Anthony Saville

It may not be true, but it was told to me about ‘a friend of a friend,’ and it is a rather delightful story. There is a woman priest, with a parish not fifty miles away, who insists on being called ‘Father Joanna’ [Christian name changed for the usual reasons]. This is all the more delightful in that her parish never used to call any of the previous (male) incumbents by that title. What a deliciously subversive approach.

‘Father’ was never a description; it was and is a title: this has always been the Anglo-Catholic insistence. Otherwise it would run counter to Our Lord’s own admonition, which in its Catholic version reads [Matt.23.9] ‘Call no man on earth your father,’ a command that cannot be ignored, but is a lot less problematic than the Protestant version, ‘Call no man on earth ‘Father’.’

‘So why doesn’t she have herself called ‘Mother So-and-So’?’ asked another friend. Because that would be more obviously descriptive, and would thus fail to deliver the honour and respect due to the title holder. It is the title that’s everything in this case; a description is neither here nor there. ‘Reverend’ as we know is not a title, and the attempt to make it so with the abbreviation ‘Rev’ is merely naff.

At a time when even Methodist ministers demand their right to be regarded as priests, a ‘right’ they vigorously rejected not a generation ago, there is no respect left for those who in former years liked to be thought of as Church of England ministers. Anyone who is anyone these days must be a priest.

That means being called ‘Father’. Look again at what Jesus said, ‘Call no man…’ If he had meant woman (you can see the wheels turning) would he not have said so? Now, surely, he who came to overturn the expectations of the rich and powerful (and male) would be pleased as punch that a woman should be called by the title that once bestowed respectability on her male oppressors.