What do you call a female clergyperson? Every time a new clergyperson comes to Redeemer, the common question is “what do you like to be called?” The answer to that question is at the bottom of this letter. But I want to share a little background first.
It seems hard to believe these days (my daughter is incredulous when I tell her) but women’s ordination did not happen in the Episcopal church until fairly recently (at least from my 50+ perspective!). I didn’t know that women could be priests until I met my first female clergyperson at our diocesan summer camp when I was in high school. Although the first female priests were ordained in 1974, no one at my childhood parish celebrated it or in fact even talked about it. The priest at summer camp asked to be called “Father Linda,” which made sense to me since I’d grown up calling my childhood rector “Father Bob”. Calling a women priest “Father” was common in those early days when we were still living into women’s ordination. It was a way of saying “this person is the same as a male priest, not some second-class kind of priest.” As women’s ordination became more normative, “Mother” along with “Father” became the regular terms in the diocese where I lived. When I was ordained, my first parish called me “Mother Kate.”
But I was ordained in a pretty “high church” diocese. Here in Massachusetts, which is often considered “low church,” clergy were often called Mr. or Mrs. Here at Redeemer, we’ve called our clergy “Rev.” for a long time. Rev. Handley, who was rector from 1938 to 1974, was always Rev. Handley or Mr. Handley, and probably would have been completely appalled to be called Father Handley.
However, in my experience this was not applied evenly to all clergy. At my second parish in Norwood, Mass., I was the first women clergyperson they’d ever had. Although it was 2003, there were several parishes in the Diocese of Massachusetts that did not accept women as clergy. There were even parishes where Bishop Gayle Harris could not make a visitation. In Norwood, several parishioners threatened to leave when I was called as Rector. The vestry made a brave choice to call me anyway. They asked that, given the controversy in the parish, would I be willing to be called “Rev” instead of “Mother”. I was happy to comply, and I’m also happy to say that none of the people who threatened to leave actually did. After meeting a woman priest, they were better able to accept women’s ordination. However, I did notice a pattern. Those who were most opposed to women’s ordination called me Mrs. Ekrem instead of Rev. Ekrem or Rev. Kate. This was in keeping with old Massachusetts customs, but I did notice that none of those who were supportive of women’s ordination ever called me that.
As some of you will remember, I came to Redeemer also in a time of conflict and change. There was a difficult relationship with my predecessor, and some experienced her as leaning too hard on her authority as a clergyperson and insisting on symbols of priestly authority. In that context, I had a conversation with the vestry about what I should be called at Redeemer. It seemed clear that insisting on “Mother” would be not helpful to the healing process in the parish, so I became “Rev. Kate”.
When Andrew came on board, we had a conversation about what he should be called. “Rev. Andrew” seemed the logical choice, but he and I also noticed how easily many people called him “Father Andrew”. I deeply appreciated it when people did this and Andrew would gently remind people that they shouldn’t call him Father Andrew unless they also called me Mother Kate, or that we are both “Rev.” This kind of support from male colleagues means the world to female priests.
And now Emily is joining us, and we’re faced with the same question again. What do you call a female priest? It feels a bit complicated in a denomination where we have both a legacy of sexism and of unhealthy clericalism. And of course sexism is not an issue only for clergy. I have a friend who works in a hospital who notices that colleagues will call a female and male doctor “Jane and Dr. Smith” in the same sentence. I’m sure female engineers, professors, and others encounter the same thing.
However, obviously most of the time the best answer is just to call clergy by their first name with no title. Isn’t that how we call each other, and in fact how God knows us, by our name? I often joke with people that if they call me “Rev. Ekrem” I’m going to have to call them “Mr. Smith” or “Dr. Jones” and wouldn’t it be nicer to be on a first-name basis? Most of the time the issue doesn’t come up at all. But occasionally, people prefer their children to call adults by a title or want to introduce someone in a formal setting. So, for those occasions: Emily and I both prefer “Mother”, but we also are totally fine with “Rev”. But mostly I’m sure you’ll just call us Emily and Kate!