Sep 26, 2014

Hello Mother, Hello Father

In the latest well-intentioned yet harebrained scheme to distract people from the true mission of the Church, a resolution has been proposed in the Diocese of Connecticut to mandate the elimination of "gendered titles" for priests such as "Father" and "Mother." Yes, when I first read this I, too, thought it was written by the Onion.

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.


Bob Chapmman said...

On the contrary, if it passes, I think the Episcopal Church in Connecticut needs your book more than other dioceses need it.

The observant here should note that I used something in the preceding paragraph, even though it causes me to twitch. However, I know that is how they prefer to be addressed.

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

Pretty grateful resolutions seem not to be part of the culture of the Diocese of Springfield. They're mostly just mischief.

Unknown said...

In my 59 years, so much has changed, in the church. And unfortunately, I see some of the 'trivial issues' masking the true intent and mission of the church in many instances. What does it matter what we call our priests as long as they're comfortable with it? In many cases it's their own choice. I grew up calling my preachers and Bishops every thing from Mr. Butler to whatever their first name is. Even our current Bishop & his dad, former Bishop, are Duncan & Mr. Duncan. (They're also generational family friends.) But even Bishop John Allin was Mr. John, even after taking office in Washington, D.C.. Most of my 'long time' Episcopal friends are the same towards their priests & the upper echelons they know. Most of the formality (& upset over the informality) seems to come, at least around here, from newer participants & converts. Could it be a leftover from their previous church? A perceived lack of respect? Could that be part of the difference? I *do* so look forward to your book.

Anonymous said...

Well, to each his or her own, but I feel the traditional titles are both respectful of the position and person as well as comforting to the congregant.

Marguerite said...

I take great comfort in using the titles "mother" and "father".

Anonymous said...

Uh. Evangelical Anglicans wisely chose along time ago, following the NT prohibition, not to use Father to address clergy.
John 2007

Sarah SSM said...

I still haven't gotten used to hearing "Mr."

As you said, sexism is sin. And it's still pervasive. I applaud the intent. However, I fail to see what a title change would do unless you see something innately inferior about the title Mother. Getting rid of that as an option almost buys into the belief that it is.

Furthermore, what's wrong with gendered titles? I like being a woman.

As others have said, can't we just use whatever title or titles the priest prefers, if any? That's what we do with other people if we have any respect for them - let them decide.

Ecgbert said...

Two reactions: One of the great disillusionments of my teenage years was finding that, in America, Episcopal priests who go by Father, as most now do, AREN'T conservative Anglo-Catholics. Second, the Diocese of Connecticut and the Episcopal Church doing this would be stupid because it would destroy the Episcopal Church's modern brand identity: Catholics with a difference (better liturgy, more open-minded, what have you). Without Fathers and Mothers it would just be funny Congregationalism, just a little more anglophilic (but that might be on the chopping block for diversity's sake, too, which wouldn't work and would further destroy the brand).

Nick Porter said...

We don't have more pressing issues to deal with?? Let every individual parish/priest decide. Stop trying to PC the church, people are ruining it this way and it's driving people crazy.

Relling said...

I agree with you completely in your response, Fr. Tim. It is easies to let the parishioners decide what they are comfortable with. As Carrie Clark said above, this really is a peripheral issue that is distracting from the main mission.

We see the real response to the cry of sexism by ordaining more women priests, bishops and presiding bishops. It is foolish and worse to believe that simply by changing titles that one can address a traditional social evil.

Anonymous said...

I'm not generally one to dictate what people in relationship with one another call each other, but I find it reassuring that I am not the only person uncomfortable with the honorifics Father and Mother. My negative reaction is more against a sense of clericalism than gendered usage of the terms (noting that gendered uses of titles are regretfully common in many professions... how many professors are called Mrs. when they have a doctorate, but their male colleague down the hall with a MA is called Dr?). Personally I never use father or mother as titles, because I don't find the metaphor meaningful.

If we're going to characterize our Church using other traditions as a ruler, I prefer funny Congregationalism.

- youngish layperson raised Episcopalian

Nick Porter said...

If an individual is uncomfortable with it for whatever reason, just have a conversation with your priest. They should be understanding and accommodating. The issue gets out of control is when you start trying to legislate how someone should do, which is what those who wrote this resolution for their diocese is ultimately trying to do. Some people just hate the idea of ANY type of authority, that is the TRUE heart of the matter.

Ecgbert said...

"Reverend Name" has long been the ecumenical way to be incorrect. It's like calling a judge "Honorable Smith." It seems to be the default for Episcopalians who just want to be Protestant; the kind who, like at my very first parish, called the rector Mr. Smith. (Now I think only Agatha Christie anglophiles and maybe some genteel Southerners do that.)

My first rector was Mr. Tourigney; second did the same. Third and fourth: Mr. or Fr. depending on which parishioner you were talking to! Obviously not Anglo-Catholic parishes. Anglo-Catholic parishes I got involved with: always Fr.

I understand there are some parishes where all the adults are simply on a first-name basis. So there you go. The rector might let you off the hook: "Please, call me John/Mary."

Audrey said...

As a minister of word and sacrament in the United Presbyterian Church and for what it's worth [which I think is irrelevant], I always introduce myself as "Audrey Lee, Minister of Word and Sacrament." When asked how I should be addressed, I reply, "I prefer to be called Audrey but you may address me however you wish." People's faces almost always relax in relief and we get along just fine and the kids especially delight in calling me by my first name. Some of the oldsters look a little uncomfortable at first but before long are bellowing out to me across the room as "Hey, Audrey" Much better and it really breaks the ice. And nobody seems shows any less respect for me as their pastor but clearly are much more comfortable interacting with me. Just my experience but suspect one shared by many others.

Donna said...

Coincidentally, I just read this:
It's about women in Higher Ed, but directly relevant to the Church. I would beg you to look beyond the presenting issue of titles and listen for what's behind it. Patriarchy is hardly trivial and while this resolution won't solve it, completely minimizing the significance of titles isn't helpful, either.

Cynthia Hallas said...

Thank you, Tim (if I may call you "Tim" - oh, yeah, right.) A female priest friend once remarked that of the three clerical orders, only presbyters use a different title - in other words, we have "Bishop Doe" and "Deacon Doe", but "Mother/Father/Pastor/etc Doe". She got her parishioners to call her "Priest (first name)". Awkward initially, I'm sure, but it does make sense. (If that were to catch on I'd rather be "Presbyter Cynthia" but whatever.) I'm comfortable with just "Cynthia" but find that some parishioners insist on "Mother"; and while I don't think parental honorifics are a good idea for a number of reasons, it grates on my nerves when the male rector is "Father" and the female associate is "Pastor" or something else.

Ecgbert said...

Presbyter Cynthia (trouble is everybody'd think you're Presbyterian, like people think Russian Orthodox are Jews): the irony that hurt me as a would-be Catholic 30+ years ago is often the male Episcopal priests who accepted women priests were also being ecumenical and un-traditionally Episcopalian by going by Father, not Mr. That is, the progressives in America seem the most likely to use that. I understand how you feel, hence the popularity of Mother, even though you don't like that either. Priest Name is how Orthodox priests sign letters to their bishops, because the bishop is in himself a reverend father in God, but priests are Father to their parishioners as a courtesy title given by the bishop. The priest represents him. So to the bishop he's not Father really, though informally in conversation he is.

Anonymous said...

The main problem I see isn't that they are banishing the parental forms of address, but that in the resolution, it is implied that Father is inherently better than Mother, that the title "Mother" is inferior because of it's reference to the familial structure. Mother and Father, be it in a blood family or in a church family, should be equal, and by striking these forms of address from use, they do not address the issue of equality but rather skirt it entirely.