But the sponsors of this resolution, which you can read here, are serious.
While sexism is alive, well and thriving in many areas of church and society -- and, yes, we can and should name this for what it is: sin -- attempting to legislate pastoral relationship is absurd.
The rationale for this resolution is stated thusly:
Our patriarchal history, and the deference accompanying the term “Father” in the church and in the larger society, casts male priests as “real priests” and women priests as “the other.”Here are a few thoughts in no particular order:
- In a presumably well-meaning attempt to be sensitive, it's ironic that the proponents of such a measure would insert themselves into the intimate pastoral relationship between parishioner and priest. This is a sacred trust that stands at the heart of what it means to be part of a Christian community. I think the God who calls each of us by name can empower us to decide by what name we want to call one another.
- No priest worth his or her salt has ever, to my knowledge, "insisted" on being called by a particular title. They may have preferences -- though what they are actually called is often dictated by parish culture rather than the personal preference of the cleric. Are there pompous male priests for whom it's all about the title "Father?" Yes. And it's as pathetic as it sounds.
- I've been called a lot of things by parishioners over the years -- some respectful, some not so much -- but I always leave it to the person I'm interacting with to take the initiative. I make it clear that I'm okay with Tim, Father Tim, Father Schenck (though people can't pronounce my last name so that's rare). I have 90-year-old women who call me "Father" -- I usually respond half-jokingly with "yes, my child" -- and I have youngsters who call me "Tim." I. Don't. Care. But guess what? It's not for me to determine people's comfort levels in addressing their priest! And it's certainly not something to legislate via diocesan convention.
- Does someone really expect me to walk into a parishioner's hospital room, accept their greeting, and then lecture the person on the appropriate form of clerical address before being willing to share the sacrament?
- What are the alternatives to titles such as "Mother" and "Father?" The resolution doesn't specify. The grammatically grating "Reverend" is often thrown around as a possibility. Just because it sets my teeth on edge and sends me looking around for the Baptist minister who must surely be standing behind me, doesn't mean we need to make a resolution to ban it.
- Some prefer "Pastor" though I don't think that encompasses the totality of priestly ministry. Priests are called to be pastors, priests, and teachers -- according to our ordination vows. And bishops are called "chief priests and pastors." Still, we're not herding sheep around the countryside but ministering to actual people.
- Having conversations about what's behind this movement is important. I don't think someone calling me "Father" diminishes the priestly ministry of my female colleagues. Nor do I think parishioners calling my assistant "Mother Anne" somehow emasculates my own.
- A female clergy colleague of mine told me she's offended by this resolution because it assumes a simple name change will transform the culture. As she put it, "Plenty of chauvinistic male priests have used my honorific."
- Please tell me you can think of at least 50 more important things for the church to be worried about right off the top of your head than clergy titles. If not, we truly are hosed.
- The angst about titles may be generational. In my experience, younger people don't care about this stuff. They just want to follow Jesus.
- If this resolution passes, I probably shouldn't bother trying to sell my forthcoming book in the state of Connecticut.