defensive – I survived just fine, why can’t other people? I think there are two reasons I survived just fine. The first is love. There wasn’t much money at home, but there was loads of love. The second is my Grandad, who me and mum lived with for nearly all of my childhood. In effect, I had a dad, even though no-one in my family would have seen it like that. But I was very aware that Grandad was not my dad. I have been left with my own set of hang ups.
As a Christian priest, I pray the Lords Prayer at least twice a day. “Our Father in heaven…” I have been taught an image of God. Humans use images of fatherhood because they are meant to be familiar, shared, easily understood. They are a convenient way of describing our perceptions of God. Unless of course you don’t get what people are on about. For me, a father is a blank space, fairly neutral, just an outline of a person waiting for the person to step into it and fill their space. If you describe God as Father to me, I am left with an image of absence. I’m lucky – others will have far worse images than that.
I am doubly lucky, because through my husband, I have learned a different image of fatherhood – an image of a strong, caring, loving, strict, compassionate (and because he is no saint, sometimes grumpy, fed up, at his wits end) kind of father. In effect, I have learned my images in reverse order. I was taught about God before I learned about fathers. At last, fathers have started to be about presence, not about absence.
Fatherhood will always be a fraught topic, just as motherhood is. For the childless, for those whose children have died, for those whose children are out of contact, for those whose fathers are not part of their lives. It doesn’t mean that the Church should not speak of Fatherhood – far from it. We are there to speak into the dark situations, to point out the light of Christ where we can. But we must ensure that alongside Father, we use other images of God that are meaningful and relevant. I learned the qualities I should hope for in a father from the way people spoke about God, not from my own father, and have only really seen them enacted in a way that is personally meaningful now that I am a mother.
So yes, let’s talk about fatherhood, celebrate it, encourage it. But remember. I pray the Lord’s prayer at least twice a day. So next week, or the week after, as you pray, use some different language. Not always “Heavenly Father; Loving Father; Father God”. God is so very much more than that.