I am in a new parish. And as usual, the question, “What do we call you?” comes up. I am not fond of titles for those who lead in the Christian community for the lay or ordained and yet we are a hierarchical church in which titles are not only used but coveted by both the ordained and the laity. Over the years, I have been called Mother, Sister, Reverend, Pastor, and Ms. I prefer to be called by my baptismal name, but that isn’t the custom of the parish I am presently in. Because I am adjunct in my new parish, I will conform to the practice of the parish. It doesn’t bother me what people call me as long as it conveys the respect that the Incarnation confirms, not just for the position of priest, but that promotes the dignity of every human being.
I do have an aversion to parental titles for clergy. I know how they developed—from the monastic and even the rabbinical relationships over the centuries. The title ‘Father’ is a relatively recent manifestation in the Episcopal Church or Anglican tradition, just since the mid-19th century. And my earliest acquaintance with Anglican tradition was in a part of the country that was rather low-church so the parental titles were not dogmatically adhered to.
My first encounter with the Christian community was among a group of Roman Catholic nuns. They all called each other ‘Sister’ or ‘Mother’. Coming to know Christ in semi-monastic community in which egalitarianism was essential to one’s living out of one’s faith, it always seemed peculiar to me that ‘Sister’ was less a familial endearment than a way to ignore the other’s unique personality. Much has changed in the religious communities since that time.
When I entered that community as a postulant, I used to take the bus to school. Each day the bus driver and I would have a lively conversation as we were trying toopen our eyes to a new day. But the morning after I received the veil, the joviality that had been a part of our interactions stopped. I was no longer Lauren. I was ‘Sister’ and we lost that exchange that was marked by friendship. The boundary was up. The title was there. There was just too much cultural baggage in New Orleans for joviality and human interaction to cross it. It was a loss I have remembered for 40 years. And I identify titles with that loss.
I have found that ‘being different’, the experience of all LGBTQ folk, has helped me understand how essential to my faith that being unique is. It is part of myunderstanding of the Holy that the Divine creates everyone inimitable. And part of the ideal of Christian community is when all of us come together, not the same, but with all the diversity of creation. So pigeon-hole titles don’t celebrate that matchlessness that our lives are.
I am especially uncomfortable with parental titles for clergy. It is all too easy to allow those titles to become reality in the faith community. Too many times I have entered a parish community in which ‘Father knows Best’ continues as an infantilizing climate. Both clergy and faith community play out ‘familial roles’ which are often that of the dysfunctional stasis of addicted relationships. It is neither holy nor life-giving. The genuine faith-filled, Spirit-infused environment in which the Gospel is to be lived out requires mature personalities and spirituality that stands in the awe of newness that comes with childhood. It also requires recognition of the part all play in the healthy lived out faith that Church should imply. But that too is ideal, and we don't live there.
Often times I see clergy trying to live out parental roles with their congregations that may rooted in the dysfunction of their own homes. I also see parishioners playing out transactions that witness to their own histories rather than the healthy nurture of the pastor/parishioner dynamic.
At the same time, I know that the spiritual journey of individuals often is aided by those guides and mentors that take on very primal roles in our spiritualdevelopment. I know that while my confessor is much younger than I, she mothers me to a new place in my relationship with the Holy One. I must be that child with her so that I may grow in my relationship with Christ. It is incumbent upon me, however, that outside that very private and intimate moment of holiness that comes with that direction, it is Christ, not she who is the mover of my soul. I cannot succumb to the continued transference that would ultimately destroy all the growth that I have come to in that sacramental moment.
There are so many levels to the clergy/parishioner-parish relationship that no single title really serves. And yet… And yet.. It goes way beyond the individual or even the parish. As clergy we are also parsons in a society that needs to sign its religious persons in order to remember the spiritual dimension in society. I thank a sister colleague of reminding me of this very central position that we represent not just for our parishes but in a very real sense for the whole of in society. (another blog; another time)
When I was ordained over 30 years the women clergy in the Episcopal Church were still few and far between. There was no consensus as to title. Even the words Mother and Father were not equal in society. It was the women who were working as assistants that demanded parity with ‘Father So-in-so’. I was never an assistant so I could call my own shots, usually inviting parishioners to call me by my Christian name. (It somehow seemed appropriate.)
The title ‘Mother’ is one that is fraught with post-holes for me, yet I am going to have to recognize that it has become, in my lifetime, the parlance of the people who recognize women priests in the locales I am being called to serve. It isn’t the word—that means anything at all, but the respect and the honor that others have for the sacramental role that I am, have become and continue to become. So call me Mother—perhaps not Muthah+ so much anymore.