The ordaining of women, while largely celebrated, has brought complexities peculiar to the Anglican Church on how to address each other as priests in a gender-inclusive way.
The issue was sharply raised at a late-night discussion at the annual Clergy School of the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town in October. I chose to listen as our sisters spoke of their hurt and anger at the established use of the honorific “Father” by male clergy.
I understand the title as a reference to my function within the family of God. That it reminds me of who I am in relation to the community I serve, mindful that all should benefit from my care and commitment.
My formative experience of the priesthood were those English “Fathers” who lived among us, ate in our homes and were often gentle and caring people. However, my engagement with local women clergy and ones in other parts of the communion enabled the deepening of my insight into the power and value of words.
Some of our fellow priests are comfortable with the honorific “Mother”, and others express a preference for “Reverend”. The term “Mama Mfundisi” could also work, but in certain sectors of the ecclesiastical community it refers to the spouse of Mfundisi.
My growth has been in understanding how my maleness places me in a tradition that only in relatively recent years allowed for the ordination of women. The title “Father” emphasises my privilege and, unintentionally, denotes the “junior” status of our sisters-in-calling. Surely hearing that word “Father”, on such a regular and confident basis scratches at the scab of the wounds caused by exclusion and the privileging of maleness.
As for the title “Reverend”, it emerges from a tradition within the Church that reflects a specific theological understanding of the sacraments. The theology of creation stresses that we are all made in the image of God so all people are reverend, because we home the divine in our lives.
My preference is for the term popularised by Archbishop Njongo Ndungane of “Moruti” or “Mfundisi”. It is gender neutral and function specific in its reference to teacher. It locates us as Afro-Anglicans within the geography of place, our home Africa. But most especially, we begin a new tradition as equals, recognising the value of all who are ordained.
Daphne Lucas, a cathedral parishioner, reminds me “that some people really have the need to call someone father. They never had the opportunity before, and it brings comfort and respect”.
Moruti Molefi Olifant extends on this view, noting the use of title must be in tandem with an experience of the familial, of community: “Titles shouldn’t be the issue but confidence in how the Church predicates the nurturing of healthy ministerial relations and practices, with full context-based sensitivity and appreciation.”
After all is said, though, my hope is that at that moment when I awake from the sleep which is this life, that I will find myself in the presence of Jesus. And that it is the voice of my mother that I will hear, saying, “Welcome home, my son”. She will say, “Michael”, the name by which I was baptised into the faith. It designates me to be fatherly in a most reverend, loving - and most importantly - unpatronising way.
Finally, when addressing each other by any name or title that we are comfortable with, may we feel loved as Miriam of Magdala did when she recognised Jesus in his saying of her name.
* The Very Rev Michael Weeder is the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.