I was a Teenage Church Lady

I grew up in the Lutheran church – not literally in the church, of course. Although many Sunday mornings, as I sat through yet another browbeating by the man in the long white robes, watching as my young life ebb away, it felt like I’d been squirming in the pew for an entire lifetime.

Lutherans are an extremely dour bunch. There are no uplifting hymns for Lutherans. They’re all dirges. Even the Christmas hymns have been modified to the key of D flat to remove all festive nuances.  Lutherans believe babies are born sinful and if they die before they get baptized they’ll go to hell. Lutherans believe anyone who isn’t Lutheran (and a regular church-going Lutheran at that) will go to hell.

My mother keeps telling my daughter how sad she is that she won’t be seeing her in heaven since poor XUP Jr. has never been baptized.  My mother is hard-core Lutheran. She is unshakeable in her beliefs in what the church tells her. It is because of her that we were all dragged to church every Sunday morning.

The parents would go to the German service while the kids went to Sunday School and then after Sunday School the whole lot of us would go to the English service. And we’d sit there for an hour or so while the guy in the white robes enumerated all the ways we’d angered God that week and that being sorry wasn’t enough and that showing up in church wasn’t enough and that trying to be a good person wasn’t enough. Our only salvation was faith.

(When I was very young I used to surreptitiously take a peek around to see if I could spot this mysterious Faith who would save me from eternal hellfire and damnation. I reckoned maybe she was Jesus’ wife since they were often mentioned together.)

At age 14, Lutheran boys and girls are confirmed and receive their first communion. Before any of this can happen, however, we had to attend two years of indoctrination Bible study class every Saturday morning for three hours.

My Saturday morning class consisted of nine boys and me. It was the tradition that every Sunday one person in the class got a turn helping the guy in the white robe through the service – lighting the candles, dusting off the communion wine and so forth.

At age 12, it was a pretty excited thing. Aside from breaking up the general scariness and boringness of the church service itself, I was also quite into the whole ritual and awesome God thing at the time. So I was keen to step up and take this important role in the proceedings.

Week after week I waited anxiously wondering how they were scrolling through the class. Alphabetically? No, that wasn’t it. By how well we did in class the day before? No, that wasn’t it because I was working my ass off and some of the slackers were getting a turn before me. Then one Sunday, I noticed one of the guys was on his second turn.

“HEY, white-robed guy,” I said after the service. “I think there’s been a mistake because I haven’t had my turn yet and buddy here has had two turns now.”

I was frowned at. After everyone in the congregation had left, the white-robed guy took me aside and explained that I wasn’t allowed to have a turn because I was a girl and that girls weren’t allowed on the altar because we were unclean.

I was horrified. Did I smell? I asked him what that meant – unclean. In an awkward, roundabout way he managed to convey that it was because females are cursed by God with the stain of monthly sin because of Eve’s original transgression. How embarrassing.

I complained to my parents the whole way home, but they agreed with the church’s position. At least my mum did. My dad thought it was all nonsense, but went along with whatever my mum said because on the subject of Lutheranism (and that subject alone) my mum ruled the roost.

So, I wrote a very sternly worded letter outlining reasons why this was unfair and wrong and pointing out that church women were the ones who cleaned the freakin’ altar every Saturday afternoon so why were they allowed on there then, but I wasn’t allowed on Sundays? And if the altar was that freakin’ sacred why didn’t the men have to clean it. (I didn’t use the word “freakin’” though).  I gave the letter to my dad to take to the church’s next board of trustees meeting asking them to reverse this “unclean” thing.

I got a formal letter back saying, “no”. I never attended that church again. It was a huge battle with my mum every Sunday morning, but I refused.

Now I sometimes go at Christmas to make my mum happy.


PS: I should probably point out that there are different faction and divisions of Lutheran churches and that not all of them are this harsh. Some of them even have female pastors now. My mother wouldn’t be caught dead in such a bastardization of the true Lutheran faith.

32 responses to “I was a Teenage Church Lady

  1. Wow. I don’t think we have Lutherans over here, but I suspect they would get on well with the Free Church of Scotland (called the Wee Frees by just about everybody). The Wee Frees expelled one of their most well-known members (he was Lord Chancellor at the time) because he committed the unpardonable sin of attending a Roman Catholic service. The fact that it was the funeral service for his friend of many decades DID NOT MATTER.

  2. I made it through the entire 2 years and, being the approved sex, did my turns at acolyte. I was also in the choir, until my voice changed.

    Then I moved to Texas. Haven’t been in a Lutheran church more than a handful of times since.

  3. Nothing about the christian religion amazes me more that the ardent, acceptance of the universal misogyny, by the women.
    It sometimes makes me wonder if women actually can think rationally.
    Oh and of course this goes for the vast majority of organized religions not just the christians.

  4. Like Jazz says…Wow. And I thought Catholics were bad.

    I used to be quite Catholic, actually. I was even an Altar Boy for a few years. (If you can believe that…).

    At first, it was just us boys. But our Parish was (relatively) open-minded, and they started letting girls be “Altar-Boys” as well. Which was pretty progressive, considering it was the 1970’s.

    Reason I stopped going to church, though, was the day I realized that the ONLY reason I went was that I’d feel guilty if I DIDN’T. And that wasn’t good enough for me.

    Also, the sheer BORDEDOM. Catholic Masses are so repetitive and rituatlistic, you can set your watch by them.

    I would have welcomed a fire-and-brimstone-you’re-going-to-hell talk, just to liven things up.

  5. The only thing I know about Lutherans, I learned on NPR during “Priairie Home Companion.” Guess he did not exaggerate.

    I was always “taken” to church. First Christian was my families poison and I realized very early that this was where the hypocrites hung out.

    “Love thy neighbor” but make fun of them because they only have one pair of Sunday shoes. (I mean, who even looks at your shoes every week enough to know that?)

    “Do not commit adultery.” But, it’s okay for the organist because she is “putting in her time.” (She sure is!)

    Mom is getting Alzheimers now and has decided she has to get an “In God We Trust” stamp because the GREAT THEY are going to take it off the dollar down here, south of you guys. But, that’s another story.

  6. Loth – NO! Lutherans don’t get on well with anyone. It’s one of their rules.

    Grace – Hey…twins!!

    Jazz – Pfft. Catholics have it easy. Do whatever you want, confess once in a while and you’re clean as a whistle. If you’ll recall, Martin Luther started out as a Catholic priest and decided the Catholics were too soft and left to start his own religion (see Luther’s 95 Theses)

    Mike – Hey, another survivor!

    Bandobras – It’s beyond acceptance, it’s almost driven by the women. They were the worst ones for casting stones and laying down the laws in our church. They took god-fearing to the ultimate level.

    Friar – See my comments to Jazz. You might have welcomed an hour of dirges and berating once, just to break up the monotony, but not as a steady diet, I’m thinking.

    Sheryl – Our church people had their noses firmly in every one else’s business so you wouldn’t have gotten away with adultery. They had an amazing intelligence network. They once somehow ferreted out that a couple who was dating went on a weekend trip together and stayed in the same room!!! (These were a widow and widower in their 40s – not kids) They were instructed to confess to the entire congregation and apologize or get booted out of the church. They left.

    Violetsky – I wasn’t unclean at 12 either, which should have been pretty obvious by the state of my general development, but I don’t think it mattered anyway. I had potential uncleanliness lurking within me. Although I was always kind of scrappy, I would normally not have taken on the church trustees. This was just such an outrage though that I couldn’t NOT do it. Really they should have made a Norma Rae type movie about me, dontcha think?

  7. That whole “unclean” thing is reminiscent of hunter-gatherer tribes that make women hide inside their huts while they menstruate.

    With all our civilization and such, in some ways, we haven’t really come that far, have we?

  8. i am so very, very proud of your 12-year-old self.

    it was about the same age that i started chaining myself to the piano sunday mornings so i wouldn’t have to go to Mass, for roughly the same reasons. only in the twenty-odd years since, the catholic church has made exactly zero concessions to women at all. so the lutherans are divided, but the catholics stand united in their misogynistic bullshit. brilliant.

  9. i’m so happy that were a smart, strong willed 12 year old who could see that this was wrong….so very wrong. i feel so badly for those who believe this nonsense.

  10. Huh. I had a similar upbringing, but mine was the Roman Catholic version. I too quit when I got to Confirmation age. I was told that Confirmation is the first adult decision a Catholic makes (parents get you baptized, confession, communion, etc.), so I said nope, not going to do it. Been happier ever since!

  11. Um, it took me until I was in my late twenties to really get the picture. Slow learner or merely Anglican, I wonder. BTW, for Loth, I think Wee Frees are Lutheran, the way Anglicans are Cof E.
    This is such a great post. So well done and so thoughtful. Lovely.

  12. Well XUP, my parents are atheists. I’m an atheist, as is my spouse. My eldest is heading in that direction.

    Of course, none of my 3 kids have been baptised.

    And when I hear of accounts like your experience with your childhood church, I am thankful to have avoided all of the medieval crud that you went through.

    And no Friar, we haven’t really come that far.

  13. I love this story about you. So you’ve been the way you are now for most of your life. We went to church until I was 4 or 5 so have very little memory of my family in church. Dad decided the church was too gossipy and fake and stopped going and then when Mom started showing up without Dad, she learned that church was all gossipy and fake and men were even hitting on her, so she quit too and that was that. So basically I was raised to think that all churches were filled with the characters from the song “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

  14. I am not a Christian of any sort these days, but I grew up Catholic and I was an altar girl for maybe two years, soiling God’s sacred altar with my young womanliness.

    You missed out on something special. I’m sorry for your loss.

  15. Friar – I suspect that had more practical implications as they figured wild animals would be drawn by the scent (this was before April-fresh maxi pads after all). Your pals the Vikings, and other pre-Christian folk, valued women as they were the ones who were the keepers of the home and riches while the menfolk went out pillaging, hunting and defending the kingdom.

    Hallie – It was very frustrating, especially to have my mother go along with it. It’s still the most shockingly misogynistic experience I’ve ever had — and there have been a few. (BTW – I never had a chance to get your new secret blog address and the email I have for you is no longer in service. If you don’t mind me having access to your blog could you email me the link, please? urbanpedestrian@gmail.com) Thanks

    Meanie – You don’t have to feel sorry for them at all. My mother’s unshakable faith has seen her through a lot of stuff that might have felled her otherwise. In many ways I’m glad she has that to sustain her.

    Grouchy – Any time Grouchman.

    Dave – Well that’s all fine and dandy except that you’ll be going straight to hell. You know that, don’t you?

    Mary – Thanks Mary. And thanks for the wee free clarification.

    Trashee – More souls for Satan. Tsk tsk. I’m sure there are people with happy church memories somewhere.

    Geewits – Ya, they kind of are. Like I said to Sheryl, above, they had an amazing information network rivalled only by the CIA.

    Heathen – Damn you devil-may-care Catholics and your flouting of sacred altar traditions. Well, I’ll have you know as soon as I got my own place I built a sacred altar in the spare bedroom and go in whenever I want and light the freakin’ candles and drink ALL the wine!! (I’m kidding about that altar thing by the way, just in case someone thinks I’m serious…because it’s totally something someone with a traumatic childhood altar experience like mine might do when they grow up, right?)

  16. I am so sorry for your experience. I also grew up in the Lutheran church. My experience wasn’t like yours, though. It was mostly joyful and filled with fun. Of course, I didn’t enjoy sitting through services when I was little. Most kids don’t like to sit still – they’d rather be playing outside. But I enjoyed Sunday School, Bible School, Luther League, playing softball with the church girls and coed leagues, volleyball church leagues, volunteering and seeing the love of Christ shine through people.
    I don’t know how I would have gotten through the death of my brother when we were both teenagers or the death of my father 30 years later without this faith. Please don’t give up. I know I went through doubts about faith when I was growing up. I think it’s natural to question your faith. But even if you’re not filled with joy at all times, you will have this solid core inside of you that knows that God loves you more than anyone else will ever love you, that it is a never-ending love. Nothing we do will stop his love. When we confess our sins to him, he forgives our sins. God loves us so much that he let his own son, Jesus, die on the cross for us, so that we would not have eternal death.
    I guess I’m just trying to say – please find a different church or someone you can connect with. It would be sad to have your experience take something that can be a solid core and your salvation away from you.
    Yes, I’m still a Lutheran. I don’t care so much about the labels. I’d rather be known as a child of God. I don’t deserve all the love and forgiveness I receive from God. It was sad but good to read all the comments. When you grow up happy in faith, sometimes you don’t realize the other side.

  17. Good for you for standing up to your Mom at age 12. Maybe she loved you enough to let you stand your ground.

    Now we’re not religious, but my kids have it in public school. It’s weird. It’s such a prominent part of society and politics, I think it’s good to know about it. But I wish they would talk about all kinds of religions, not just Catholicism. I am trying to give them that balance at home… hopefully without getting them in trouble at school 😉

  18. As my Aussie friend would say, “good on you”.

    As for religion, I am a Christian. But I cannot find a church that I can be comfortable in. Although our local Anglican church has a youth service that is remarkably good, even if I was the oldest dude there.

    When I lived in BC I attended a lecture at SFU (Silly Fucking U)…(oh sorry, Simon Frasure University) and they had a rabbi, imam and a priest on stage. And they all agreed! On one thing. Everyone needs a framework to hang their lives on. Pick one, believe in it and your mental health will improve. I thought that to be very interesting.

    And why am I religious? Because I have seen to much goofy shit in my travels not to believe.

    Nuff sed.


    P.S. Have I mentioned you are a good writer?

  19. Eyeteaguy: that’s like saying that representatives of Toyota, Volvo, and Ford all got on stage and said that everyone needs an automobile to achieve fulfillment. They’re all biased, even if they’re playing for different teams.

    – RG>

  20. Sammi – Hey, is that you, mom?? (ha ha) I’m very happy that you have something in your life that brings you joy and helps you through the hard time, Sammi. I know her faith has done the same thing for my mom. And I totally understand wanting to share this joy and comfort with people, but as you’ll see tomorrow (in Part II of this theme), I spent many years exploring many different types of spirituality. I would never let one bad experience turn me away from something I had an interest in. However, in the end I can’t find the same solace in all this that you do. I have my own value system and source of strength and joy. But thank you so much for visiting the blog and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

    Kate – It’s unfortunate that people took a basically lovely concept like spirituality and had to organize it and twist it and mold it and mutate it.

    Christine – Are your kids in a regular public school or a Catholic school? Cuz if you sent your kids to Catholic school, I expect they’re going to be heavily indoctrinated with Catholicism. I figure that was kind of the point of the system.

    Eyeteaguy – Have you tried the Unitarians? They’re pretty cool and welcoming and all-inclusive and non-denominational. You’re right about everyone needing something to hang their hat on. Something that is already structured and organized for you is the easiest route to go. I’ve kind of developed my own system over the years. I continue this discussion in tomorrow’s post if you’d care to come back.

  21. but has she gone through life feeling unclean because she is a woman? i’m all for finding strength in a higher power/belief system, but if it makes someone feel lesser than because of their sex, i do feel sorry for them.

  22. Just a reminder that the 12 Apostles had a hard time getting it right even though they spent a lot of time with the Christ. e.g right after Jesus gave a vision of his Kingdom of servanthood, James and John asked for FIRST PLACE (Mark 10:35ff) and the others got ticked off at them for their audacity. So, the followers of Jesus have screwed up one way or another throughout the ages. Luther once capsilated it by saying: “The Church is a whore……but, she’s my mother!” (i.e. she birthed and weaned and taught and tried to lead the way to walking in the Good News-often totally incompetently, just like most organizations, clubs, governments do.
    So, Jesus, undoubtedly aware of the stuff that would happen,including Peter’s cowardice and bluster, still announced, “I will build my church.”(Matthew 16:18)….And so, the church still seeks to tell the story and tries to get it right.

  23. Meanie – Our church always made everyone feel like crap. It’s like one of those abusive relationships where one partner makes the other feel worthless and small and powerless in order to feel powerful.

    MM – Ya. Ok. Thanks.

  24. @RG

    ‘cept most car companies are in it for profit (Bad motive in my books) Most relgious leaders (real ones, not the nut cases) are in it to actually make a difference, save people etc. (Good motive in my books)


  25. I went to the Lutheran funeral of a friend who was a great guy and the only thing I heard through the ceremony was that George was probably going to hell just because he was human. Even though he’d been involved in the church and was otherwise a good guy, etc. etc. He was probably going to hell. At one point I turned to Peter and whispered, “How many times have they said George is going to hell now?” Redonk (as they say over at Cuteoverload).

  26. Eyeteaguy – I hope you’re right.

    Julia – I’ve never been to a Lutheran funeral, but it sounds a lot like a Lutheran baptism, wedding, confirmation and Sunday service. Those Lutherans, eh? What a barrel of laughs.

    Nat – Very bad. I’ve been to Catholic churches though and it’s kind of nice there. You don’t feel so much like slitting your wrists when you leave a Catholic church, do you?