Recent discussion in my household (and on my husband’s blog) has touched on the question of titles.  Just what do you call a woman in ministry, anyway?

It was all sparked by said husband referring to me (in jest) as “dear priestess,” a term which I particularly dislike, partly because it’s not a term Christians have ever used for their leaders, and partly because it is associated with Paganism (and therefore likely to lead to misunderstanding), and partly because it’s often been used by opponents of the ordination of women to belittle women in ministry.

But what are my options?  In this post, I give a quick run down of the possibilities, and some comment on how I find them helpful (or not), and my personal feelings on them.  Note: this post is not an attack on my sisters in ministry who do things differently.  It’s meant to be light hearted, and express my quite personal preferences and opinions.

So let’s start here:

I am, according to the order of the Anglican Church in Australia, a priest in the Church of God.  Priest can be a controversial title; for some people it carries overtones of a sacrificial ministry and a particular theology of the Eucharist (which I don’t share).  For me, I prefer to see it as a linguistic contraction of the old term “presbyter,” which came from the Greek word “presbyteros,” or elder.  I am, in that sense, exercising the leadership and teaching role of an elder, and if it seems odd to me to be an “elder” at the age of 35 (and often ministering to many people a generation or two older than me), at least I can tell myself that I’ve been well educated for the role, and that I’m now older than Jesus was when he died!  I tend to describe myself as an Anglican priest, partly because I don’t look like people’s stereotypical image of a priest, and thus it leads to questions and conversation; and partly because it is a precise term that tells people who know about these things that, for example, I can hear confessions or administer the last rites (unlike an Anglican deacon or lay minister).

One thing which seems to have happened organically as women have moved into ordained ministry is that, just as some of my male colleagues are called “Father,” that respect has been transferred to women in ministry as “Mother.”  I don’t particularly like this; it makes me sound like a nun (misunderstanding again; and people often assume I’m a nun anyway, but I certainly am not)!  Besides, I think it just tends to lead to people projecting their mother issues onto me (more than they would already).  But my biggest objection to “Mother” is actually that I object to “Father.”  Did Jesus not say, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father; the one in heaven”?  It’s a pretty simple principle, isn’t it?  There is a problem here about gender equality, though; because the use of Father is so entrenched, if a woman refuses to use Mother, it can make her seem less than her male colleagues.  So from some people who genuinely mean it as a respectful courtesy I grin and bear it.

Formally (for purposes of addressing mail and so forth), my title is Reverend.  Generally speaking, this is the title I prefer if you’re going to use one, and I encourage small children to call me “Rev” rather than “Mother” when their parents are teaching them to be polite.  Of course, Australian society is fairly relaxed about titles in general, so I tend to tell adults they don’t need to call me Reverend, unless they’re telemarketers.  But it does bother me when forms and computer systems give me the options of Mrs, Ms, and Miss, but not Revd, (or indeed Dr. or other titles).  Come on, it’s the year 2015; you think women don’t do anything to earn other options?  Is a little flexibility really so hard?

Ahem.  I digress.

One option many of my colleagues use is to call themselves a “minister.”  I tend to shy away from this, partly because I believe we are all supposed to minister to one another in the body of Christ, and so we should all be “ministers.”  And also partly because it’s a very imprecise term; a “minister” could be a lay person with a specialist ministry (eg. with children), or a lay person working as a chaplain or in a limited pastoral capacity in a parish, or a deacon, or a priest, or a bishop… it doesn’t tell you anything about what my role is.

Another option – not traditionally one used much by Anglicans, but it is becoming more common as the influence of American mega-churches grows – is “pastor” (and the associated use of terms like “senior pastor,” “associate pastor,” etc).  I don’t use this at all; it’s a title used for  members of the clergy in the Baptist or Lutheran denominations (and probably some others), so again, I think it would cause confusion to use it.  And while being “pastoral” is part of what I do, and in this I follow the example of Christ, who laid down his life for the sheep, it seems to me to really reflect only one aspect of the role.  And I react badly to uncritical borrowing from outside our tradition; what is wrong with Anglican titles, that we should need to ignore them in favour of whatever ecclesial phenomenon is flavour of the month?

Those are probably the main options out there.  Just before I finish, though, a note on the word “curate.”  I am, technically speaking, the assistant curate in the parish, but in common use that gets shortened to “curate.”  Technically, the “curate” is a person who has responsibility for the care or “cure of souls” of a parish, and so it properly refers to the priest in charge.  However, he or she is (in this diocese) generally called the “vicar,” and so the assistant curate is known as the curate.  Historically, it might have been possible to be an “assistant curate” for a long time – even perhaps one’s whole career in ministry – but today, it is understood to be a training role, generally undertaken for the first four years or so out of college.  After that one would generally be recognised as an “associate priest,” recognising the seniority of experience.  (Confused?  So are we).  Anyway, while that is my position and what I put at the bottom of emails and so forth, I don’t generally introduce myself as the curate, or even the assistant curate, because I find that outside church circles it’s unfamiliar and alienating; I tend to introduce myself as the “assistant priest,” which I find people do understand.

Look, here’s the thing.  It’s not straightforward, this business of titles.  And we find ourselves in difficulty translating what have been norms of address to men over to women, where the social baggage is very different.  And it takes time to work out what works for each person, with their personality and approach to leadership style, and theology of ministry, and all that stuff.  Just please, don’t call me Reverend Mother.  I’m not obedient enough for that!



4 comments on “Entitled

  1. lmv5857 says:

    Hi, I am Methodist and we call our female church leaders pastor. We also use reverend. With some we will add the first or last name with the pastor or reverend when we are speaking to or of them as a sign of affection. There is also the tradition in some denominations of the “Brother/Sister in Christ” term for fellow worshipers. It may sound simplistic but I see nothing wrong with you being a priest. I mean in the english language actor is used as term for a male or female in film/theatre they use it as their job title and I know that comparing the two different job titles are like apples and coconuts but the basic principle still stands. Priest is a job title not a “male” job title. In my oppinion as least. Hope this helps!

  2. I got some laughs out of this post, Emily. How about we address you as “Auntie Em” as in The Wizard of Oz”

  3. Lorrie says:

    I’m glad I read your post. Informative and sheds some light on proper ways of addressing those in ministry. Love your lighthearted perspective.

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