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Call no one father

Call no one father

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.


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Troy Haliwell

For me, I refer to our vicar as Father and our female associate as Reverend.

To me he is a father figure religiously. He leads me in the study and in the religious study of God. I am uncomfortable calling our female associate “mother” because of the luggage that title carries, and because I also view her as a source of religious education. Plus she does not like the term because she does not feel like a “mother.”

We are a Middle church, somewhat High and somewhat Low. So it is the history of our church to call the male priest “Father” and since our current associate priest is also our first female priest she has set a prescident to be called Reverend.

Our vicar does not refer to himself in writing as Father though, but rather as “The Reverend Doctor _______ ________”

Candis Burgess

From “Concerning the Service – Ordination: Priest” (BCP p524): When the ordinand is presented, his full name (designated by the symbol

N.N.) is used. Thereafter, it is appropriate to refer to him only by the Christian name by which he wishes to be known.

The Rev Dr Marion Hatchett (God rest his soul) taught that “the Christian name by which s/he wishes to be known” was meant to be a name, not an honorific.

When meeting someone new, I introduce myself by my “Christian name by which I am known” – then add, “If you prefer your children not address an adult by their name only, you may use Ms or Pastor and my name. When introducing me, you may say “This is our priest/rector/vicar Candis.”

I would be interested in some of the men involved in this discussion who agree that Father has no equal as a form of address for clergy who are women make some suggestions for an inclusive, equally respectful form of address.

I am comfortable with Pastor (what’s so bad about sounding too Lutheran?). From the Online Etymology Dictionary ( “pastor (n.) Look up pastor at

late 14c. (mid-13c. as a surname), “shepherd,” also “spiritual guide, shepherd of souls,” from Old French pastor, pastur “herdsman, shepherd” (12c.), from Latin pastorem (nominative pastor) “shepherd,” from pastus, past participle of pascere “to lead to pasture, set to grazing, cause to eat,” from PIE root *pa- “to tend, keep, pasture, feed, guard, protect” (see food). The spiritual sense was in Church Latin (cf. Gregory’s “Cura Pastoralis”). The verb in the Christian sense is from 1872.”

We all tend, feed, guard and protect – and the title implies to me “with” rather than “over”.

barbara snyder

(But, again: there is no problem to begin with, in parishes that do use “Mother” and “Father”; these are exactly equivalent.

It’s only a problem for those who don’t want to use these words – sometimes those who, as we have seen here, are viscerally opposed to their use. Well, that’s certainly fine; they should absolutely choose something that works for them – and there seem to be plenty of options.

Priests could even go back to being called “Mr.,” as ordained Anglicans used to be known, and not that long ago – and then I guess “Mrs.” or “Miss” or “Ms.”)

barbara snyder

Chris Harwood, AFAIK Lutherans often use “Pastor,” too, at least in the United States. I know a few Episcopal priests who use it, too.

Anyway, it seems to me that “Reverend” is actually a “title” (which is what is apparently at issue here) – and it is given to all priests, male and female, without distinction. These other names are something more along the lines of “endearments,” or “voluntary honorifics.” It seems for the most part to be a matter of personal taste – which is reflected in most of the comments here, from my point of view. Clearly, nobody is forced to use any of these names for their priest – and nobody forces any priest to use any of them for themselves. It’s entirely a matter of personal comfort.

BTW, I also remembered somebody else, more recent, who was called “Father” in a very loving way: one of the endearments for Mohandas Gandhi was “Bapu” – “papa.” Doesn’t seem at all “infantilizing,” to me; it seems far more about love and respect and honor.

Chris H.

Barbara, I don’t know about the rest of TEC, but here, “Reverend” is considered grammatically incorrect by some (adj. instead of noun), and too Lutheran by others. “Pastor” sounds too Baptist or non-denominational. You just can’t call “real” priests by the title those “others” use.

Chris Harwood

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