Since I was ordained as a priest two years ago, the question I’m most asked is, “What do we call you?”
In Anglicanism, people often refer to priests as “Father,” following Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition. I have no intention to argue here about the use of that term, which can be controversial among lower church folks, but the practice is rooted in Paul’s notion of spiritual fatherhood (1 Cor. 4:15.) The term ‘pope’ is a derivative of ‘papa,’ the endearing and authoritative name given to early Christian bishops. My husband, who is also a priest, is “Father Jonathan.” But am I Sister? Reverend? Father?
I have been called all of the above. Most often, I’m simply called by my first name. And that is fine by me because I’m an evangelical so, at heart, I’m a little uncomfortable with labels and formality of any sort. But if people want to use a title (and some do), I tell them to call me “Mother Tish” since ‘mother’ is the commonly used term for female priests. And I say, “Whatever you call me, don’t call me Father.”
My answer to this often asked question usually stops there. We move on to other subjects– believe it or not, ecclesiastical naming conventions isn’t the most riveting party conversation. But the theology behind my answer is worth unpacking because it provides a glimpse into what the priesthood is and why, after spending most of my adult life against women’s ordination, I came to be for it.
Motherhood and Fatherhood
I’m not for women’s ordination because I think men and women are the same; I am for it because I think men and women are very different. By carrying the office of “presbyter,” I do not leave my womanhood behind to try to embody the role of a male priest or a gender-neutral priest. No, I bring everything I am—including womanhood and motherhood–into the role of priest.
I am, soul and body, female. I am not a man, nor even simply, neutrally human—a Homo sapiens who happens to have female parts. I am truly, irrevocably, wonderfully woman, and I image God as a woman. For this reason, just as my husband will never be a mother, I will never be a father, either biologically or as a priest.
I got an email recently from a male priest who was concerned that calling female priests around him “mother” instead of “father” denotes some different, lesser office for female priests. But, why, I wonder, must difference connote inequality of authority? Although in American culture and law, different often implies unequal, this is not so in the kingdom of God. We see this in Genesis when God, after making man and woman separately and distinctly, calls them both together to dominion and fruitfulness without any subordination of roles. In the garden, manhood and womanhood are distinct yet non-competitive, sharing equally in the creation mandate.
We see this kind of collaborative distinctiveness in our families as well. If you ask my kids who holds the greater authority–me or their father– they could not answer. They know we equally hold power, even as they know we are different people with different roles in their life.
To verify this theory, I left my writing desk just now to run an experiment on my three year old. “Who is more the boss,” I asked, “me or Daddy?” Without a beat, she answered, “You and Daddy.” You and Daddy. No competition. No power struggle. No uncertainty about who is in charge. And yet, she does not see us as a neutral office, a “parent.” No one on earth is a parent. We are mothers or fathers.
Motherhood and Priesthood
I became a priest slowly, through a long ordination process, in the same years I became a mom slowly, through fertility struggles, then the joy and queasiness of pregnancy– one daughter, then two. The two identities– priest and mother– have therefore become entwined in my mind as they were entwined in my timeline. When I was ordained as a transitional deacon, I was 8 months pregnant. In photos of my ordination service, I’m surrounded by friends, my huge baby belly still visible under a loose white alb. I looked like a swelling marshmallow. Less than a month later, we welcomed our second-born into the world.
Priest and mother. For me, the identities run together. Both love, both bless, both fail, both try again. Both serve meals, both clean up messes, both bear a greater responsibility than they can carry, both need grace, both nourish, both instruct, both hold hands, both nurture, both protect, both bear authority and vulnerability. My children cracked me open, quite literally. They have caused me both the greatest pain in my life—more than I could have imagined– and the greatest joy. In motherhood, I’ve found anxiety I didn’t know possible and beauty more fierce and luminous and lasting than I could ever ask for. Second in all of it—pain, joy, anxiety, and beauty—is ministry in the church.
Ideally (and I know the world is not ideal), kids know a mom and a dad and are loved by both, formed by both, known, cherished, guarded, and celebrated by both. I’ve come to believe that the church, as a family, also needs both Fathers and Mothers, same authority, but unique, uniquely male and female. I want to serve the church as I serve my family, teach the church as I teach my daughters, nurture the church as I nurture my children. I am not a Father. But I don’t need to be a father. I am a priest; I am a Mother.
Womanhood and Priesthood
Though a full theological argument about women’s ordination is too much to get into in a brief essay, it’s clear that my identity as a woman is not inconsequential to my understanding of the priesthood, but essential to it. My husband’s and my journey towards supporting women’s ordination began not in the emotional or metaphorical, nor in the canonical, but in the technical. It began mainly with parsing Greek sentences. Over years, we meandered through NT Wright and William Webb, patristic thought and dozens of contemporary perspectives.
But somewhere along the way, the root of the argument became a fascination with the Imago Dei being most fully evident in maleness and femaleness together. It’s not that the image of God is incomplete in men alone or women alone. God’s image is completely present in both maleness and femaleness, but in different ways. The unity of maleness and femaleness—the garden’s non-competitive collaboration now possible in Christ’s New Creation — amplifies and magnifies the glory of the Image. Because of this, men and women profoundly need each other. We need each other in every area of life, including in church leadership.
A priest I know whose wife is also ordained told me that one Sunday, after he and his wife celebrated and served the Eucharist together, a man approached them with tears in his eyes. He told them, “when you serve together, I see the image of God at the table of God feeding the people of God.”
This is a family meal. And like the best of family meals, mothers and fathers, men and women, daughters and sons, all of us unworthy, all of us beloved, feast on Christ together.