by Mark Stanley
Isn’t it time that we stopped using the title “Father” for priests? Even though Jesus said, “Call no one Father” (Matthew 23:9), I don’t think we need to use the literal sense of that text as the foundation for this change.
I would start with the baptismal theology of our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. One of the great thrusts of our current Prayer Book is honoring the ministry of the laity. What is most important is that we are all baptized. As baptized members of Christ’s body, we have ministries either as lay or ordained people. So why should priests get a special (and seemingly superior) title? What is meant as a sign of respect towards the clergy seems to reinforce an outmoded hierarchy.
I know a priest who likes to be called Father because “I have worked so hard for this role and I want the respect this vocation deserves.” This is certainly a valid concern in a societal context where all authority figures are getting less respect. My response is that authentic respect flows from who we are and not what we are called. Our pastoral leadership and spiritual presence, and not any special title, will be the real source of a congregation giving us authority.
In addition, with the ordination of women in 1976 we have changed who can be in the priesthood. Is there an equivalent title to “Father” for women? Some women clergy like being called “Mother.” Others can’t stand it. It doesn’t help that “Mother” is also a title used by Roman Catholic nuns. In the Episcopal Church we have both genders ordained. This decision has consequences. We just can’t have one gender with a standard title that does not work for all. This seems like a simple issue of justice. Are men who like the title “Father” willing to let this title go for the sake of our clergy sisters?
Is “Father” really even the best title to describe what a priest does? I remember being a newly ordained 25 year old priest and having an elderly woman in our parish continually calling me “Father.” Do I really function like a father to her? This puts me in the parent role and her in the child position. It can actually be harming the spiritual development of parishioners to be putting them in this infantilizing position.
Furthermore, using the title Father creates the potential for theological confusion. Imagine a priest about to lead the Lord’s Prayer. It is then announced “Father Smith will now lead us in the ‘Our Father.’” Here is a situation where you are calling God “Father” in close connection with calling the priest “Father.” Is this ordained human being really in the same role as the Divine? Unfortunately some people already fall into that misunderstanding. Having a spiritual leader with the same title as the first person of the Trinity is just not a good set up for anyone.
In general I think people should be able to be called whatever they want. However when a title has the potential of getting in the way of the mission of the church, I would hope that people would be willing to make a change. Even if that change requires the sacrifice of a beloved title.
I don’t have the answer to what priests should be called. I do know that whatever we are called it should be the same title for both men and women. I find that it feels great to be a pastoral leader who is on a mutual first name basis with the people in my parish. They seem to like it too. So I propose we stick with the most meaningful names we have, our baptismal names – the names with which we are marked as Christ’s own forever.
Mark Stanley is the Rector of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland.