Title, Vocation and Identity - or How to Address a Female Priest

Vocation, title and identity are interwoven in ways that have become increasingly apparent to me since my ordination. I have been in ministry leadership from a young age, but ordination brought a new title, as I moved from being Mrs. Hester Mathes to the Reverend Hester Mathes. 

“The Reverend” as a title most often lives in letterheads, email signatures and Sunday bulletins. What I have learned in my first years of ordained ministry is that my title in spoken language, especially as a female priest, becomes more tricky. Quite often when one wishes to introduce me in conversation, I encounter the question, “What are we supposed to call you?” 

My first response has been to invite people to call me my baptized name, “Hester.”  My idea of ministry is firmly rooted in the priesthood of all believers. My vocation as a priest sets me apart in my ministry, but not above. I operate best through building relationships, and I like being on a first-name basis with those I serve alongside.

Over time I have lived into the complications that lie just below the surface of this simple question and response. In the South especially, many parents find it uncomfortable to have their children address adults on a first-name basis. We are steeped in a culture of ma’ams and sirs, and the familiarity of being on a first-name basis is not often shared across generations.  Additionally, in the school which shares our campus, and with whom we interact on a regular basis, all teachers are addressed by their last names.  Therefore, my initial invitation is sometimes met with discomfort as an alternative is brainstormed, and it is in these moments that I have encountered the complexity of the issues that make this a tougher question for me as a female priest.  

Often middle ground is found by adding a title to a first name.  For example, our male rector is “Father Sandy,” and my fellow associate rector is “Father Ben.”  This works because “Father” has long been used for priests in the Catholic tradition and easily transferred to the Episcopal tradition.  However, its counterpart, “Mother,” has entirely different meaning as it has been set aside for nuns. So far, there has been no need for a female title equivalent in the Catholic Church, where we find our roots.

“Mother” brings with it different ideas of identity than “Father,” both in church leadership and in the home.  In addition, using a parental title encourages the perception of being set above instead of apart. Therefore, the title of “Mother Hester” simply does not fit my identity in ministry. 

The next most obvious title for Episcopalians is “Reverend.” However, proper grammar training taught me that this title is, in its purist form, reserved for written addresses only, and must always be accompanied by “the.” On paper I am indeed, “the Reverend Hester Mathes,” but to call me “Reverend Hester” would send shivers up the spines of many grammar police in our midst. 

While my preference is still for people to call me by my baptized name, I am more convinced than ever that I need to find an alternative that would suit Emily Post, the neighboring headmaster and my wish to be on a first-name basis with those whom I serve.

I am not the only female priest searching for an appropriately casual and yet comfortably respectful title in this relatively new territory in the Episcopal Church.

I would argue that in this case, grammar has some catching up to do with female ordination. The title of Reverend is the one title that has over the course of Anglican priesthood been used to refer to both male and female clergy. The title of Reverend speaks to my identity as a priest wishing to honor God’s divine presence in our lives. Therefore, my hope is that we can start a movement to bring the title of Reverend out of its paper cell to the land of spoken titles, even among the most grammatically conscience of congregations. On paper Reverend could still maintain its “the” article, but in the spoken language of the Episcopal tradition, perhaps the title alone could be adopted as an alternative for those who do not fit in the categories of “Father” or “Mother.”

Call me Hester, unless that is uncomfortable for you or for the etiquette you are wishing to model for your children or students. In which case, call me “Reverend Hester.” With luck, the grammar will eventually catch on to these changing times.  

Posted by The Reverend Hester Mathes at 5:06 PM
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