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Call No One Father

The Rev. Mark Stanley

Isn’t it time that we stopped using the title “Father” for priests? Even though Jesus said, “Call no one Father” (Matthew 23:9), I don’t think we need to use the literal sense of that text as the foundation for this change.

I would start with the baptismal theology of our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. One of the great thrusts of our current Prayer Book is honoring the ministry of the laity. What is most important is that we are all baptized. As baptized members of Christ’s body, we have ministries either as lay or ordained people. So why should priests get a special (and seemingly superior) title? What is meant as a sign of respect towards the clergy seems to reinforce an outmoded hierarchy.

I know a priest who likes to be called Father because “I have worked so hard for this role and I want the respect this vocation deserves.” This is certainly a valid concern in a societal context where all authority figures are getting less respect. My response is that authentic respect flows from who we are and not what we are called. Our pastoral leadership and spiritual presence, and not any special title, will be the real source of a congregation giving us authority.

In addition, with the ordination of women in 1976 we have changed who can be in the priesthood. Is there an equivalent title to “Father” for women? Some women clergy like being called “Mother.” Others can’t stand it. It doesn’t help that “Mother” is also a title used by Roman Catholic nuns. In the Episcopal Church we have both genders ordained. This decision has consequences. We just can’t have one gender with a standard title that does not work for all. This seems like a simple issue of justice. Are men who like the title “Father” willing to let this title go for the sake of our clergy sisters?

Is “Father” really even the best title to describe what a priest does? I remember being a newly ordained 25 year old priest and having an elderly woman in our parish continually calling me “Father.” Do I really function like a father to her? This puts me in the parent role and her in the child position. It can actually be harming the spiritual development of parishioners to be putting them in this infantilizing position.

Furthermore, using the title Father creates the potential for theological confusion. Imagine a priest about to lead the Lord’s Prayer. It is then announced “Father Smith will now lead us in the ‘Our Father.’” Here is a situation where you are calling God “Father” in close connection with calling the priest “Father.” Is this ordained human being really in the same role as the Divine? Unfortunately some people already fall into that misunderstanding. Having a spiritual leader with the same title as the first person of the Trinity is just not a good set up for anyone.

In general I think people should be able to be called whatever they want. However when a title has the potential of getting in the way of the mission of the church, I would hope that people would be willing to make a change. Even if that change requires the sacrifice of a beloved title.

I don’t have the answer to what priests should be called. I do know that whatever we are called it should be the same title for both men and women. I find that it feels great to be a pastoral leader who is on a mutual first name basis with the people in my parish. They seem to like it too. So I propose we stick with the most meaningful names we have, our baptismal namesthe names with which we are marked as Christ’s own forever.

 

 

Different People Around the Thanksgiving Table

—The Rev. Mark Stanley, Rector

A friend just expressed to me his concerns about his upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. His relatives who come to gather around the table have views from across the political spectrum. After a particularly divisive Presidential election, he is worried that the conversation at this meal will become uncomfortable, heated, and maybe hurtful.

Here at Old St. Paul’s we too gather around a meal—The Holy Eucharist. Around our altar table we too have a broad variety of opinions. Some are delighted with the outcome of this recent election, and some are devastated. With such diversity, how do we move ahead as a healthy and caring community?

mark-stanleyIn this congregation, we want people to express themselves and to be authentic. Being genuine with each other is a way we learn and grow in real relationship.

Can we balance our need to express ourselves with the possibility that others might feel excluded or put down by what we say? Followers of Jesus are invited to pay special attention to anyone who is hurting. Some in our community are worried and fearful after this election. There is concern that the rights and needs of certain groups in our society, particularly the most marginal, are being threatened. Others in our congregation have felt unfairly labeled because of the way they voted. Now is a time for sensitivity, especially with regards to all things political. Being thoughtful about how we come across shows our love and respect for others.

It takes energy to be a healthy and loving community. Real listening, respect, and compassion go a long way to keeping us connected. I give thanks to all of you for all your good work in building up the Body of Christ here at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore.

Slow to Speak, Slow to Anger…

slow to angerI don’t have a good answer for how to address the unfiltered, harsh, and mean-spirited language that is often used all around us. All you have to do is look at the news to see people verbally attacking each other. There certainly should be room for disagreement and debate about important issues, especially in our personal relationships. Anger is a natural and appropriate response whenever we feel wronged. But there are ways to honestly express our views without degrading the worth of other people. Christians are called to strive to use words in ways that express respect for the dignity of every human being.

Americans cherish the right to freedom of speech, and we believe this sets us apart from many other countries. But Americans also value the responsibility of every individual to work for building up the common good. These two values are in tension because building up the common good might sometimes cause us to practice restraint about the words we choose to say out loud. In recent years, the practice of rugged individualism has often won out over the practice of working for the betterment of a more just and peaceful society.

Christians have a higher calling to follow Jesus and the disciples by trying to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Here are some quotes from the New Testament that challenge Christians to be careful about what we say.

be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”   —James 1:19

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up”   —Ephesians 4:29

get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth”   —Colossians 3:8

make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”           —Romans 14:19

The Golden Rule to “do unto others as we would have others do unto us,” has been a cornerstone of all the world’s great religions. Those who call themselves Christians have a high calling to use words in ways that take into consideration the well-being of others, though this can be difficult in the heat of the moment when we are having an argument.

Brain researchers, along with Daniel Goleman and others working on the study of emotional intelligence, report that whenever human beings feel threatened or angry or fearful, there is a certain part of the brain called the amygdala that takes over, sending out neurochemicals that override other parts of the brain with powerful fight or flight messages. Throughout human evolution, this response has helped us to survive. But the problem is that when we are having an “amygdala hijack,” it’s hard to think rationally. For about ninety seconds (the typical lifespan of an “amygdala hijack”), we can only think about the fight or flight response, and rational reason is impossible. In the midst of a conflict, that’s why it is often so difficult to avoid blurting out things we later regret.

“Emotionally intelligent” people have learned to notice when they are feeling threatened or angry or fearful, and have developed the ability to pause for those ninety seconds before they say anything. That pause provides time for the neurochemicals caused by the amygdala response to settle down, thus allowing the rational mind to take over again.

One way to use this information is for us to take a “holy pause” whenever we are feeling upset. Once we notice we are feeling threatened or angry, we can say to the other person, “Let me take a moment to think about what you have said.” Then we can take ten long deep breaths, spanning about ninety seconds, to allow reason to return to us before we say anything else.

After taking a “holy pause,” we might have a better chance of coming up with words that are more thoughtful, realistic, and kind. At the very least, we might be able to achieve the ethical goal to “do no harm.” In the midst of taking a holy pause, and breathing deeply, we might even invite God to help us come up with the best words to respond.

The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley

One Baltimore: Respecting the Dignity of Every Human Being

On Thursday, May 7, The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley asked me to join her in distributing some flowering plants to businesses in Old St. Paul’s neighborhood that were damaged in the recent demonstrations. Mary knew there were at least seven places (Café Poupon, Coffee-Land, 7Eleven, Subway, Lumbini’s, the Indian Grocery Store, and Mick O’Shea’s), because she and The Rev. Mark Stanley had walked the block along Charles Street on Tuesday (from Saratoga to Pleasant) with brooms and dust pans in-hand offering to help clean up. Most of the businesses had windows broken and some had suffered significant theft.

At each place we stopped, we told whoever took the plant that we were from Old St. Paul’s and that we wanted them to know we were sorry they had been damaged and that we supported them as neighbors. Almost every recipient, at first, seemed somewhat surprised but soon were smiling and thanking us for the plant. And, as we shook hands, their appreciation was reflected in the look of gratitude in their eyes.

A few days before this, I stopped in at Coffee-Land to see how they were progressing (and, truth be told, to get one of their delicious cherry Danishes). They were busy serving customers and, when it was my turn, I said to the owner and his wife:

“I am so sorry for what happened to you. It is so very sad.”

He replied: “It was probably more good than it was bad. So many have shown love to us afterwards.”

This week, Mary had a banner made that reads, “One Baltimore: respecting the dignity of every human being.” One of the promises we make at baptism (or when renewing our baptismal vows throughout the year), is to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Now this promise is displayed in front of Old St. Paul’s and is putting out a vision for the city.

one baltimore

We have a LOT to do in establishing “One Baltimore.”  As we try to find our way in the coming days, weeks, months, and years, we can begin by looking for opportunities to connect. Smiling at people waiting at the bus stop and giving a pleasant “Good morning” might help break the ice. Engaging in short but sincere and caring conversations with strangers each day can give personal expression to our vow of “respecting the dignity of each human being.”

—Eileen Donahue Brittain, Treasurer for St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore