“Lady Father” is a title that was given to me by a dear friend – see my first post – and I’ll never forget the night he so graciously endowed me with that moniker. He was not what anyone would call a liberal and certainly wasn’t a supporter of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church until somehow I managed to move him from one side of that issue to another.
I thank God for that man and his openness to the Holy Spirit and the courage it took for him to announce in public his transformation. I thanked him that night and let him know how special my new “nickname” was to me. He didn’t bat an eye but told me sternly (Fr. Bill said most everything “sternly”) that I was to have LadyFr put on my license plate as soon as possible. I said that maybe I would and he looked me right in the eye and said, “You have to put that on your license plate – I made it up and I want everybody to see it.” So, I agreed.
Later that same evening, I was surprised by a woman I knew well (she had very recently been ordained a priest), who approached me with a sympathetic look on her face, hugged me, and said, “Didn’t you just die when he called you ‘Lady Father’? Isn’t that just an awful name – what a sexist!” Since none of that had even occurred to me, I looked at her like she had several heads and responded as gently as possible, “Well, actually, I love it! It’s an incredible compliment coming from Fr. Bill and I’m going to put it on my license plate.”
She was appalled and turned away, shaking her head at how naive I was. But I wasn’t being naive. I believe that titles are very important as they serve a number of essential purposes:
- Identity – A title can let the world know who you are.
- Occupation – A title also can indicate what you do.
- Honor – A title can confer honor or respect on you.
- Authority – A title can give you authority over others.
The title “Lady Father” identified me as a female, who is a priest to those familiar with the Episcopal Church’s designation of ordained priests as “Father.” It also clearly indicated that my occupation was “clergy.” In my estimation, this title was Fr. Bill’s way of saying that he honored my ordination and respected my position as a member of the Episcopal clergy. It gave me the same authority that he had as a priest of the church, making me his equal.
That being said, I have to tell you all that I do not ask people to call me “Mother” as many female clergy do. I don’t particularly think the use of “Father” is completely helpful and appropriate for a priest since many people have serious issues with their own fathers, making the use of that title somewhat problematic for them. Also, it can conjure up the whole family image with the outdated “Father is the head of the household” idea. Interestingly, however, I do revere the title “Father” as a word that means one set aside by God’s holy ordination to be a priest of the church.
In that vein, I have often said that I would rather be called “Father” than “Mother” because introducing a female title centers the entire issue of women’s ordination on gender. I don’t consider myself a “woman priest” anymore than Fr. Bill considered himself a “man priest” or “male priest. I am just a priest – period. Back to the license plate – later that year, I was at Vail’s Gate, NY on retreat when I met a woman who was the clergy chaplain for that week. I made an appointment to speak with her after lunch one day and as we got acquainted, I relayed to her the story of “Lady Father,” mostly to see what she thought of it since I was still puzzling over that woman’s response to it as “sexist.”
She whooped! She thought it was absolutely wonderful and, in fact she loved it so much that she wanted to run out to the car and see my license plate. Like Fr. Bill, she was aghast when I told her I hadn’t done it yet because it was just now time to renew it and I didn’t have the extra money it cost. Well, she whipped out her Discretionary Fund checkbook and wrote me a check for $50 to cover the extra fee and she said, using almost the exact same words as Fr. Bill, “That name has to be out there for the whole state of New York to see!”
So, anybody out there struggling with the “title” issue – when you read my book you’ll love my encounter with then Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning and what he said about clergy titles for women AND men!’ Let me hear from you!! Have you got your own great story to tell? Or have you been burned by the “title” thing? Would you want to be called “Lady Father”?
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Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986 and has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. She has written a book about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. It is now available for purchase on Amazon.com. Fill the form out below to enter contact information securely.
Lady Father is the name given to me by Fr Bill Hoffman in 1986. I was a brand new priest and Fr Bill was a dyed-in-the-wool, old-school, Episcopal priest. We had both been asked to serve as Spiritual Directors on a Cursillo weekend along with Fr Norm Baty. Since Fr Bill was the head of the Spiritual Director team, I knew he had agreed to have me serve with them on the team and I foolishly assumed that he was, therefore, a supporter of women’s ordination.
He greeted me when I arrived with no inkling that he was uncomfortable with the idea of sharing sacramental duties with a woman. After 4 days of worshiping, praying, and sharing priestly duties together, I was shocked to hear him say to those gathered for the closing ceremony that he had not been a supporter of the idea of ordaining women to the priesthood before our weekend began. I was even more shocked to hear him state: “But after serving with Susan Bowman this weekend, I want to say that the ‘Lady Father’ is OK.”
I have been “Lady Father” ever since. It is on my license plate, it has been my user name on countless internet websites and email programs, and some of my parishioners insisted on calling me “Lady Father” and introduced me as “the Lady Father” to everyone we met. I have used it with particular pleasure because of my love and esteem for the man who coined it but also because it was the ultimate acceptance of my priestly ministry by one who had previously been on the “other side of the fence.”
My 23+ years of ordained ministry have been filled with such stories – some as moving and positive as this one but some were hurtful and negative as my beloved Episcopal Church struggled with the emotionally charged issue of women’s ordination at every level of the church. I have been called a pioneer, a fraud, a brave woman, and a pushy female who had no business wearing a clerical collar. I have been ignored, shunned, and at times, blatantly insulted as well as welcomed, encouraged, and admired. I have been an inspiration for many but a disgrace for some.
As I am now retired from full-time parish ministry, I am in a position of being able to look back and reflect on the “agony and the ecstasy” of life as an ordained woman in the Episcopal Church. So, can you smell it coming?? Yes, I am writing a book on my experiences in the ordination process in the Diocese of Southern Virginia in the early 1980’s and in parish ministry both in Southern Virginia and then in the Diocese of Albany for almost 20 years.
It has been a long road – exhilarating at times, tiresome at others – and that road continues though it has recently taken me into another part of the Christian family – the United Methodist Church. I serve now as a supply pastor for a tiny worshiping United Methodist congregation in upstate New York between Albany and the Vermont border. It’s even close enough to Vermont that I “go over” to get cheaper gas every Sunday morning after church. It’s also where I found new life after two difficult and draining parish experiences which came close to destroying me. I remain a priest in good standing in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany while I serve, with the blessing of both Bishops, in the Adirondack District of the UMC.
This brand new blog, as well as my upcoming eBook, is my way of reaching out with my story to the church that has raised me, called me, trained me, used me, and (I hate to say it) dumped on me and rejected me. It is also my way of reaching out to other women who have faced or are facing prejudice and discrimination in a church that professes and stands for inclusiveness, openness, and God’s great love and acceptance of all people.
So, watch for more reflections and good dialogue as well as for the publication of my eBook in the near future. I welcome your comments, questions, and reflections. The Lady Father is indeed “OK!”
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Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986 and has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. She has written a book about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. It is now available for purchase on Amazon.com. Fill out the form below to enter contact information securely.