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Are ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ Appropriate Titles for Protestant Clergy?

by David L. Holmes

Dr. Holmes teaches religion at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 4, 1985, pp. 1120-1122. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


As more and more women enter the ministry, the question emerges in a new way. The issue has become especially problematic in the Episcopal Church, where more than 800 women have been ordained since 1976 into a priesthood whose ranks include many called "Father."

What do you call a woman priest? Two Episcopal priests, Julia M. Gatta and Eleanor McLaughlin, argue in an article by that title (Episcopal Times, October 1981) that "Mother" is the appropriate form of address. Gatta and McLaughlin cite precedents ranging from maternal images for the church and its ministry (Matt. 23:37 and Gal. 4:19) to the Christian practice of calling charismatic women in the desert communities "amma" ("mother") and heads of monastic communities of women "abbess" ("mother").

The authors argue that other possible formal titles -- "Sister," "Mrs.," "Miss," "Ms." and "Doctor" -- put women in subordinate, diminutive or secular roles. Only "Mother," they conclude, "can most easily incorporate [ordained] women into the ongoing tradition of the Church -- a tradition which has recognized the spiritual motherhood of saintly women and of the God whom they served" (p. 4).

Linguist Donald D. Hook also endorses "Mother" as the most appropriate title ("‘Mother’ as Title for Women Priests: A Prescriptive Paradigm," Anglican Theological Review [October 1983], pp. 419-424). Finding that Episcopal usage lacks the parallel titles for men and women clergy, Hook sets up a prescriptive paradigm to facilitate the acceptance of the "best possible title." For Hook that word is "Mother" -- a title, he asserts, that is at once not only familiar and descriptive but also reflects for clergy "the right relationship between man and woman in Christ.’’

Gatta, McLaughlin and Hook speak for the growing number who advocate ‘‘Mother" as the appropriate title for Episcopal women priests. Yet the many Episcopalians who resist using "Father" can likewise be expected to oppose the use of "Mother." And most Protestants would undoubtedly reject both titles. "A wall goes up whenever I hear clergy addressed as ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,"’ a Protestant churchwoman recently told me.

Such opposition, however, is ironic in the context of church history. For American Protestants regularly called their clergy "Father" 200 and 300 years ago, and some continued to do so a century ago. And during the same years, Protestants addressed venerated women in their churches as "Mother."

The title "Father" was used in four ways in addressing clergy (see my article, "Fathers and Brethren," Church History [September 1968], pp. 298-318). In early America "Father" was a title of respect for elderly men. Although, for example, "Mister" (the designation of a gentleman and a college graduate) was the normal title for Puritan clergy in colonial New England, Congregationalists. Baptists, Methodists and German Reformed commonly addressed older ministers as "Father" well into the 19th century.

Furthermore, Protestants also employed the title for younger ministers who influenced Christian commitment and served as spiritual fathers. This usage is evident in the correspondence between early American ministers and their theological students. The journals of Methodist circuit riders as well as the records of Protestant missions to Indians and seamen also indicate this usage. Herman Melville, for example, based his character Father Mapple -- the whaleman-chaplain in Moby Dick -- on Father Edward Thompson Taylor, the Methodist pastor of Boston’s Seamen’s Bethel.

Protestants of earlier centuries also addressed founders of denominations and religious communities as "Father." American Methodists, for example, referred to John Wesley not only as "Mr. Wesley" but also as "Father Wesley." Following the custom in both genders, the Shakers called their matriarch ‘‘Mother’’ and their male leaders "Father."

Closely related was the custom of calling missionary pioneers "Father." In the 19th century, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist, German Reformed, Methodist and Universalist missionaries were given the title throughout the New South and West. And American Lutherans used "Father" for their pioneer pastors, their first missionary to India, and their patriarch, Father Henry Melchior Muhlenberg.

Few in Protestant churches of earlier generations would have seen a theological problem in addressing spiritual fathers, founders or missionary pioneers as ‘Father." Just as the author of I John addressed as "fathers" the elderly who were advanced in the knowledge of Christ (I John 2:13-14), so Protestant churches applied the title to experienced ministers who had been long in the service of the church. "Fathers and Brethren" sat in ecclesiastical assemblies, and in the New Testament "Father" denoted the difference between generations.

Moreover, if calling clergy "Father" had violated biblical norms, the Christian Church and Disciples of Christ surely would have opposed it, for these groups were formed in an attempt to restore not only the doctrine and practice of primitive Christianity, but also its very nomenclature. Warren Stone’s motto was "Bible names for Bible things." And Thomas and Alexander Campbell stood on the phrase, "Where the Bible speaks, we speak: where it is silent, we are silent." Ridiculing "Reverend" and "Doctor" as "unscriptural," Alexander Campbell even employed the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:8-10 as a motto for his magazine, the Christian Baptist.

Yet church history clearly indicates that members of the Restoration Movement commonly addressed both the Campbells and Stone as "Father." Furthermore, the three founders used the term for their own clergy as well as for each other. And none of the movement’s opponents ever seemed to exploit a contradiction in the movement’s use of "Father" as a clerical title. They apparently saw no contradiction.

The use of "Mother" for Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers, for Mother Mary Baker Eddy of Christian Science and for Mother Ellen Gould White of the Seventh-day Adventists clearly illustrates that some 19th-century women religious leaders received the title. And from the time that Protestant denominations began ordaining women in the 19th century, some women clergy have been addressed as mother.

But in the mid-19th century, Protestants began to drop the titles. By the 1920s, only Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and some Episcopal clergy and nuns were being addressed as ‘‘Father’’ or "Mother." The evidence suggests three reasons for this change in nomenclature.

Most significantly, the decline of "Father" in Protestantism coincides with the rise of Irish immigration to the United States in the 1840s. Before that time, Roman Catholic priests in America were usually addressed as "Mister," for most were secular (nonmonastic) clergy with roots in Europe or England, where Roman Catholic practice restricted "Father" to priests of monastic orders. Secular priests were called "Mister," "Monsieur," "Don" or other vernacular equivalents.

Irish Roman Catholics, however, addressed all priests -- whether secular or monastic -- as "Father." And by the end of the Victorian period, the Irish had influenced English-speaking Roman Catholicism to call every priest "Father."

This change clearly influenced Protestant usage. Catholic priests called "Mister" and protestant clergy called "Father" had lived side by side in America. Following the Irish immigrations, however, Protestants began to see the title as redolent of priestcraft and popery.

The reaction was quick. As early as the 1840s, a venerable Congregationalist pastor in Massachusetts suddenly rejected being called "Father" because he "hated every rag of the scarlet lady" (Proceedings at the Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Ordination and Settlement of Rev. Richard S. Storrs . . .[Boston, 18611, p.83). As the 19th century progressed, such reactions became more common.

Second, a literalist, increasingly polemic interpretation of Matthew 23:9 ("And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven" [KJV]) supported the change in nomenclature. Like the Reformers, early American Protestants tended to believe that the Matthean passage condemned pharisaic vainglory rather than specific titles. That interpretation was natural, for a literal interpretation of the surrounding verses would also forbid Christians from using "Teacher" and "Mister."

Nevertheless, as more and more Irish Catholic priests moved into the United States, Protestants began to assert that "Father" was unbiblical. The literalist interpretation of Matthew 23:9 became a standard weapon in the arsenal of anti-Catholicism. "He didn’t like to be called Father," wrote a minister about a colleague in 19th-century Massachusetts.

"He wanted to be called Brother Jones. He often used to say: Call no man father upon the earth"’ (Richard Eddy. Universalism in Gloucester, Massachusetts [Gloucester, 1892], p. 98). As a result of this reaction, the 20th century brought generations of American Protestants who knew nothing of ministers addressed as "Father."

Finally, "Father" seems to have died out because it was replaced in Protestant clerical circles by "Doctor." During the colonial period, American colleges conferred few honorary D.D.s or S.T.D.s, and then only on ministers of considerable distinction. From 1636 to 1776, Harvard and Yale together awarded only four S.T.D.s and one D.D.

In the 19th century, however, new denominational colleges proliferated across America. To acquire respectability -- and financial support -- they awarded numerous D.D.s. Standards declined, and ministers openly sought the degree. In 1875 alone, church colleges in America conferred 138 honorary D.D.s -- more than the grand total conferred by all American colleges during the colonial period.

Thus the title of ‘Doctor" gradually replaced "Father" as the professional expectation for Protestant parish clergy. Most Protestant ministers now looked forward to being called" Doctor," honoris causa, so "Father" (and its companion "Mother") virtually disappeared from Protestant use.

In a class by itself is "Reverend." The most common designation for contemporary Protestant clergy, it also seems the most objectionable. To be sure, "Reverend" is gender-free. But it possesses neither a biblical nor a patristic lineage. The King James Version employs the word only once (for God, in Psalms 111:9), and modern versions change even that translation. The title was not used for Christian clergy until the 15th century. And above all, calling only the minister "Reverend’’ seems to contradict Protestant teachings about priesthood and vocation.

On first glance the unsexed noun ‘Doctor" would seem to be an appropriate title. It, however, comes from the academy; as such, as Gatta and McLaughlin declare, it fails "to dramatize the unique and intimate relationship" that clergy have with the community of Christians. A whiff of vain-glory may also surround expectations that church colleges should reward service to Christ with a doctorate.

On first glance also, the simple "Mr.," "Mrs.," "Miss" and "Ms." (or the British honorific "Dame") seem acceptable. By using these, women clergy receive a title parallel to those of their male colleagues. That all of these titles were heavily class-oriented in earlier centuries seems a small matter today.

But an overriding problem remains: Titles like "Mr." and "Ms." are secular and unecumenical, and hence remain open to the same criticism as academic titles. As Hook points out, they fail to portray "esteem, trust, and significant pastoral and family-type relationships."

In contrast, "Brother" and "Sister" seem far more appropriate. They place authority within the context of a family, and they are biblical in origin. The titles are historical and ecumenical; Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and most other Christian traditions (including Anglican evangelicals) have used them. Given the words of Jesus in Mark 3:35, the titles could also prove exhortative.

Yet "Brother" and "Sister" carry with them an almost insurmountable practical problem: the expectation that both clergy and laity will receive them. Such a thoroughgoing reform of congregational language seems improbable, if not impossible, in many denominations.

As for "Father" and "Mother," any argument for their revival must overcome at least three obstacles.

First, Protestants seek biblical warrant for doctrine and practice, and there is no scriptural evidence that early Christians used "Father" or "Mother" as titles for ordained people. When it emerged as a church title in the patristic period, "Father" applied only to bishops. To be sure, Paul refers to himself as the "father" of some Christian communities and individuals, but only because he nurtured them in the gospel. No congregation called him "Father Paul."

Second, during the centuries when American Protestants addressed ministers as "Father," they conferred the title voluntarily on deserving ministers; they did not automatically bestow it on every 25-year-old ordinand. Finally, Protestants addressed not only deserving clergy but also revered laity as "Father" and "Mother".

Hence the quest for an appropriate title is elusive. However, 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.

But until or unless the other major Christian traditions adopt the title of "Pastor," all Protestants might consider lowering walls and contributing in a small but significant way to the ecumenical movement by voluntarily calling their clergy "Father" and "Mother." Protestant churches in America conferred "Father’’ and "Mother" voluntarily without controversy for 200 years; they could surely do so again. And lest ministers "make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long and . . . love . . . salutations in the market places" (Matt. 23:5-7), the titles should remain voluntary.

"Father" and "Mother" do not violate biblical nomenclature, and they have the sanction of Protestant tradition. Neither sacerdotal nor conventual, they have been employed by fervent Baptists as well as by biblicist Disciples of Christ. Not terms of self-exaltation, they were used voluntarily by congregations and colleagues to express affection and respect. More than "Mr.," "Mrs ," "Ms.," "Dame" or "Dr.," "Father" and "Mother" portray the strong familial nature of Christ’s church.


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