“I am an Anglican priest. Sometimes we are called Father and sometimes simply by first name. Whichever you please is fine.” This is what I wish I had said, simply to open the opportunity for further discussion about Anglicanism, Christianity, and the Lord Jesus. Who knows where that conversation might have gone?
“John is fine,” is what I actually said. “Then John it is,” she said – or words to that effect: a brief moment of potential social awkwardness avoided at the potential cost of a more profound encounter. I wonder about the eternal weight of such lost or squandered opportunities. Lord, have mercy.
Though the teller has almost certainly forgotten our meeting, I have thought about it several times since. “What do I call you?” is not an insignificant question. It is another way of asking “Who are you?” or “What is your role in the scheme of things?” without having to commit to anything – a hesitant invitation or an unreturned RSVP.
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour (John 1:35-39, ESV).
“Where are you staying?” and “What do I call you?” are essentially the same question and the same opportunity – the chance to challenge and expand a cultural paradigm that has pushed the Messiah – Jesus – to the margins and that has little meaningful place for those called to serve him.
On another day, years before, I sat in Ayres Hall on the University of Tennessee campus as our mathematics professor walked in for the first day of class. “There is only one thing of real importance that you need to know about me,” he said as introduction. “I am a servant of the Most High God. You may call me Dr. N.” He got it exactly – and astoundingly – right: This is who is I am. This is what you may call me. Identity first, title second. That brief encounter occurred nearly a quarter century ago and affects me still. Recently I wrote to that professor, now retired, simply to thank him for the profound Christian witness of that introduction and of the excellence with which he taught us mathematics. Certainly the two were related in his mind, and just as certainly in mine. What do I call you? Who are you? What is your role in the scheme of things? I am a servant of the Most High God: no squandered opportunity there.
I am now the mathematics teacher. In my public school setting I cannot legally introduce myself as a servant of the Most High God, though I do not hide or minimize my faith. Several of my colleagues attended my ordination and most others know of it. One of my administrators at school calls me Father – most recently in his best Darth Vader voice. He was present at my ordination and it made a difference to him and to our relationship. Some in my parish also call me Father, though not many. Mostly it’s John, in large part I suspect because I was a member of the parish for years before my ordination. It had always been John before, and it likely always will be. It really matters little. I am servant of the Most High God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You may call me John or Father or whatever you please. As long as I – and we – are clear about identity, titles matter little.
I wonder if people call their clergy according to their own experience and need. In the Old Testament the Patriarchs and poets and prophets were all the time naming and renaming God according to their latest experience of God or their most immediate and pressing need for God: the Lord Most High, the Lord Will Provide, the Lord Who Sees, the Lord Who Sanctifies, the Lord Who Heals, the Lord our Rock, the Lord our Shepherd, the Lord of Angel Armies – and on and on changing with each new experience and each new need.
It is the same in my own prayers. Sometimes my prayer is limited to a single word – Father or Lord or Jesus or mercy or peace – depending on whom God has shown himself to be or, not infrequently, on my own need at that moment.
What do I call you? That may depend on what I have been for you in the past or on what you need me to be at the moment: pastor if you need someone to lead you into God’s comforting presence, Father if I have been a spiritual guide or elder to you in the past, John if you simply want to enjoy fellowship with a brother in Christ.
I never refer to myself or introduce myself as Father; I would feel presumptuous. I am always a priest – in the sanctuary, in the classroom, in the world – made so by the Holy Spirit through the prayers of bishop, priests, and the people of God. But, I am a spiritual father only to those who see me in that role or who need me to serve in that way. What you call me is your choice, and not mine.
There is, of course, the distinct possibility that I have “over thought” all this naming business. What I am called may simply be a matter of custom. Strangers – those with some religious background – may be more likely to address me as Father or Pastor than those in my parish simply because I am known in my parish and because we tend toward informality. Also, the Spirit has gathered a diverse fellowship of saints in our church: former Baptists and Presbyterians and non-denominational Christians among them. For these, Father is a foreign – and perhaps unbiblical – title. I might be Preacher or Pastor or John, but likely not Father.
In the end, it matters little what you call me, but it matters much that you call me: to pray for you, to bless you, to speak Christ’s pardon over you, to listen to you, to grieve and rejoice with you, to share life with you. I am not only a servant of the Most High God; I am your servant, as well.