Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why the Tradition of Calling Priests "Father"

        I have been asked the question as to why we use the title “Father” in addressing priests in the Anglican Tradition. This does not seem to be a large issue among us, but it is a good question worth answering. 

        The word “priest” is an English translation of the biblical word πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros), meaning “elder,” from which the adjective “father” has emerged.  It is, like “elder,” a title that expresses eldership, headship and ordained authority in the Family of God.  Some prefer, however, not to use the title in deference to Matthew 23:9: "Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.”  This is a sensibility for which I have no great problem and am open to other titles. I like the well-used saying, “You can call me anything, but just don’t call me late for dinner.”

        Is, however, the use of the title “Father” a violation of Scripture?  The question hinges on Jesus’ intent in this passage and the word’s broader use in the Bible.  Was Jesus seeking to remove the words Father, Teacher and Master from our vocabulary, except when referring to God? (Note that the extended passage talks about all three descriptors,)  Probably not, particularly since we would lose the power of these earthly metaphors in referring to God.  Or was this a rabbinic style of teaching about the truth that God is indeed our ultimate Father, Teacher and Master?  I would say, yes. 

        Since Jesus used all three words in their earthly connotations, can we not also?  The broader Bible definitely uses these words; for instance, Abraham is called the “father” of the many nations (Abraham actually means “father of many”).  Granted, the Bible is literally the Word of God, but Biblical Literalism, which is not the same thing, can box us into corners that the Lord does not intend.

        Actually, objection to the use of the word Father has its origin in the Protestant reaction to the spiritual elitism and hierarchical-ism of clergy of the late medieval period (known as clericalism).  Clearly this is an issue to react to, but it may have been a “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” sort of thing; at least Anglicans have felt so. 

        I personally prefer one of two titles- Father or Pastor.  Both express my ordained calling to leadership: one more out of the Judeo-Christian Tradition of expressing headship, intercessory ministry and sacramental eldership; the other expressing eldership in a more interpersonal, teaching and shepherding sense.  Both describe my ministry.  Feel free to call me either, “just don’t call me late for dinner.”                                                                                                Rob+