Father's Day! That Sunday (it falls on June 18 this year) most dreaded by church leaders, rivalled only by the challenges of Mother's Day.
Unlike Mothering Sunday which is part of the liturgical calendar (for those in Anglican and Catholic traditions at least), Father's Day was first officially celebrated only in 1966 (in the US). There is a debate about who is responsible for it. Some say it was Sonora Dodd, who began campaigning for a Father's Day celebration in 1910 after being raised by a single father after her mother died in childbirth. Others say it was Grace Golden Clayton who pioneered Father's Day in 1908 after 360 men in her community were killed in a mining explosion, and she insisted the children should have a time to remember their fathers.
Regardless of its origins, Father's Day is now a firm fixture for the greetings card and gift industries, with UK consumers spending nearly £700 million on Father's Day gifts, cards and celebrations. Cards are generally adorned with themes of beer, ties, golf, football, flatulence, TV remotes and fishing. You can get Father's Day cards from pets, unborn children, wives, girlfriends, fiancées, and cards for dads, daddies, fathers, step-fathers, godfathers, and those who are 'like a father'. Perhaps these cards merely reflect the ways that the nuclear family has changed so much in recent years, even if the stereotypes about masculinity and fatherhood remain boldly displayed on almost every card we could choose to purchase.
If the choice of which Father's Day card may feel like a challenge, that is nothing compared with the issues Father's Day can raise for so many people. One in six pregnancies ends in miscarriage, 750,000 children witness domestic abuse (usually their father or their mother's partner is the perpetrator), one in seven couples have difficulty conceiving, single parents make up 25 per cent of all families in the UK. There is the complexity of stepfathering, the pain of bereaved fathers and men struggling with infertility. The difficulty for men whose children have been adopted. And the children and adults dealing with situations of adoption or where a father has died. Fathers who abandoned them, mistreated them, abused their mother or were generally absent.
These are big issues that Father's Day raises. And church leaders have the unenviable job of trying to hold a space in which there are also some people who love Father's Day. People who have brilliant relationships with their fathers and/or children and see Father's Day as a time to have a lovely day, and will be offended by any inference that their fatherhood is complicated and difficult for many.
Just as card and gifts for Father's Day are often reductive and stereotype men in unhelpful ways, similarly church services on Father's Day can perpetuate damaging ideas about men. Some of the tropes annually wheeled out include:
1. Bemoaning the 'feminisation of the church'
Using Father's Day as an opportunity to point out that men are too fragile to willingly enter a building with flowers or banners which mention love. Ideas may be put forward about removing the flowers and replacing them with remote control cars or power tools. Men are alienated from Christianity not because of femininity, but because of masculinity. Masculinity says men cannot be weak and cannot admit failure, and Christianity requires every believer to admit weakness and failure and accept that we need help and that we need saving.
2. Most dads are incompetent at childcare
Playing videos or mentioning anecdotes about fathers who don't know how to dress their children, don't know how to tidy, feed their children beer, and generally fail at the basic tasks required to ensure a child survives to adulthood. This is offensive to men and places greater responsibility on women for childcare. Male childcare incompetence insists that childcare is women's work, thereby undermining men's ability to build positive relationships with their children and leaves women overworked and underappreciated.
3. Idolising the nuclear family
Assuming every family in the congregation is part of a '2.4 family' (two adults who are married, who after marriage have had children). Jokes, anecdotes or stories which assume that everyone in the room is part of a 2.4 family excludes the many people who have been raised (or are raising children) in other family types. The Bible has few examples of 2.4 families. Even Jesus was raised by a step-father!
4. Focusing on physical strength
Getting men up to do press ups during the service, using battle metaphors or other themes which focus on physical strength can be deeply hurtful to those fathers in the room who have physical disabilities, and children in the room whose fathers were disabled. The biggest killer of UK men aged between 20 – 49 is suicide. Focusing on physical strength can reinforce that men are not allowed to admit weakness or talk about their issues. Fatherhood should be primarily about care and love.
5. Fathers and sons
Talking about fatherhood can lead to messages or activities which are exclusively for fathers and sons. These will often push boys into gender stereotypes of being tough and macho. It can exclude those with daughters or who are daughters in the room and generally undermines pushes forward ideals for masculinity which are unhelpful.
6. Denigrating single mothers
It can be tempting to point out the statistics for children who grow up in homes without a father. However, such statistics rarely distinguish between whether the damage done to children is through an absent father, or through the abuse they may have witnessed or been subjected to before a father became absent. Fatherhood is important, but focusing on the negative impact on children will leave single mothers (who very rarely choose to parent alone) feeling demoralised and judged.
With all that said, Father's Day does provide an opportunity for churches to become safe spaces for those struggling in some way with fatherhood. We believe that Jesus can bring life in all its fullness and that God is our perfect father. We have messages of redemption, healing and truth.
To help church leaders as they struggle with the challenges of running services on Father's Day, I have partnered with The Resource to create a Father's Day Church Service Ideas Pack. With ideas for how to plan the service, create a safe space and with some fun and helpful activities to do with both children and adults, it may be just what your church needs as they seek to engage with the complexities of fatherhood.
Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist. She is the Director of the DAY Programme and works to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women. She is on Twitter: @God_loves_women