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Friday, September 03, 2010


I posted a question on my FaceBook page yesterday morning and a very spirited conversation ensued.

My question was this:
My new rector is "Fr. Max". Long tradition of calling rectors "Fr." here. So, he asked me what I wanted to be called. Hmmmm . . . "Mother" is the logical choice, but . . . having said that. . . Not. Really. Comfortable. It's mostly for the kids. Everyone else will call us by our first name. What do you think?
Last time I checked, there were almost 90 comments. Guess I hit a nerve, huh?

I've been in places where I've been called "Mother" or "Mother Elizabeth" - mostly inner city congregations with High Anglo-Catholic traditions. In churches from broad-church traditions, I've been mostly known as "Reverend Elizabeth," - which is still grammatically incorrect but better than being called "Reverend Kaeton," I suppose - if there can be degrees of grammatical incorrectness.

I mean, think about it. The title for a Judge is "The Honorable So-and-So" but s/he is called "Judge So-and-So," or simply, "Your Honor." Not, "Honorable So-and-So."

My title is "The Reverend" but it is grammatically incorrect to use that in a direct address. Folks from more free-church traditions seem to be fine with it. Episcopalians seem to have a particular sticking-point with this.

It's parents who either ask me about - or assume to call me by - my title as a way to emulate and teach respect in front of their children.

Their teachers are called "Mr. Smith" or "Mrs. Jones" or "Ms. Anderson." So are their neighbors. The crossing guard is "Mr. White".  The Librarian is "Ms. Black." Police Officers are also called "Officer Johnson." So, referring to their clergy person with a title is a sign of respect - which I think is good.

Privately, their parents call me by my first name. Well, most do. There have been parents who insist on calling me "Reverend Elizabeth" even in private, personal conversations - even after I've said, "Please, call me 'Elizabeth'". I have come to accept that as their way of reminding me - and them - of how they see me and what they expect of me. And, it's okay.

Funny. In almost every other profession, titles are not gender specific. Doctor. Nurse. Attorney. Judge. Mayor. Senator. Officer. Private. Corporal. Sargent.

Bishop. Deacon. Chaplain. Dean. Canon.

Not Priest.

Lutherans have long used "Pastor" - which I sorta like. "Parson" has a quaint sound. I guess I'm of a certain age that "Elder" rubs me the wrong way.

The Quaker tradition of "Friend" - no matter the status of ordination - is lovely. Egalitarian. Biblical, in fact. It's what Jesus called us - well, those of us he didn't call "Beloved." He saved that title for the "anawim" - the outcast.

As one clergy colleague commented, "I guess the important thing is to make sure you answer when you're called."


My dilemma has to do with the fact that personally, I don't like the title "Mother". Or, "Father". I think it sets up a very negative relational dynamic. I think it can be infantilizing for parishioners which has the potential to communicate a kind of "respect" that is simply fraught with psychological baggage that is less than helpful in Christian community.

Actually, I think it's hysterical when newly ordained 30-somethings are called "Mother" or "Father". And, if I'm in a group of clergy who are referring to each other as "Mother" or "Father" I almost always, at some point, get a really, really bad case of the giggles and have to leave the room.

Some commented on FaceBook that "Mother" carries a lot of social/cultural baggage. Well, for others, so does "Father". Sometimes, a lot more social/cultural baggage.

However, I think it's important, when there's been a norm established in the community, and the male has a certain title, the woman ought to have the equivalent title. This, for me, is the deal-breaker.

Yes, it's about parity. It's more about respect.

One clergy woman commented on FaceBook: "I went with no title and have now been told that the lack of respect I get is because people call me by my first name ..."

I think there's probably more to the situation, but she may be onto something symptomatic of the larger problem.

I know. I know. Respect has to be earned. Well, let me tell you from personal experience: in the institutional church, a woman who is a priest could walk hand stands for 10 miles, while chanting the Angelus in perfect pitch and key - twice before breakfast - and still not get the respect her male colleagues get just for walking into a room.

In the church, for women, respect is not easily 'earned'. Oh, it may have the outward and visible signs of respect, but it's really just the social graces of learned behavior.

Respect, when afforded to women, is not done so easily or well. In my experience in the church, respect must be the expectation of the ordained woman from her congregation.

This is key: She must first respect herself enough to expect respect from others.

Let me say that again:
A woman must first respect herself enough to expect respect from others.
In my experience, anyway, that's how it works. Other women's experience may be different. The experience of other clergy men may be different - or, the same, depending on their age.

This has been MY experience. This is how I conduct myself and the expectations I go in with in a new social situation.  It has changed - modified some - as I've collected wrinkles and gray hair.  I suspect some of that may be more respect for my age than my gender or my authority.

Bottom line: I have learned to respect myself and to expect respect from others.

When necessary, I insist on it.

You knew I had a story about this:

Very early in my ordained ministry, I was called for jury duty. I did NOT want to serve. It's not that I didn't want to perform my civic duty. At that particular time, I just didn't have time. I had previously served on jury duty. I would have been happy to serve at another time, but this was just a HUGE imposition on me and my community at that time.

So, I wore my collar to jury duty, figuring that no one really wants a clergy person in the jury box. This was one time I thought the negative press about "religious people" might just work in my favor.

Not so. After several hours of milling around a large room filled with other Very Unhappy People. I was called into a jury pool for a case where several employees were suing a large company for asbestosis.

The judge wanted to interview the possible jurors. I was called to take the stand, sworn in by the bailiff, and then the judge addressed me.

"Ummm . . . I see you're a clergy person."

"Yes, your honor," I said, dutifully.

"Well, I'm Catholic," he said, "and we call our clergy 'Father'. What shall I call you?" It was hard not to notice the smirk on his face.

"Well, I'm Anglo-Catholic (I meant that as my theological position but we had not yet begun to think of ourselves as Anglican the way we do now)," I said, "and you may call me 'Mother'."

He just about chocked.

"Uh. . . well . . .in the Catholic church, 'Mother' is a nun."

"Yes, I understand. I used to be Roman Catholic," I said, "But I'm not Roman Catholic any longer. I'm Anglo-Catholic. So, if you call your priests, 'Father', you may call this priest 'Mother'."

"Priest?" he chocked again, "I mean, don't they call you 'Minister'?"

"We're all ministers in baptism," I said, trying to contain my growing disdain for him. "In The Episcopal Church, I am called a 'priest'." I paused for effect:  "Not 'priestess'. Priest."

"Well, isn't there anything else I can call you? I mean, like Reverend? I mean, isn't that what all Protestant clergy are called?"

"You could, I suppose, but you would be grammatically incorrect, your honor. I mean, I wouldn't call you 'Honorable ______'. I'd call you 'Judge _____ ' or simply, 'Your Honor'. And, by the way, I'm not Protestant. I'm Anglo-Catholic."

He grimaced. He shuffled papers. He cleared his throat.

"Well, then . . . . um . . .'Mother' . . . um . . . my first question to you is this: Is there any reason you know that would disqualify you from this case?"

"I'm not sure, your Honor," I said.

"You're not sure?" he raised his eyebrow in response as he lowered his chin onto the palm of his hand and tilted his head to listen to my response.

"No. I mean, well, does it matter that I think the real trial here is not whether or not the company is responsible for these men having asbestosis? Rather, I think that corporate greed is on trial here, and how the bottom line in Corporate America is always more important to the men in those hand-tailored suits and imported Italian shoes than the health and well being of those who work for them."

Yes, I was trying to get out of jury duty, but I had just sworn to tell the "truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." So, I did.

The legal team for the plaintiffs broke into broad smiles. The legal team for the defense looked down at their shoes while they shuffled papers.

I looked back at the judge who was still resting his chin in his hand as he allowed a deep sigh of frustration to escape his lips. He stared at me for a while before the turned to the plaintiff's bench - never moving his chin from his hand.

"Gentlemen?" he asked.

"Oh, we'd LOVE this juror, your Honor. Thank you."

He looked over at the defense team.

"Need I ask?"

"The defense respectfully declines this potential juror, your Honor."

The judge looked back at me in total befuddlement.

"You are excused .. . 'Mother' (he said it like it was half a word) . . .but I reserve the right to keep you for the rest of the day in the potential jury pool."

"Yes, sir," I said. I couldn't resist adding, "I suppose I could find something to do for the next hour or so. If you'd like, I would be happy to provide pastoral care to these gentlemen here - the plaintiff's - while their legal team interviews potential jurors."

"No . . . no . . . um, thank you. That's very . . . um . . . nice of you . . .um . . . but that won't be necessary. You are excused. I mean, if you want, you can leave now. You don't have to wait around."

"Thank you, your honor," I said as I started to leave my seat.

"No, wait," he said. "One more question: Who is your bishop?"

"Excuse me?" I asked, startled.

"Who is your bishop? I want to write him a note and send him my condolences. He certainly has his hands full with you in his diocese."

The courtroom burst into a nervous giggle. I blushed and said, "Well, thank you, I think," and then got the hell out of there before answering his question or risking being sent to another jury pool.

It wasn't until later that I became furious. I mean, really! The judge making a joke about calling my bishop was the absolute HEIGHT of patriarchy. One man in authority sending condolences to another man in authority about "the little woman."


No, I probably hadn't earned his respect, even though I made him use a term that was equal to the status of male clergy in his life. Ultimately, he didn't even fully treat me with respect - making a joke so I would know who was really "in charge".

I just taught him how to behave in public. I can only imagine how I might have been treated - or how he might have treated other ordained women - if I hadn't insisted on at least the social pretense of equality. I know when I'm being "managed" or "tolerated".

I'd like to think that times have changed. Attitudes have changed. There are now three women who serve on the Supreme Court. There are more than a dozen women who are bishops in the Anglican Communion.

Then again, there is a woman who is Presiding Bishop and Primate.

And, we've seen how the Archbishop of Canterbury treats her.

Someone left this comment on my FaceBook page, which I just loved:
"I am reminded of a (perhaps apocryphal) story from the Diocese of Western Michigan where, so it is said, there was a diocesan convention floor debate on what to call women priests. In frustration, someone said, "Well, what DO Anglicans call women in authority?" And someone else said, "Your Majesty." Works for me."
Truth be told, the title of respect I've always loved is "Momma" - which is what my children call me.

I must admit that the title I love most is "Nana".

Only five people in the whole world can call me by that name. They were born into that privilege. I trust there will be a few more yet to come.

I hope to always be found worthy of the respect and trust and honor inherent in that title. I think I work the hardest to earn that one. I'd like to think I deserve it - and always will strive to do so.

All the rest of ya'll, just call me Elizabeth.

It's what God calls me. And, I always respond. Because I know God respects and loves me - even when I haven't exactly been loving and respectful to myself.

And, that's all that really matters.


Elaine C. said...

Thank you!

Lilith said...

Good thoughts Elizabeth. Too bad the judge you talk about failed to set the right courtroom tone or demonstrate fairness and impartiality. Two things I would add/suggest:
1) the problem of gender difference in titles for clergy arises because we are not Biblically literate and don't seem to know that Jesus instructed his followers to call no man on earth father;
and 2) the secular titles may be gender equivalent, but that doesn't result in equivalent treatment. When I was a magistrate (like a junior judge in Colorado), I was one of the judicial officers to participate in a yearly meeting with state legislators from our district. The men, whether judge or magistrate, were addressed as "your Honor" or "Judge Soandso." All the women, judge or magistrate, were addressed simply by first name.
Names and titles are indeed important in how they reflect whether we actually believe people are equal.
Thanks for these reflections. As always, God's Peace, Z

Jim Meredith said...

Beautiful, Elizabeth...for whom I have great respect.

Carol Horton said...

When I was first ordained this question came up in the youth group. One of the kids solved it for himself my calling me "fathermotherhorton" all in one breath. Probably not the best, but that's what worked for him.

Some people call me mother, some call me canon. I realize it says a whole lot more about them than it does about me. I do get irritated when clergy throw around the "father" and "mother" titles in meetings -- it feels so pretentious.

If asked, I always say "God calls me Carol." Thank you, Margaret Guenther, for that one.

marnanel said...

Lilith: You know, I call my mother's partner "father", and he's a man on earth. I like to hope it's not because I'm biblically illiterate.

Chris M said...

I think you will cousin, or perhaps cuz, to me!
Something must be in the air, if you check my blog,
you will see I did a whole posting on titles.

I invite you give it a read, but my basic conclusion is that rigidity around titles, Dr./Rev./Canon , etc. is very often a enforcement of top-down power structures. They give a false sense of good boundaries. Good boundaries come from healthy relationships and mutual respect, not rigid titles. In fact, when titles are rigid I believe it encourages system beating and work arounds, not collaboration, or dealing directly and respectfully with one another.

I think the overimportance of titles are relic of a white WASPY male power structure, to quote Audre Lorde "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House."

Ann said...

I was planning a funeral with a family of one of our parishioners - they were all RC. They wanted to know what to call me - I went through my entire spiel - they said we will call you Father. I don't normally go for this title tho I know women who do use it. In this case it was their recognition of my priesthood- it is what they call priests - like they call their physician Doctor. - so I allowed that. Father Ann

Malcolm+ said...

I've tended to the practice of referring to clergy according to their preference. Personally, I prefer to be called "Malcolm," but if someone insists on a title, I prefer "Father" over the grammatical abomination which is "Reverend." As Chaplain to the ishop's School for Choristyers last month, I was "Father Malcolm."

However, as the diocesan communications wallah, I was presented with a bit of a challenge about how we denoted the clergy on the parish listing. One of my colleagues is so adamantly "anti-Reverend" that he insists on "Father," even in writing. I'm fine with that - except on a list of clergy where we needed some consistency.

Consensus among clergy is a pipe dream, so I never even bothered to consult. My solution was to simply to use the name and the order, as in:
* Xxxxxxx Xxxxxx, Priest
* Yyyyy Yyyy, Deacon
* Zzzzzz Zzzzzzz, Bishop
This worked for all but two churches, served by Evangelical Lutheran clergy. For them, I used:
* Aaa Aaaaaa, Pastor

I have to admit that I don't understand the passionate disdain most female priests have for "Mother." I understand that "Mother" has cultural baggage - but so does every other option, including the option of simply using one's first name, as you so insightfully ppoint out here.

That said, I revert to my earlier comment about respecting the preference of the individual cleric.

+Victoria Matthews, sometime Bishop of Edmonton (Canada) and now Bishop of Christchurch (New Zealand) was an advanced degree student when I was in college. Her own take was that female priests should also be called "Father." She may have been joking. But she may have had a point.

Anonymous said...

I got a good chuckle from your conversation with the Judge. When I first got out of law school in oklahoma in the early 90's there was a Judge in the Eastern District that did not like women attorneys. A female attorney appeared before him in court in a dress suit and he refused to recognize her because she was not dressed appropriately for court. (The Bar rules require appropriate attire.) She pointed out to the Judge that she was in a dress suit and he responded, "I only recognize suits. I have an extra suit in the other room. You can go put it on and I'll recognize you." Needless to say the Judge was reported to the Bar for his abusive conduct.
Yup, lots of women have been in your spot. Keep up the fine work. I love your stories with a moral twist.

Matthew said...

I've never really liked Father (or Mother) for a priest. Perhaps its because I'm not really Anglo-Catholic but more low church. As I recall (but its been years ago) in the low church belt of Maryland/Virginia where there are still parishes that do Morning Prayer as the principle service on Sundays with Eucharist maybe once or twice a month, the clergy don't go by Father (at least the men don't). I don't recall what they ask their parishioners to call them, maybe mister??? It does not really confer a title, like Judge. I sort of like the CofE where many people are simply called "Vicar" even thought that is probably not grammatically correct either. Vicar is a term you can address to a person (i.e. Hello Vicar) in a way that priest isn't (Hello Priest doesn't work). And, in America we don't use the word rector in that fasion.

Rev Dr Mom said...

The conversation you've described with the judge mirrors the ones I've had with my parish since I arrived here a year ago as their first female priest. After MANY years of Father So-and-so, they cannot get Mother out of their mouths. It's not that I demand a title; it IS about having the same status as their former rector.

I haven't insisted, but I have asked the office staff not to refer to me as Rev. Name. My first name is fine. But I see the difference in authority in other areas. I have to earn their respect, but they also need to understand that I am their rector, with the same responsibilities and charge as all the males who preceded me.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I missed the discussion on FB....

Well... we have a Bishop who insists that if we are to accept same sex couples as blessed, we must give room to those who insist upon the mutilation of female genitals... so called female circumcision....

Boy. Do I feel respected in this Diocese. Sorry, must sign anonymous...

David and John said...

Priests whom I enjoy a close relationship with are addressed by their first names. Outside of that, male priests I address as "Father"; female priests as "mother".

Maybe I'm a little old fashioned, but I just can not help but feel anything less is disrespectful. I know, I Anglo-Catholicism is showing :)

harvey said...

Because my clerical maleness prompts that automatic respect that clerical femaleness does not automatically prompt, I need to take the lesson of Job's three friends seriously. They should have, instead of beginning to pontificate, continued what they did the first seven days: sat in silence before his great suffering. Thanks, Elizabeth, for your so eloquent statement of what it's all about. I'm sitting in a silence full of grace.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, you know, Missouri is just enough "southern" we tend to do the Mr./Mrz./Miz thing with the first name in all polite conversations. "Pastor Elizabeth" seems soooo Lutheran. "Rev. Elizabeth" sounds soooo Methodist or Presybyterian.

Besides, a priest is not just a pastor. In our Anglo-catholic way, you are a transmitter of sacraments. To me, "Father" and "Mother" carry this distinction.

If I was meeting you for the first time, I would probably call you "Mother Elizabeth" b/c I would call a male priest "Father whatshisname" in a similar circumstance.

Over time, I'd probably move to "Madre" or if you had a "pet" name, "Madre Pet name" in public. In private, once I got to know you in public, I'd go first name, but when you are wearing your collar in a public place I would always publicly call you by title.

And if you heard me call you "Mother Kaeton," you'd know I was either being a sarcastic smart-ass, or I'm mad at you! (the equivalent of my mom calling me by my first, middle, and last name!)

Mary said...

In our diocese, everyone is pretty much low church, so most male priests are called Mr. XYZ. I grew up calling priests Father, so I gravitate towards Mother for women. But Mother Mary seems not-so-good for me -- It's already been taken. So I ask people to just call me Mary. Since I'm in the south, if people want their children to give me a title, I just tell them to call me Ms. Mary, which is what would happen for any 'elder'. So the rector is Mr.Jim and I am Ms. Mary and everyone is happy. (One person here calls me Mo Mary - as in Mo being the equivalent of Fr - and I absolutely can't abide it!)

IT said...

that's awful.

As to the subject of the discussion, I find titles useful generally because the assumption otherwise is that the woman is not the one in authority.

100 years ago, when I set up my first lab as a brand new assistant professor, the delivery guy came around with a bunch of new equipement from shipping. "Is this Dr T's lab?" he asked me, and I nodded, enjoying the feeling of having MY name on the lab.

"Oh, so you work for him?" said the shipping guy, cheerfully. My face froze. I looked at him. He was horrified. "Oh, ****," he said. "YOU'RE Dr T." I nodded, but I was crestfallen.

As the years went on, it became routine for people to assume I was the secretary--the woman couldn't possibly be the Professor, could she? What's sad is that young women do it as much as men. Studies show that students are much tougher on women in teaching reviews, too.

So sometimes, yes, we need the title to make it clear that we have one.

Mompriest said...

In my first call, where I was curate and the other clergy were known as Fr. Last Name and Mother Last Name, I too had to be Mother Last Name. My next parish, when given a choice to call me Mother Last Name/First Name, or Pastor Last Name/First Name or Priest First Name - chose Pastor First Name. My third parish, I said I'd be called Pastor First Name.

It would b good if we Episcopalians could decide upon a title that would be used by all women and men ordained to the priesthood. Afterall Deacons are called "Deacon so and so" and Bishops are called "Bishop so and so" - priests ought to have a similar neutral title for women and men. Rev. just doesn't work for me even though I was recently told that in the black churches Rev. means that one has an M.Div. and therefore more creditbility than "Pastor" who would have, I guess, no M.Div.

But mostly, respect it a tough cookie. I had it in some congregations by virtue of role (rector) and ordination and not had in others for the same criteria...but perhaps because I was a woman 20 or 30 years younger than the majority of the congregation.

I'm glad you did not tell that judge who your bishop was. What a ridiculous question.

Rhonda said...

I'm a young woman seminarian working through these questions as well. A wise and much older male priest offered his suggestion of a gender neutral, role specific, ancient title: Prester. I'm having a hard time getting much buy-in, though.

susankay said...

You have me remembering an American Management Association course I took so many years ago (but well after the passage of the Civil Rights Bill which included as a Southern Senator's joke protection based on gender as well as on race). It was the HR segment and the presenter was trying to sensitize us to the use of Black rather than Negro or whatever. I asked if it was not also appropriate to use "woman" rather than "girl" for adult females. The (quite large) room (with VERY few women present) exploded with laughter and the presenter explained to me that "You girls are flattered to be called girls"


Caminante said...

Working with the clergy and lay leaders of the Episcopal Church of Haiti, I have joyfully accepted their calling me 'Mon Pere' Lee ('My Father Lee') as their accepting me into their midst. Normally I would have kiniption fits over that but in this case it is OK. Likewise, in El Salvador, I am always called la Reverenda... usually without my name. Again, it is OK. Here, it's first name or the 'protestant' grammatically incorrect 'Rev'd.' ('Dr' is too pretentious, and no one would really get 'Canon.')

KJ said...

I find myself quite in your line of thinking, Elizabeth. I missed the FB discussion (But I hope you did not miss my "Ode to Bug." Some say it is my finest work, but that's really not saying much at all.).

Not raised in churches where the terms "father" and "mother" were ever used, I find them foreign in my mouth. But back in the day, I had a bit of trouble with the handle "Pastor So-and-So," agreeing with one of our pastors that we don't use such titles for others in the congregation ("Hello, Speech-Language Pathologist Kevin!"). I find the concept of the priesthood of believers and God calling us by our names a very compelling reason to do the same.

However, I'm also a big one on calling others what they wish to be called, and happen to be in a parish where the custom is to simply use the first name. That is likely odd to those who come to us from various "high church" backgrounds, but since we are often a "first contact" for non-churched individuals, and evacuees from Fundagelical Land, absence of the title is likely a good thing.

Or, we could do as one of my students does, who calls me "THE KJ." I like that!

IT said...

Only if you are a loose canon!

claire said...

What an absolutely GREAT post!

Christian Paolino said...

Are you expected/expecting to have any liturgical/offical role in your new congregation? Would that weigh into the decision at all? I assume you've been spending some time there over the years so you're not a total newcomer. What have people been calling you previously?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Christian - I will, yes, from time to time. I'm "guest preaching" the end of September - November in various places from Harlem to CT. We'll see how my role in DE unfolds.

Lapinbizarre said...

Don't know whether to laugh or scream. The clincher is that this bonehead has the power of life and death - figuratively only, I hope - over people.

Good luck with your new life.

Malcolm+ said...

IT, I'll say in the defence of the delivery guy that (at least in your telling) he "got it" fairly quickly and had the decency to be embarrassed. Escaping the bounds of the cultural norms we've inherited is no easy thing - and all the more so "100 years ago" at the dawn of your distinguished career.

Even those of us who think we're fairly well liberated can find such things coming back to haunt. A couple of years ago, the best professionall football club in the universe* had the odd experience of having six starters taken out by broken fibulae.

At one game, the woman who has sat in front of me for many years was explaining about the relative importance of the fibula compared to the tibia (fibula starts with "F" as in "All"). I asked if she was a nurse.

"I'm a doctor."

"And I'm embarrassed."

I can't deny that, deep down, I had assumed nurse instead of doctor simply because she was a woman. I had every reason to be embarrassed. She took it with tremendous grace.

Caminante said...

I suspect some in this new congregation I serve (new because it has only been 19 months) think I am a loose cannon. They mostly refer to me as their rector even though I am their priest in partnership (Vermont lingo for priest in charge); this year we will discern whether we stay together as a working team.