What do you call a female priest or other minister? Not that many women go by ‘father’, but I do!
Here are four important concepts I draw on for choosing this title,
and why they matter…
God is so much larger than we are, and so much larger than any idea we have about gender. Which is not to say that God is without gender!
God did, in fact, invent the concept, and as Christians, we know that God became human as a male. And Jesus, God’s Son, calls God ‘Father‘ over 100 times in the Gospel of John alone.
HOWEVER, this does not necessarily mean that God is a man! Only, I think, that God is both represented in gendered terms and is not limited by our view of what gender is, what it means, who is favored by it, etc.
I believe that part of this is understanding that women can be ‘fatherly’: guiding, leading, protecting, just as surely as men can be ‘motherly’: caring, teaching, nurturing.
That means we can be ‘Fathers’, regardless of our gender identity, and it is not that strange to give women clergy the title ‘father’.
When I am serving as a priest, I am not ‘just Cathie’. I am a person who is set apart by the people of the church, educated and formed by its institutions, and sealed by the Holy Spirit, all for the work of bearing the Scripture, sacraments and traditions of the faith.
I do not dare to serve in this capacity by my own authority, but by the authority with which I have been entrusted. In my case this is the Episcopal Church, which bestows titles on those seen fit to carry them.
It is extremely important to me that I carry the support and encouragement my title conveys, and that in this way I also assure those I serve that I am worthy of their trust.
Many clergy women go by the title ‘Mother’, or else they choose ‘Reverend’, ‘Pastor’, or some other title.
The reason I do not choose any of these is that ‘Father’ is the traditional title for a priest in the Catholic tradition, of which I am part (the Episcopal Church is in the Anglican branch of the Catholic tradition).
I believe that the hands laid upon me at my ordination were those who had hands laid on them, who in turn had hands laid on them, all the way back to when Jesus laid his hands on Peter and declared him the rock on which the church would be built.
No other title conveys this tradition in the same way, and I see no reason why my gender – or anything else – should preclude me from choosing to bear this sign of my participation in this ancient vocation. This also helps me remember that I am not a ‘female priest’, I am a priest, first and foremost.
I love the surprise and delight of claiming an unexpected title! And I love the conversations and the questions that it brings.
Christianity is a faith full of paradox: Life through Death, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand right now, the people we expect to be ‘in’ rarely are, and Jesus is always upending our assumptions in surprising ways.
Being a Christian is about keeping on our toes! Being awake, because you never know when Good News will appear.
The title ‘Father’ appeals to my own love of paradox, my own joy in following a Savior who is full of surprises, and my own challenge to never be complacent about what the love of God might be up to next.
One of my most endearing memories is leading a summer camp in New York City, with over 100 children. Every morning I would greet them all by shouting, ‘Good morning everybody!’ And they would shout back in unison, ‘Good morning, Father Cathie!‘
Incidentally, the kids never had any problem with this.
The only questions I ever got from kids is when they went home, and their parents told them they must be wrong about my name.
Then one day, the mother of one of my eight year-old campers told me her daughter reported that at school, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said she wanted to be a priest. One of the boys in the class mocked her, and said, ‘Girls can’t be priests.’ And she said, ‘I know a girl who is a priest.’
I will never stop being a Father for this reason alone.
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