Thursday, July 16, 2015


Well, of course he didn’t say that.  What he said was: “You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven.”  (Matthew 23:9)  But today, might he have said that?  There are many for whom this injunction clearly means that no priest should be called ‘Father’, but now that women have been ordained to the priesthood does this also mean that one should not call them ‘Mother’?  To do so may feel rather ‘clunky’ at first but I share a concern that the title ‘Reverend’ has become the received way in which to address women priests.  Even male priests are now saddled with that designation which seems to have crossed the Atlantic and even entered the halls of the BBC.  But is this to be welcomed?  And what will happen when women bishops are liturgically addressed?  Will they be Right Reverend Mother's in God or will all bishops now emulate their priests and simply be referred to as Right Reverend’s?  

To those who object to calling a priest Father (and, by extension, Mother) there are many responses. Firstly if Jesus meant us never to use the word then we should not call our male parent by that name (nor by any of its derivations) and the church would have demanded that the word be expunged from the vocabulary.  But, clearly, that has not happened!  Nor have we abandoned the term ‘teacher’ which Jesus also told his disciples not to use (Matt.23:8).  Yet S. Paul seems to have had no problem in referring to himself as ‘father’: ‘Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.’ (1 Cor. 4:15).  And he goes so far as to describe himself as the father of the one-time slave Onesimus (Phil.1:21).  So, if S. Paul didn't have any problem using the title, why should we? 

I find it sad that even the church has adopted the word ‘Reverend’ to address clergy.  It is lazy!  For 'Reverend' (without the definite article) is an adjective and describes a person’s state of being: no matter how hard it may try to lose its definite article it is not a noun!  As a priest I don't feel that my ultimate calling is to be reverend but, rather, that like all people I am ever being called into a relationship with God who is both my Divine Father and Mother.   In the end it is not 'reverence' that I am seeking to live out of but that relationship with God.  So I wonder if using the term Mother or Father actually allows people to unconsciously relate with the Divine?  We don't refer to God as 'Reverence' but, as has been pointed out, we do understand God in relational terms.  I would hate to be called 'reverend', but being called 'Father' reminds me of whom I am called to be in God.

So I wonder if one of the problems with using the term ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’ (apart from the difficult relationships some people may have experienced with their human parents) is in the way it connects us in an intimate way with God.   As a priest I am not called to be in the place of God when I relate to people but neither am I called to be their ‘best friend’.  To use the adjective ‘reverend’ distances us somehow - separates us even – from the object to which it refers.  If s/he is reverend, then s/he is different from the ordinary and God is not connected with the everyday.  On the other hand to simply relate to priests as one might relate to Janet or John ignores the God-dimension of that relationship.  But to call a priest ‘Father’ or ‘Mother' recognises that one is in some kind of relationship with what they are called to be – Fathers or Mothers in God – no matter how deeply unconscious the person may be of that encounter with the Divine.

I have no desire to be addressed as ‘Reverend’ nor, for that matter, Vicar (another lazy way of referring to clergy) – I am not a vicar and never have been!  But I value being called Father and I will call women priests Mother because it reminds me and, I hope, them of that relationship in God we are called to both embrace and live out.  It reminds me that, as a priest, I am not called into an ordinary relationship with those I encounter but into a relationship in God our heavenly Father – and Mother.  

Finally I am reminded that no greater inspiration could women priests have then this call to Divine motherhood which S. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, was drawn to express in his great Song.

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
  You are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
  tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
  in sickness you nurse us,
  and with pure milk you feed us.

Perhaps we might all embrace that calling.

(revised 17.07)


Kathryn said...

Amazing timing! I got home from leading a workshop on Parenting and Priesthood, in which we'd had a good discussion around this very thing, to find that a friend had linked to your post. I'm blogging the workshop now, and would be glad to quote you if I may. Hopeful thanks

John-Francis Friendship said...

Kathryn - you are welcome to quote from the article. Maybe you could cite the source?