By Drew Nathaniel Keane
The question of what to call the minister can be confusing. In many contemporary Episcopal parishes, a priest will be called Father or Mother, but this is a relatively recent development. I will briefly explore the options that are commonly heard today: Father/Mother, Reverend, and Pastor. I commend the use of Pastor to my fellow Episcopalians as the most reflective of the descriptions of the presbyter found in the New Testament and the prayer book rite for ordination.
In ancient times, Father was a title used only by bishops; later it grew within monasticism. In the East, non-monastics address monks (priests and others) as Father, while they call each other Brother. In the West, by the High Middle Ages it was common to call all in mendicant orders Father. For those speaking English, the custom of using Father as a form of address for all clergy seems to have begun first in Ireland.
Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Archbishop of Westminster (1865-92) — an Anglican clergyman who became a Roman Catholic in response to the Gorham Judgment and debates about baptismal regeneration — apparently began advocating that Roman Catholics in England use Father as an address for all clergy. Within the Church of England it was, of course, Anglo-Catholics who first began using this form of address, following Cardinal Manning’s recommendation.
This form of address has a varied history in other times and places, including among the Reformed. Historian David Holmes has shown that in colonial America and down through the 19th century New England Puritans and their successors, as well as Anglicans, called their ministers Mister or, as a formal style, the Reverend Mister (see “Fathers and Brethren,” Church History [Sept. 1968], pp. 298-318). But among the heirs of English dissenting movements outside of New England Puritans — i.e., among Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, German Reformed, Lutherans, and (later) Disciples of Christ — calling ministers Father was not uncommon, especially among missionary pioneers.
This seems to be based on Paul’s use of birth/parental language to describe his missionary labors in 1 Corinthians 4:15: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”
Holmes shows that the usage arose out of popular affection or reverence for the minister. The minister did not ask to be called Father or use it as a formal style. The decline in this usage among other American Protestant bodies coincides with the growth of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Protestant Episcopal Church, the influx of Irish immigration, and a dramatic rise in the number of DD degrees awarded by seminaries. By the late 19th century, Doctor was the most common form of address for Protestant clergy in the United States.
In the Church of England, Father generally remains a form of address only among Anglo-Catholics. The Anglican Church of Canada’s website continues to note it as an exception, advising that it not be used by default but only if clergy request it. However, in the Episcopal Church it seems to have become normative, though that was not the case until late in the 20th century. Some Episcopalians consider this the correct way to address a priest, simply because this form of address is all they have ever heard. However, it’s curious to make this usage a point of correctness. There’s nothing in our prayer book, Constitution, or Canons that indicates this is the proper way to address clergy. The custom is a recent one and not universal among Anglicans.
We need not be fundamentalists to think that Jesus’ warning in Matthew 23:9 ought to have some bearing on the discussion. I think the spirit of the prohibition lies in keeping the role of spiritual officers in perspective; they are themselves under authority, and are not authorities in and of themselves. It troubles me that Episcopalians are too quick to brush aside this Dominical proscription without bothering to ask what Jesus is warning against.
We do, however, have New Testament precedent for the use of the familial metaphor, as the passage quoted above from 1 Corinthians shows. Similarly, some argue that a spiritual interpretation of the fifth commandment — the injunction to honor our fathers and mothers — also lends weight to this usage. Parents in the flesh are analogous to parents in the faith. When St. Paul tells the Corinthians to think of him as “father” it is precisely because he was the person who “begat” them in the faith — preached the gospel to them and nurtured them in their infancy. But, it does not therefore follow that we should call all presbyters Father or Mother anymore than I would address all biological parents in that way beyond my own.
The use of parental language for those who have or do fulfill a parental role in one’s religious life seems highly appropriate, but the argument is less clear or compelling as a reason to address all ministers with that language. It seems preferable if the usage arise out of genuine relationship, affection, or reverence, rather than an insistence on a formal title.
In formal English, the Reverend is a minister’s honorific style. In recent times it has come to be used without the article as a title or form of direct address. It might be an apt way to show respect for the office, which is an honorable service, as acknowledged in 1 Timothy 3.1: “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” The phrase “good work” in this verse might also be rendered “noble task” or “honorable position” or “something excellent.”
The use of Reverend as a noun to refer to the office or the person holding the office sounds very odd to me — it would sound equally odd to call a judge an Honorable or an Honor.
My father — yes, my biological father and the man who raised me — is a minister in the independent Christian Church movement, as is my grandfather. He particularly dislikes being called Reverend or Reverend Keane because it implies he is worthy of special honor and expects others to refer to him in this way. My father thinks it better to be associated with servanthood than honor. I agree. It is also worth noting, as the Restoration Movement leader Alexander Campbell once did, that Matthew 23:9 applies just as much to the use of “the Reverend.”
Pastor, the Latin word for shepherd, entered into Middle English through Norman-French. It is also relatively common outside of the Episcopal Church to refer to the office of a minster and the person holding the office.
The rector and other ministers of a parish do indeed function as pastors, so the use of pastor as title and address seems entirely apt. In another article, David Holmes argues that among the possible forms of address for a minister,
one title may stand out from the others: “Pastor.” “Pastor” is at once biblical, historical, gender-free, reflective of a deeply caring relationship, and consistent with Reformation teachings about priesthood and vocation. It is also the most ecumenical of all possible titles, being used by Christian clergy from storefront preachers to the pope.
The association of Pastor with Lutherans and Baptists, among others, should not be troubling (in fact, I suspect that disquietude owes something to classism/elitism). I have known Anglo-Catholics to make the argument that the bishop is the only pastor of the diocese. That strikes me as ridiculous. This argument applies to the use of Father as well, which arose as a form of address for the bishop (as noted above). Pastor is one of the normative biblical metaphors for the office of presbyter/episkopos (two words for the same office at that early stage in the Church’s development), and pastor/shepherd is perhaps the image most often associated with Christian ministry in the New Testament. This passage from the first letter of Peter (one of the options for the epistle lesson in the ordination rite) is fairly representative of how the New Testament describes ministry in the Christian Church:
The elders (presbyterous) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (episcopountes) thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:1-3)
Rather than a title of honor like the others, pastor speaks to the function of feeding the flock. Since the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549), the Anglican rite for the ordination of a priest uses the language of pastor/shepherd to describe and refer to that office and ministry. The first option for the Epistle lesson in the Ordination service is Acts 20:17-35, in which the people of God are referred to as flock. One of the three options for the Gospel is John 10:1-16, in which Jesus explains his own ministry by analogy to a shepherd. In the Examination, the Bishop identifies the priest as pastor (along with messenger, watchman, and steward).
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer Book draws even more heavily on the shepherd analogy. In that rite, the Bishop says to the candidate: “Now you are called to work as pastor, priest, and teacher, together with your bishop and fellow presbyters” (p. 531). He asks, “Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom you are called to serve?” (p. 532). When the bishop lays hands upon the candidate, he prays, “Make him a faithful pastor, a patient teacher, and a wise councilor” (p. 534).
Considering this evidence, perhaps the custom of calling the priest Pastor warrants more consideration among Episcopalians. It reflects the language of the New Testament and of the prayer book, while also avoiding the potential problems involved in other options.
Drew Nathaniel Keane is a lecturer at Georgia Southern University and a member of St. John’s, Savannah, Georgia.