Title, vocation, and identity
By Hester Mathes
Vocation, title, and identity are interwoven in ways that have become increasingly apparent to me since my ordination. Ordination brought with it a new title, as I moved from being Mrs. Hester Mathes to the Reverend Hester Mathes.
The Reverend most often lives in letterheads, email signatures, and Sunday bulletins, all written forms of communication, but what I have learned in my first years of ordained ministry is that my title in spoken language, especially as a priest, becomes trickier. I often hear it in conversations: What are we supposed to call you?
My first response has been to invite people to call me my baptized name, Hester. My idea of ministry is firmly rooted in the priesthood of all believers. I find that my vocation as a priest sets me apart in my ministry, but not above. I operate best through building relationships, and I like being on a first-name basis with those who serve with me.
Over time I have encountered the complications that lie just below the surface of this seemingly simple question and response. In the South, especially, many parents find it uncomfortable to allow their children to address adults by first name. We are steeped in a culture of ma’ams and sirs, and the familiarity of the first name is not often shared across generations.
At the school that shares our campus, teachers are addressed by their last names. My initial invitation is sometimes met with discomfort as people search for an alternative.
Middle ground can often be found by adding a title to a first name. Our rector is Father Sandy and my fellow associate rector is Father Ben. This works well, as Father has long been used for priests in the Catholic tradition, and easily transferred to the Episcopal tradition. But Mother has generally been set aside for nuns.
Mother brings with it different ideas of identity than Father, both in church leadership and in the home. Using a parental title encourages the perception of being set above instead of apart. While I recognize that Mother works well for some priests in the Episcopal Church, Mother Hester simply does not fit my identity in ministry.
Pastor also works for many priests. In the Bible Belt where I was born and raised, this title is most often associated with our evangelical Protestant brothers and sisters in ministry. In some regions, Pastor is associated more closely with Lutherans. Pastor works for my vocation of priesthood, but does not fit as closely in my context as an Episcopalian.
This alone does not rule out Pastor, for I have much in common and work closely with my ecumenical colleagues in ministry, but say Pastor Hester aloud and it is becomes apparent why I have not chosen this rhyming moniker.
The next most obvious title for an Episcopal priest is Reverend, but proper grammar holds that this title is for written addresses only, and must always be accompanied by the definite article. Reverend is, after all, an adjective and not a title.
Nevertheless, Reverend is the one description that applies equally well to men and women. Reverend speaks to my identity as a priest wishing to honor God’s divine presence in our lives. Reverend finds its roots in the Latin word reverendus, which means worthy of respect. While the practice of respecting every human being is core to our baptismal vows, I am not drawn to this title in hope that it will win me more respect or honor. Instead I dig deeper to the origin reverērī, which means to stand in awe of, or revere. My identity and my calling are wrapped in the desire to stand in awe of a power greater than mine, and to remember that all that I do is with God’s help. My goal in ministry is to stand in awe of God in all that I do, and to point others to the divine presence working through us in our everyday lives.
I hope we can start a movement to bring Reverend out of its paper cell to the land of spoken titles, even among the most grammatically conscious of congregations. Reverend could still maintain its definite article on paper, but in the spoken language of the Episcopal tradition, perhaps the title alone could alone be adopted as an alternative for those who do not fit in the categories of Father or Mother.
Reverend Hester allows for an alternative title that suits the neighboring headmaster and those seeking to model etiquette for their children. That being said, my invitation remains to call me by my baptized name. Call me Hester.
The Rev. Hester Mathes is associate rector of Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis.