April 2023

A precious encounter enables me to reclaim God as Father

I endeavour to avoid referring to God as Father, but the memory of a past experience has caused me to rethink my relationship with God as Father, writes Congregational Leader Sister Patty Fawkner.  

More than 35 years ago, I did a theology degree. Two events from that time continue to impact my life. Initially, they seemed quite disparate, yet were in fact intrinsically connected. 

The first was the professor of ecclesiology saying in a lecture that ordaining a woman was akin to baptising a cat. I found this disturbing in a way I didn’t fully understand at the time.

The second was a course I did in Systematic Theology called Images of God. I had never thought about images of God. This course opened my eyes to the incredibly rich images of God in the Bible and within the Christian mystical tradition, where God is imaged both personally – God as lover, friend, mother, potter – and impersonally – God as rock, light, flowing river of love, to name but a few.

Upon completing my degree, I became a Religious Education Consultant for a rural diocese. For my first workshop I asked the Religious Education Coordinators from the diocesan schools to come with a copy of a prayer service they had used with their students.

I invited the Coordinators to call out the image of God, or the name for God used in the prayer.  “Father”, “Father”, “Father” resonated in the room. There was no exception.

We know that God is neither male nor female, nor what else in this gender-fluid world in which we live.

However, subconsciously, I’m fairly certain that most of us still think of God in masculine terms – Father, Lord, King …. This makes an idol of the male, and the male is seen as the only true representation of Christ.

The grossly offensive remark about baptising a cat plays from this playbook.

I have made it a personal project to try and expand our understanding of the mystery whom we call God by being very careful of the language used for God. However, from what I continue to hear in liturgical prayers, hymns and homilies, I feel that my project has failed. The constant and enduring image is Father, “Father” being emblematic of the patriarchy and clericalism that still rules within the Catholic Church.

Despite this, by reflecting on my experience, by reflecting on God’s Word in the Scriptures, and in my own personal prayer, I have been comforted and stretched by a variety of images of God, particularly by feminine images.

The Scriptures celebrate God as a midwife or birthing mother, or a powerful, beautiful, soaring mother eagle who carries her young on her outstretched wings.

Feminist writer Carol Christ has written a beautiful prayer poem about God called She Who Changes. The poem begins:

She changes everything She touches

and everything She touches changes.

The world is Her body.

The world is in Her and She is in the world.

She surrounds us like the air we breathe.

She is as close to us as our own breath.

She is energy, movement, life, and change.

She is the ground of freedom, creativity, sympathy, understanding, and love.

In Her we live, and move, and co-create our being.

She understands and remembers us with unending sympathy…. 

The prayer would be acceptable to many if we replaced “She” with “God”, but some may baulk at using the feminine pronoun. Joan Chittister OSB says that it is precisely woman’s experience of God that this world lacks. Many of us were reared on God the demanding father, the lawgiver, the judge, the omnipotent. Joan says that such images have consumed Western spirituality and shrivelled its heart. 

Relating to God as She Who Understands has expanded my heart and has been an incredible source of solidarity and comfort, even when I don’t understand myself.

For 30 years I have endeavoured to avoid referring to God as Father, but the memory of a past experience has caused me to rethink my relationship with God as Father.   

My father was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 57. He developed a secondary brain tumour and, after a series of strokes, soon lost his capacity to walk or talk. My devoted mother could no longer look after him and Dad was placed in a facility with much older men who suffered from dementia. I was a teaching full-time in a primary school and every weekend I would accompany Mum on her daily visit to Dad. It was hard going as Dad had no conversation.

My father was a religious man, and I began to wonder if he would like an opportunity to pray. If he did, I knew that it would be up to me, the official religious member of the family, to take the initiative! One Sunday, I decided to pay a second visit to Dad on my own to see if I could pray with him. 

As I entered the ward, the surprise and delight in Dad’s eyes was poignant. I sat down in front of his wheelchair and somewhat nervously asked him if he would like to pray. He nodded. I knew I couldn’t make up a prayer, so I began to say the Lord’s Prayer. I got two words out, “Our Father”, and broke down and sobbed.

My darling father, who had such extremely limited movement reached out and embraced me. I kid you not.

It was, perhaps, the most precious moment of my life.

I thought I had to minister to my father. He was the one who reached out and comforted me, not an official religious person but his incredibly loved daughter. 

My father died three weeks later. But God, my tender Father, continues to reach out to us in our utter vulnerability and heartache. God pours Godself out freely in self-giving love and receives with open arms the love we give in return. This is the image of God as Father which will stay with me.

Recalling this experience enables me to reclaim God as Father, for which I am deeply grateful.  However, it occurs to me that I also need a plethora of images of the divine, feminine and masculine, personal and impersonal. I need images which resonate with my own life experience to reveal ever-increasing depths into this gracious Mystery whom we call God.


Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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