Preaching at my ordination, Gene Robinson was proposing that people need clergy “to be the God person in their lives” when my young daughter, exhausted and hungry, interrupted. Wailing.
Gene was unfazed. He assured me that it was fine, to take my time. I took Alice and began digging through the layers of my alb. “Talk amongst yourselves!” he told the congregation, chuckling. “I’ll give you a topic. The Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” To me, “that should keep ‘em going for a little while.”
Alice happily nursing, Gene continued. “To be the God person, remember that it’s not you, it’s what you represent.”
That charge, and the memorable context in which I received it, stuck with me. And I’ve kept nursing at church as a priest. Why? Because my babies are hungry.
And it’s deeper than that, too. For ages, women were required to act like men in order to lead. I’m tired of it. More than forty years on, I want to be a priest just as I am.
My hope resides in this lived experience: when I’m not in the pulpit, I listen to the sermon in the front pew and nurse my third baby. And it’s fine. My breastfeeding is tolerated by all, and even encouraged by most. As I look out with babe in arms, as both an incarnating mother and this church’s priest, I find hope. I don’t have to check part of myself at the door.
It gives me hope that I am welcome at the table — indeed, at the altar — as my whole self. I am convinced that when we welcome all of our bodies, fully, we see God more fully also.
What can I represent, then, as clergy? In recent weeks two young boys have confused me with God — not an unusual question for male clergy, especially our white, bearded elders. But for these boys in this church, God could just as well be a nursing mother.
Such is our hope. God takes us, hungry, exhausted and wailing, and nurses us. She comforts us, and gives us strength.
Liz Tichenor is associate rector at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, California.
Photo credit: Jenny Jimenez / photojj.com