Sunday, March 3, 2013

Call No Man Father: Reconsidering Priestly Titles

You might read the title of this post and think, "Oh boy, here comes another anti-Catholic rant from this crazy blogger!" Fortunately, I can convince you that my intentions are not anti-Catholic nor anti-Roman, really, but rather pro-Catholic and pro-Anglican.

However, to begin, I should address the common biblical approach against this sort of title. The passage (usually) cited is Matthew 23:9. I will post the verses surrounding this verse to bring out a bit of the context of the passage in question:
23 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,
2 Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat:
3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
4 For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
5 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.
9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
First, we should note that Jesus is speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, not of his disciples nor of believers. This is an important distinction to make when discussing the possible interpretations of this passage nowadays. The Reformers advocated the plain or literal (not literalistic) interpretation of Scripture, avoiding the allegorical methods of the latter Middle Ages. I think it would be far-fetched to conclude that Jesus is attempting to give some protocol as to the nomenclature of Christian ministers in this passage. However, if we were to conclude that this is Jesus' intent, we would have to exclude use of the word "Mister (Mr.)"which is derived from the Latin, magister, (master), also condemned by Jesus in this passage. We would also have to exclude of words related to "teacher", for this is the meaning of "Rabbi". If we were to carry this to the next level, we might conclude that any title is inherently opposed to Jesus' Gospel. Moreover, what are we to call our biological fathers? I hope this series of questions reveals that this is not the plain meaning of this text. Rather, I believe it is a condemnation of the attitude of the Pharisees and scribes who sought human praise and recognition through their titles. If we accept this interpretation, we can safely conclude that this passage has little to do with Christian ministers and what they should be called (if anything).

I hope this clarification has placed me safely outside the "fundamentalist" camp. However, I do wish to present a Catholic and Apostolic case against the use of the title "Father" for Christian priests. I wish to do so by laying out some reasons against this practice which fall neatly within the Anglican desire to imitate the practice of the early Church. Secondly, I believe that there is enough evidence to conclude that this practice is a distinctly Roman Catholic practice, originating from the latter 19th century. Lastly, I do think what words we use can convey meaning that is (either intentional or) unintentional; we have to think about what sorts of messages we are sending when we choose to use certain words.

First, the history of the term is interesting. There is no evidence that Christian priests were called "father"in the early Church, this resulted from the advent of the mendicant orders in the 12th and 13th centuries. However, there is plenty of evidence to support the claim that Christian bishops were called "father" in the early Church. In fact, this is where the title "pope" comes from, it was originally a title reserved for all bishops. It comes from the Greek word pappa which is best translated "daddy". It was gradually applied only to the Bishop of Rome in the West and was only used for him by the time of the Papacy of Leo the Great (440-461), although, this usage was never solely applied to him, for the (Coptic) Bishop of Alexandria is styled the "Pope of Alexandria". As time progressed, parish clergy were generally called "Sir" (in England) or "Dom" (in Italy), which comes from the Latin "Dominus" or Master. As mentioned earlier, the mendicant orders were established as part of a reform movement in the 1200 and 1300's. Clergy belonging to this order were generally called "Father" (or Romance equivalents, Pere, Padre, etc.). The older Benedictine Order maintained the title "Dom" for its clergy members.

After the Reformation, both Catholic and Anglican clergy were addressed the same in England. The choices were "Sir", "Mister", or "Doctor" (if the priest had a doctorate). The discovery of the New World led to an increased use in the term "Padre" for clergy, among Spanish-speakers, since the establishment of Catholicism in the New World was brought by Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans, all of whom were "Padres".

This ties into the second reason listed above, the application of the title "father" to English (Catholic) clergy occurred with the reestablishment of the Roman hierarchy in England and the immigration of Irish Catholics to the US. The latter used the title to distinguish from Anglican clergy and many of the Irish priests in the US were religious clergy, not secular. At this point, roughly in the 19th century, we see the divergence of Anglican and Catholic usage of titles for clergy, which before had been identical. The mainstream Anglican Church did not adopt the Catholic usage of "Father" for two reasons, one, the Anglican Church of England did not have monasteries and, hence, had no religious priests, because monasticism was rejected at the Reformation; second, Anglican ministers were not sacrificing priests as Roman priests are believed to be, hence, Anglicans had a way of distinguishing their clergy from Roman clergy (remember that in England, the cassock is a sign of Protestantism, not Romanism). However, a small group of Anglican ministers began to adopt the title "Father" for themselves, believing it to be the more Catholic and Apostolic usage. These men were the Tractarians, and especially the later Ritualists. The problem, of course, is that the usage of the title "Father" for secular clergy is not an apostolic practice. Ironically, by adopting the Roman usage of the 19th century, Tractarians actually abandoned the Apostolic practice, which is extant in the Prayer Book. Consider the address to the Bishop at the beginning of the "Ordering of Priests", "REVEREND Father in God, I present unto you these persons present, to be admitted to the Order of Priesthood..." (p. 569). The Church of England (and her daughter Churches) had maintained the truly primitive practice all along, yet the Tractarians did not trust the Formularies to accurately present the Catholic faith, and instead, rejected that primitive, Catholic, and Apostolic practice for the 19th century customs of the Roman Church. Unfortunately, it stuck with the broad church crowd and is now mainstream Anglican practice.

The third reason listed above is a brief point, however, it is one we should consider. To the unchurched mind, "Father" = Roman (sacrificing) priest, not a Christian minister of word and sacrament. Now, this is a point that should not be exaggerated, nor should we reject things on the sole reason that Rome accepts them, however, we should pause and think what sort of message we are sending when we style our clergy in this manner. What would Cranmer and the other Reformers think of this? Those men who died for rejecting the errors of Rome in the doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the real presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine (which is why they were burnt alive).

The last issue to be addressed is the remedy. If we are not to call our priests "Father", what are we to call them? The human mind seems to feel more comfortable with titles, especially those of us of English descent. I attempt to offer some alternatives here. First, one can use the classical Anglican formula, "Sir" or "Mister" for parish clergy, "Canon" "Dean", etc. for clergy in those offices. The title "Reverend" is not meant to be a way of addressing clergy directly. It is certainly appropriate in third person references. Another popular alternative is the use of "Pastor" as a title, "Pastor So-and-So". I'm not opposed to using "Rector" "Vicar" and "Curate" as titles either.



aaytch said...


Anonymous said...

“Father” isn't the correct styling for an Anglican Priest, full stop. Can’t anyone in the states find a copy of Debrett’s?

Fr. Steve Reeves said...


I actually like "Parson". My best friend calls me "Padre". I've been called Pastor Steve before. I've never been one to hold to ceremony unless I'm dealing with another Priest. In my small congregation, I'm typically just called Steve. Its not out of disrespect, but because we have personal relationships. I would tend to agree with the author. We don't have to use the Roman titles. We can use Mister, or Pastor, or Parson. Something that sets us apart from the Roman Church.