Friday, June 10, 2011
Giving up 'Father'
This year, on June 19, 2011, I have a proposal for the Church.
I think we should use the day to begin a movement to give up 'Father' as an honorific title for male clergy.
And, I think it needs to be a movement led by men.
Well, let me refine that. I know that the Roman Catholic Church calls Her clergy 'Father' - and, of course, all Her clergy are male. I'm not worried about them because, frankly, they are not my central concern. Neither is The Episcopal Church theirs.
And, I know that the practice is not uniform in The Episcopal Church. However, I have noticed that more and more of my younger male colleagues are Very Comfortable with being called 'Father'. More and more younger female clergy are countering that inequality by insisting on being called 'Mother'.
While I understand and applaud my colleague's insistence on gender equality - indeed, as anyone who knows my email address quickly recognizes, I have insisted on it, as well - I'm not liking this movement. At. All. Indeed, I fear I have become unintentionally complicit in it.
I have come to believe that The Episcopal Church has reached a stage of spiritual growth and development where we can finally give up calling our male clergy 'Father' - and, as that happens, our female clergy 'Mother'.
I must admit that, ever after 25 years of ordained service in the church, it still makes my skin creepy-crawly whenever I'm in a room with male clergy, all about the same age, who are dressed in clerical collars and wearing long, white dressed, who call each other 'Father'.
As Annie Lamott says, it's enough to make Jesus drink gin straight out of the cat dish.
I understand. The roots go deep and wind themselves around the hearts and minds of many devout Christians who are Episcopalian.
Women have been ordained priests in The Episcopal Church since 1974. The Episcopal Church changed its canons in 1976 to 'allow' that the 'irregular' ordinations of eleven women at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, and the four women ordained in Washington, DC, were, in fact, 'regular' and began 'allowing' the ordination of women in 1977.
That's thirty-seven (37!!!) years, people. Even if you are scrupulous (as some are), and begin the count from when the ordination of women was "actually legal", that's thirty-five (35!!!!) years.
I think we're old enough, now, to move away from needing "Daddy" and "Mommy". Don't you?
Why do I think it's a bad idea to refer to clergy as 'Father' and 'Mother'?
Well, let's start with Jesus, shall we? He said, "And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and (he) is in heaven." (Mt 23:9)
Of course, Jesus was not saying that one could not apply that term to one's own father. Rather, Jesus was referring to the practice, in his day, of Rabbis claiming that title to denote authority, eminence, superiority, a right to command, and a claim to particular respect.
Jesus is saying that this title belongs only to God in whose eyes we are all one, all equal. Christ is teaching that the source of all life and truth is God, and we ought not to seek or receive a title which properly belongs to God.
So, there's that - but, there's more.
I have come to believe, after 25 years of ordained ministry, that the whole paradigm of "church family" sets up a dynamic that is fraught with problems - indeed, many 'dangers, troubles, toils and snares'.
Yes, I understand that St. Paul said that we are "sisters and brothers in Christ" - but I don't think he was thinking of Cain and Able or the rape of Tamar when he wrote those words. Yes, he was calling us to a "new relationship in Christ" but, unfortunately, it doesn't often work out that way. Not in my experience of the post-modern church community, anyway.
Indeed, I think the whole "church family" paradigm allows for so much of the dysfunction and, in fact, spiritual violence we see in our church today. So many people are working out their own unresolved issues of their 'family of origin' that it makes my head spin.
The whole "Father/Mother" title only compounds that dysfunction and, I suspect, invites some of the spiritual violence many clergy are feeling "when sheep attack" - or, when the shepherd attacks the sheep.
I can hear some of my colleagues countering with the need for honorific titles as a way to communicate authority. I understand. There is an even longer tradition in the church of referring to clergy as "Mr." More recently, that has become "Mrs." Or, "Ms.".
We have no problem calling the President of the United States, "Mr. Obama". If a sense of formality is needed or desired, why shouldn't clergy be satisfied with "Mr. Smith" or "Ms. Doe"?
I rather like the idea of, "the Rev'd Mr. . . ." or "the Rev'd Ms......" and then, in formal settings, to be called "Mr." or "Ms.".
What do we do with other honorific titles, like "Canon" or "Dean" or "Chaplain" or someone with a doctoral degree?
One of my former seminarians, when he's being a wisenheimer, will call and say, "Hello Reverend Doctor Canon Deputy Chaplain Kaeton." If he were my son, I would smack him on the arm. But, he's not. He's my colleague. And, I adore him. Enough to get the humor and laugh.
Actually, I think it all really depends on the person and the situation. I'm no Emily Post, but I think, in formal situations, it's fine to say, "I'd like to introduce the Rev'd Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton," which gives me the opportunity, depending on the situation, to say, "Please call me Dr. Kaeton" or, even more preferably, "Please call me Elizabeth."
When people with children insist that their children refer to me with an honorific title, I usually ask what they call their male clergy and take the female version of that. More often than not, this means that "Father" becomes "Mother." I don't like it, but I think that's a less confusing translation for kids.
'Mother' is such a loaded title - especially for people from Roman Catholic backgrounds. Anyone who has read Freud, however, can tell you that the subconscious or unconscious mind is very powerful and images of 'Mother' can have positive and negative effects - not all of them desirable or particularly helpful.
In my last congregation, we settled on "Rev. Elizabeth". It's not exactly grammatically correct, but it lends a certain formality without being too stuffy.
I grow so weary of being introduced to someone while wearing my collar and, after noting the bemused or befuddled look on the face of the person I've just met, being asked, "Ummm..... What do they call you?"
I generally smile and say, "Elizabeth. It's what God calls me."
These days, my smile is growing thin. Especially after the person to whom I've just been introduced talks about the previous rector, "Father Smith."
Which is why I think this whole movement ought to be led by male clergy. I am convinced that it's really the only way things are going to be changed.
Indeed, I think male bishops ought to take more of a lead. Many now introduce themselves as "John," or, "Steve," and seem not to mind when people call them that, but they do not stop them when some people call them "Bishop".
I think that has its appropriate place and time, but if more bishops talked about 'servant leadership' - and, in fact, practiced it themselves - we'd not only see greater acceptance of women clergy, but the building up and respect for the priesthood of all believers.
Which is really the point.
So, I'm challenging my male colleagues to work this theme into their sermons on Sunday, June 17th. Or, write about it for the weekly parish email newsletter. Or, talk about it at the announcements or at the Adult Forum after church.
When men begin to be be more egalitarian, setting aside the honorific title that is so problematic, so antithetical to what Jesus taught, the greater the chances are of successfully changing the paternalistic culture from a "church family" to a "faith community".
Language is very powerful. So are titles. It's time to change them and rethink the way we are church. I have a strong suspicion that as we move from a "church family" to a "faith community," we may just stop squabbling like so many infantile children and find ourselves praying together a whole lot more as adults.
I hope I can rely on my colleagues - male and female - to help in this movement. But, it's going to take male colleagues to give up a bit of their power and authority before others can have a more equal share.
When the ones who have the most to gain from the system begin to give up or share what they have, we'll be better able to see more of the "Beloved Community" of Jesus.
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus". Galatians 3:28