ordained priests

“What Do You Call a Woman Priest?”

“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.

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