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Clergy Status Anxiety

church procession
I have written previously, if you really want to annoy Anglican clergy … get their titles wrong! Titles are what distinguishes the men from the boys – or whatever the inclusive version of that is.

Into this clergy status anxiety steps Pope Francis. He has basically removed the title of Monsignor (those who hold the title currently may retain it). Reaction to this has been, “it’s just a rumour”, “do you hear that sound? it’s the sound of heads popping in the Presbytery”, or defence of the title (accompanied by a photograph of the defender in the distinguishing monsignor vesture), and even the suggestion Pope Francis would do well to get a food taster.

Back to Anglicans, there are Right Revenerends, Most Reverends, Very Reverends, Canons, Venerables, Doctors, Archdeacons, Deacons, Rural Deans, Deans, Non-stipendiary acting priest assistants, Locally Licensed Ordained Non-stipendiary Assistant Ministers, Vicars, Vicar-General, Deputy Vicar General, Priests in Charge, Presiding Bishops, Senior Bishops, Archbishops, Deacon Assistants, Ministry Educators, Chaplains, … the list goes on …

Each with their title, abbreviation, appropriate way to address them or refer to them, order of titles, an ever-increasing number of plusses in front of names… and distinguishing dress and insignia.

Anglican clergy may not know their Greek Aorist from their Dative, but years of training make certain that one doesn’t confuse The Ven. Canon Dr. with The Very Rev. Mr. And if you receive an award, title, or doctorate after ordination, there are careful protocols, stricter than any adherence to doctrine or discipline, about which comes before or after what. The moment a priest is collated (and never confuse ordination, induction, collation, installation, licensing,…!!), out go all the old letterheads and visiting cards to be replaced by flashier ones with new titles and the latest popular font.

Anglican theological debate is at its deepest in discussions whether an archdeacon is above or below a canon.

And the thought of backsliding to a lower status causes such distress in the ageing prelates that you generally retire with the highest title you have attained, whether or not you still function in the role the title would lead one to understand.

Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, (the Order to which Pope Francis belongs, and in which spirituality he is clearly deeply formed), in the Principle and Foundation of his Spiritual Exercises challenges us not to prefer riches to poverty, or honour to dishonour [notice the echoes in many of Pope Francis’ actions so far]. My one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to reaching the goal for which I am created – praise, reverence, and service of God. And in Ignatius’ Meditation on the Standard of Christ, Jesus attracts to poverty and humility.

Mark Twain said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Anglicans, don’t you dare put on the wrong clothing! Priests may wear clergy shirts coloured pink or blue or polka-dot, but dare to put on one with even a purplish tinge and you won’t make it through the day without a comment. And dare to wear a pectoral cross – even out of devotion! Or a large bejewelled ring. I’ve seen an official photo of a NZ bishop with no less than three pectoral crosses on.

At significant services, everyone has their appropriate attire to signal not only their status but where they fit in churchmanship (or whatever the inclusive version of that is). Light blue cassocks and matching preaching scarves for canons, copes for archdeacons or above, biretta or cassock and surplice for churchmanship, mitre and cope, mitre and chasuble, biretta with chasuble, no mitre with rochet and chimere,… Not a cope above one’s station. Not a blue scarf out of place.

We can continue to pretend that status is not an issue in the church. We are all equal. Clericalism is not an issue. Recently there was some discussion about a video examining Christendom. The video tried to brush over status: it claimed that the Church “inadvertently” came to hold power in Western history. I loved the response: “Oh, is that palace for me? Goodness! I had no idea.”

I’ve heard a lot of agreement with Pope Francis, and seen a lot of Anglican enthusiasm for him, rah! rah! rah! But I have yet to hear even a single mention in Anglican circles of his wanting simplification of titles and levelling of status…

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34 thoughts on “Clergy Status Anxiety”

  1. Yes. Absolutely, (said the Rt Rev Dr.)

    In the church the only name that matters is the one we were given at the font which is the name Jesus knows us by. It is the only one we should be using.

  2. …mind you, I do like being last in all the processions and having the most visible chair. Finally after 34 years of ordination I no longer have to be anxious in all those hi falutin occasions about where I should go and where I should sit.

      1. Rhys has a point, Bosco. Once we have priests wearing garments which the laity do not, why not have archdeacons wearing garments which the non-archdeacons do not? In neither case need garments symbolise status; in both cases they can symbolise role; but in each case a ‘status’ element seems to creep into the wearing of the distinctive robes …

        I think a good move would be some kind of church-wide review of robing. What we are now seeing in processions on certain occasions is such a variety and array of robes as can scarcely be explainable to the “person in the street.”

        A very simple step to take, with (I suggest) an effective blow against status/power re roles would be agreement that no distinctive robes are to be worn by deans, canons, archdeacons etc.

        1. Thanks, Peter. I am, I think you will understand, a little wary of vesture distinctions distracting from what I think is important in this particular post. I think that it is helpful to distinguish our four orders by signs in vesture. I think if we want to discuss the place of that, let’s do it on the “Collaring clergy” or similar thread (as you can see, that had 105-comments energy worth). If we want to discuss whether one order vest in the sign of another, let’s do that here or here or similar. Blessings.

          1. I do not think the issue goes away as easily as you would like, Bosco. Once we allow vesture for four orders of ministry (on which matter only tradition leads us, there being not one instruction in Scripture about church ministers robing) why can we not allow it for ranks of orders of ministers?

            Once we criticise the wearing of robes to symbolise ranks of orders of ministers why can we not criticise the wearing of robes to symbolise orders of ministers?

            That is, the wearing of robes by any minister of the church for any reason raises a set on interconnected issues.

          2. Thanks, Peter, for the good points. Two things spring to mind. Are what you refer to as “ranks of orders of ministers” comparable to the four (since you brought it up, biblical) orders? My preference, as I’ve pointed out, is to stay with clergy status anxiety on this thread, and I continue to hope that one can have the four (biblical) orders without inevitably falling into ranking them. It is of interest, for example, that you naturally slip into speaking of different roles that clergy fulfil by using the word “ranks of orders of ministers”. I also continue to hope that one can have vestments without thereby inevitably falling into ranking the wearers. To be clear, vesting is not part of the esse of church, nor of the plene esse, but I do see it, in appropriate contexts (such as having a consecrated building of particular architecture – noting for your consistency, there “being not one instruction in Scripture about church” buildings) as having a certain “bene esse” (without wanting to make it equivalent to many people’s understanding of orders). Blessings.

  3. When I went to a new parish, we had a meeting of the parish council and I was asked (by another priest) what I wanted to be called- ‘mother’ or ‘reverned’ and I said Jorie will be fine and one of the wardens smiled and said, ‘that is what we would have called you anyway.’ And so they did and we worked for the kingdom othether.

  4. Emmetri Monica Beane

    As a vocational deacon, I have been stunned by how much trouble the hierarchy goes through to keep us in our place lest anyone mistakenly think we are priests. In some Dioceses we are referred to as The Reverend Deacon rather than The Reverend just to make sure priests remain distinct.

  5. At least the Anglican Communion does not have a capa magna as far as I know.
    When i read this and similar posts I admit that i can quite enjoy a dressed up mass etc, admire copes and chasubles and general carrying on but from time to time can’t help wondering how amused the carpenter’s son would would be.
    I was once at a meeting as a member of an incumbency committee that was having trouble finding a suitable “High church” candidate. We did have one who offered us vestments if we wanted them, or none if we would prefer. My thoughts turned to the Vicar of Bray. More interestingly a quite “evangelical’ vicar- general addressed us on the supreme unimportance of any vestments in a valid Communion Service. But he did insist on being properly addressed as an Archdeacon. Admittedly i was almost hysterical when a member of our group then spoke of the necessity of proper elevation of the sacrament. And i began to address the V-G by his first name. Really, what is important?

    1. Thanks, Brian. The danger with comparing one denomination with another can easily become denominational status anxiety! I wonder if we can have a “dressed up mass” without it needing to reflect the imagined status of everyone… Blessings.

  6. Spot on! Blooming status and coloured piping on cassocks added to difference in stipends and houses is all symptomatic of a church that’s lost her link to the early church and has become like any other earthly institution.

  7. Hi Bosco
    Yes, ‘bene esse’ recognised; biblical orders acknowledged (but, then, are archdeacons forms of presbyter presbyters (i.e. senior priests/elders of the elders)?)

    I wonder if clergy anxiety would be lessened not only by reform of robes re ‘ranks’ but also be reformulating titles for those ranks!

    1. Again, a lot of food for thought in your comment, Peter.

      Changing the titles, I suggest, may not magically change the culture. Titanic deck-chairs anyone…

      Taking your example of archdeacon. Firstly – let’s agree it is not a different order. Senior priest already gives an impression of ranking. And we both have known archdeacons who have not been senior in age, experience, or years of ordination. Archdeacon is also a good example of in-the-know titling – there seems no intrinsic connection between “Archdeacon” and the “Venerable” that goes with that role. And I can tell you a story or two where an archdeacon has been sorely miffed to be understood (or even addressed) as a deacon. [For readers not up with the whole anxious clergy status ranking, it would go… bishop – archdeacon – priest – deacon… Archdeacon would be the “top” many clergy would seek to aspire to, and deacon is the start of that ladder climb for them]


  8. i have continued to read with great interest this post lost between a liking for ceremony, ritual, properly assigned roles and so on and the nagging doubt brought on by Micah and other prophets.

    Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?
    7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
    8 He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

    And then by accident this morning I came across these words of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

    The spring which flows quietly and transparently through the Gospels seems to have foam on it in Paul’s Epistles. Or, that is how it seems to me. Perhaps it is just my own impurity which sees cloudiness in it; for why shouldn’t this impurity be able to pollute what is clear? But to me it’s as if I saw human passion here, something like pride or anger, which does not agree with the humility of the Gospels. As if there were here an emphasis on his own person, and even as a religious act, which is foreign to the Gospel.
    • In the Gospels – so it seems to me – everything is less pretentious, humbler, simpler. There are huts; with Paul a church. There all men are equal and God himself is a man; with Paul there is already something like a hierarchy; honours and offices.[25]

  9. Ignoring for the moment the question of the position somebody may be placed (such as “Non-stipendiary acting priest assistant”) could titles be simplified so far as to have just: Deacon, Priest and Bishop (or “overseer”) or some equivalent meaningful word in the local lingo? And if they are ordained (be they a deacon or bishop of Rome) they get to have “Rev.” in front of their name? From the point of view of somebody who has to create forms with so many Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms/Dr/etc options that would suit me fine! Not so sure about others, but simplification is a nice thing to aim for, surely.

    I’m also all for the simple word “Deacon” being used in a wide range of contexts for helpers; not perhaps for the person who vacuums the church, but many of the youth leaders, Church Army officers, and so on – men and women that might not be ordained but have been trained for a significant job they do, and the Church should show it takes them seriously. It seems strange to me that, while there has been a big commotion about (say) women priests or bishops and every shade of meaning of even slightly-relevant texts for or against them, as far as I can see deacons (helpers) have no complicated theological minefields… they need not be male [Romans 16:1] nor ordained (but obviously somehow trained/selected for what they do). Not wishing to diminish the value of ordained deacons, of course, but there seems to be more types of calling for which the idea of ‘deacon’ applies, but it is too often thought of as a staging post on the way to ‘full’ ordination instead of something of immense value in itself? Some denominations struggle to find males for ordained ministry while making more use of deacons (and recognising they need not be male) seems a sensible way to go. As far as “status anxiety” is concerned, who could ask for anything more than to be called a helper, and be given any seat at the table??

    1. Thanks, Mark. If we are going for suggestions into the future, I would have both title and address of Deacon and Bishop to be those. If name(s) follow, it would always have the Christian name in full: Deacon; Deacon Jane; Deacon Jane Smith. Bishop; Bishop John; Bishop John Brown. Nothing this simple, elegant, and universally acceptable springs to mind for priests, but two out of three ain’t bad 😉 Blessings.

  10. Nearly 20 years ago, the Diocese of Waiapu decided to do away with the titles Canon and Archdeacon. In many ways it has worked well, and it has allowed a fir number of clergy to be given particular diocesan responsibilities for various lengths of time. One of the official reasons was that a diocese of 44 parishes with (at that time) two bishops did not need a whole lot more people with fancy titles.
    However a difficulty arose when they decided one bishop was enough, and they needed to appoint some experienced clergy to represent the diocese in various regions of the diocese, and exercise some leadership over mission and ministry in those areas. Traditionally someone appointed to that sort of job was called an Archdeacon, but that wouldn’t do. So they were called Regional Ministry Conveners (or is it Convenors?). after some years, and a change in bishops, they were renamed Bishop’s Chaplains. In the most recent transmogrification, they have become Regional Deans.
    I guess my point is that, however meaningless the title Archdeacon is, whatever title we invent to replace it may be worse.

  11. Bosco, I have an entirely separate point, which I think requires a separt posting (perhaps a separate thread?)
    I would like our church, in the spirit of your various postings in the area of liturgy asking for firm guidelines about that is required, what is allowed, and what is forbidden, I would love our church to forbid use of the tile “Father”. Nowhere in any of our formularies is it allowed, and it is the only title in this whole discussion that is expressly forbidden in scripture, and in the Sermon on the Mount no less.
    The experience of women in Anglo Catholic parishes, as mentioned by Jorie above, provides a particular reason why this practice should be discouraged, but I have always been uncomfortable with it, even when in my father’s parish, where he was always known as Father Prebble, even after he became an Archdeacon.
    Mind you, I do sometimes like to use it when I am in the company of Roman Catholic clergy, and I want to affirm that our theology of priesthood is the same as theirs…)

    1. Yes, I will think about writing a post on this, Edward, for I cannot follow you to your conclusion. And I’m a little surprised, to be frank, that a certain literalistic approach is applied to a context where, it seems to me, Jesus is using his regular hyperbole (I’m presuming you are referring to Matthew 23:9, not the Sermon on the Mount as you suggest). I don’t think Jesus is forbidding the calling of our biological dad “father”, do you? Or we would lose our ability to use “father” as a metaphor for God. Paul certainly thought of himself as a father (1 Cor. 4:14–15, 2 Cor. 12:14, Gal. 4:19, etc) Others share in this approach (1 John 2:1, 3 John 4), and others are fathers (1 John 2:13–14). If you take the Matthew 23 text as literalistically normative, we cannot use the term “doctor” (just the Latin for “teacher”). Church Fathers and Mothers, Desert Fathers and Mothers – all go. Abbots. Ammas. It seems the tradition of the church is against your approach. Blessings.

  12. Hi Bosco and Edward
    I am voting with Edward on this one.
    Calling priests ‘Father’ is as blatant a contradiction of the clear Scriptural teaching of our Lord as any other you care to name.
    These days there is the added folly of using a nomenclature not available to women priests.
    (However out of politeness I do not refuse being so addressed; especially when in the islands).

    1. I am interested, Peter, that you, then, allow people to address you so, for example on your website, without comment. I am interested that you allow yourself to be addressed and titled as “doctor”, Latin for “teacher”, when the parallel in the single verse that you see contravened as “blatant a contradiction of the clear Scriptural teaching of our Lord” refers to there only being one teacher.

      You would also forbid people terming their biological or adopting father as “father” in compliance with this “clear Scriptural teaching of our Lord”?

      The “clear Scriptural teaching of our Lord” is also to hate one’s father.

      The term “Mother” is available and used for women who are priests, and the tradition of addressing and referring to women as “Mother” is both ancient and widespread in the Christian faith.

      If tradition is any assistance in understanding how the church has seen the single verse you see so blatantly contradicted, it has not taken this in the literalist manner that you do. Perhaps it shows the limitations of taking a single verse as the basis of a teaching, as well as that we all approach the scriptures with certain lenses which undermine the usefulness of any sola scriptura approach. Blessings.

      1. You make some good points, Bosco, but I would be interested to hear more (e.g. in a post sometime) about a ‘catholic’ approach to interpreting Scripture which I find sometimes takes gospel material very literally (especially re eucharistic theology, veneration of Mary) but then neatly avoids doing so on the matter of priests being called ‘Father.’

        On the matter of women priests being called ‘Mother’ I cannot personally recall an instance of hearing people address a women priest as ‘Mother’ or ‘Reverend Mother.’

        Yes, there is an element of hyperbole in what Jesus says in Matthew 23, but he is making a point about who God is to us: our direct teacher, instructor, father. No minister of the gospel is to either get in the way of that (e.g. through title which confuses) or to presume to be some intermediary figure. The question I ask therefore is whether the address of ‘Father’ coheres with the theology of Matthew 23 or not.

        Thus it is possible that we acknowledge the hyperbole of Jesus here by continuing to call our human fathers ‘Father/Dad’ and acknowledge the theology of Jesus here by refusing to call our priests ‘Father.’

        As for the various titles in human terms which have accrued to me, I do not ask or expect anyone to address me by them. Especially not the latest, ‘Venerable’ which is the first title in the life of the church I would abolish and wipe from collective memory, were I to be the Autocrat!

        1. Thanks, Peter.

          I think I will pick up the particular issue with “father” in a future blog post as suggested. As to devotion to Mary and traditional eucharistic theology, I think you are confusing illustrated-by-scripture, and not-inconsistent-with-scripture with sourced-solely-in-scripture, and coming to what you term ‘catholic’ practice with a particular lens. Yes, another possible future post.

          The usage of “Mother” for priests who are women is mentioned by a commenter above, and I have come across it regularly.

          I do not think that St Paul, in understanding himself as spiritual father, was contravening the intention behind Jesus’ teaching.


          1. Hello again Bosco
            Well, I hope that this thread is far enough down your list that not too many people other than Peter will have witnessed my embarrassment. I am aware of debate among NT scholars about just how far the sermon on the Mount extends, but I have yet to read one who includes chapter 23!!!
            Yes of course Jesus was using hyperbole, and of course he did not expect anyone to stop calling their biological fathers “father”. I did indeed call Dad “Dad”, “Father”, or even “Pater” and “Abba” as the occasion or the appropriate level of ribaldry required. But my discomfort was with the ubiquitous use of the title “Father” by everyone else.
            And no, I am not a biblical literalist, on this verse or any other. My point, actually meant in a light-hearted way, is that while scripture gives no guidance whatsoever about all the other titles mentioned in this discussion, we must at least pause and reflect on Jesus words about this particular heirarchical title.

          2. I am looking forward to your posts already, Bosco, and sharpening my quill.

            The Vulnerable Irreverend Dictator P. Carrell

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