By Flora Keshgegian
Jesus said; “call no man father on earth, for you have one Father, the one in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Yet, in the Episcopal Church, which has ordained women as priests for more than 40 years – 40 years! – male priests are still often called “Father.” As a result, the church has not developed forms of address that work for both male and female priests.
I, who have been a priest for more than forty years, have been in so many settings over those years, and still today, where the male clergy are addressed as “Father Tom” or “Father Smith” and I am addressed as “Flora”. In truth, I prefer Flora, but just as much, I would want the men to be called Tom or Bob. What is communicated when male priests are addressed as Father and female priests are called by their first names?
Before I was ordained, before women could be ordained, and even after, what drew so many of us to ministry was the vision of a transformed church: a church that was less hierarchical and more egalitarian, that not only respected the laity, but empowered them. We prayed that, as women, we could help make those changes happen.
There were some hopeful signs: not only the ordination of women itself, but the church putting emphasis on the laity as an order of ministry and stressing the baptismal covenant as the ground of all ministry. Many of us hoped to move toward models of mutual ministry and more egalitarian practices. Yet, at the same time, we did not change our habits. Male clergy continued to be addressed as “Father” in too many places. That practice was rarely challenged.
Women clergy have had to adapt to this norm, either by adopting “Mother” as our title or coming up with something else, but there is not anything equivalent. “Mother” is problematic because the framing of mother, whether as a title for nuns in religious life or for a female parent, is still in a context of women as subordinate to men. After all, “Father knows best”. “Father” is the head of the household. “Father” is the one in power. “Mother’s” power is derivative.
The lack of change signals that male clergy have clung to their privilege. To have privilege means the world as it is works for you. You have place and acceptance and access. So why change? Few did. As a result, 40 years later, we have not changed enough – either in terms of full inclusion of women clergy or in terms of empowerment of the laity. As long as the title of “Father” is used, women will be second class and laity will be viewed as children.
How do we change? Change has to begin with male clergy eschewing the title “Father.” Only then will the practice change enough to make a difference. Bishops can take the lead by not addressing or referring to male priests as “Father” in meetings and other settings. Male priests can actively promote change to more inclusive forms of address.
What do we call the clergy – male or female (or transgender, even)? I suggest that in most situations we can just use our names, pure and simple: Flora, Tom, Lynn, Bob. I don’t know what would better embody the Christian community and ministry of all the baptized that we preach. In those contexts where a title might be called for, I would recommend “Priest,” with thanks to Priest Brian McHugh who suggested this to me more than 20 years ago. As Brian pointed out, it is the practice in the Episcopal Church to address a bishop as Bishop Mary or Bishop Jones and to address deacons as Deacon Jim or Deacon Miller, so why not address a priest as Priest? The title “Priest” communicates recognition of the order, but does not import hierarchy or gender. It may be awkward at first to use a word as a title that has not functioned as such before, but, as with most changes, the awkwardness will soon dissipate as we adopt the practice. There are other titles that some women and others are using such as “Pastor” or “Parson” or “Reverend.” These are gender neutral though they still suggest a relationship in which laity are dependent on or less holy than clergy. And there are always those who argue that “Reverend” is not proper English if not preceded by “the”.
40 years. The Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years before they were able to enter into the promised land. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tested before he began his public ministry. I think the church has had long enough to work this one out. I hope it will before I am ordained for 50 years. To be sure, I am talking about the institution whose motto is often: “but we have always done it this way.” Now over 40% of the clergy of the church are women, and our numbers are growing. We have changed enough that women keep coming forward and declaring their calls. Now is the time to recognize us fully and equally, lest it be another 40 years.
The Rev. Dr. Flora A. Keshgegian is a retired priest, seminary professor and university chaplain.