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Fr. Robert: Why this Clerical Title Matters (and Doesn’t!)

Anglican Priest

Now that I have been priested, some people have called me Fr. Rob, while others treat the title of “Father” with disdain. Having a thoroughly evangelical background, and continuing to serve in a theological seminary that is broadly evangelical, I found myself challenged to reflect on the clerical title “Fr.” So, here are my thoughts:


Call No Man Father

With verses like Matthew 23:9, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven,” it’s not surprising that evangelicals hold the title of “Father” in contempt. However, there is context to this verse. I always find it helpful to read a few verses before and a few verses after a verse or passage I’m grappling with to help me understand the meaning. In this case, Jesus was specifically addressing the Pharisees and religious leaders who loved to show off their phylacteries and tassels, they loved the places of honor at banquets, and the best seats in the synagogues. They lapped up elaborate greetings in public, and they loved their titles, like “Rabbi,” which means teacher (Matthew 23:5–7).


Literal or Hyperbole?

Most the religious leaders of Jesus’s day abused their spiritual authority for their selfish ends. Their “spiritual ambition” was fuelled by the praises of men. Jesus used hyperbole or overstatement to rebuke the Pharisees against their worldly ambition and their desire for power and authority over people, instead of serving the people of God. Jesus used a similar teaching technique earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, when he says, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:30). It’s not to be understood literally, at least I hope not! Otherwise, all of us would be walking about without any hands. Hyperbole is not meant to be interpreted literally.


No More Daddy?

If we were to take “call no man your father” literally, my sons could not refer to me as father nor call me “Daddy.” And as Matthew 23:10 explains, neither should anyone be called teacher, instructor, leader, or however one wishes to translate καθηγητής (Greek). My sons call their teachers, “Teacher (so and so).” The academic title, “Doctor” or “Dr.” comes from the Latin meaning, “teacher,” so if we are going to take Jesus’s word here literally, “Dr.” should be done away with too, even for medical doctors.


Father Abraham

Further, Jesus himself uses “Father” as a title for Abraham (Luke 16:24, 30; John 8:56). Jesus also called Nicodemus the “Teacher of Israel” (John 3:10). Stephen used “Father Abraham” in Acts 7:2, as did the Apostle Paul in Romans 4:12. While Paul does not give himself the title, “Father,” he comes close to it in 1 Corinthians 4:15 and 1 Thessalonians 2:11—“I have become your father in the gospel” (paraphrased), which seems to contradict Jesus’s instruction in Matthew 23:9. Similarly, the Church Fathers (get it?) used “father” in a spiritual sense to address certain individuals in many of their writings. These are the early beginnings of the title “Fr.” for priests today.


Two Reasons Why “Fr.” Matters


Now that we see that Scripture does not disallow the use of “Fr.” or “Father” as a title, here are two reasons why I think “Fr.” matters:


  1. Whilst I do use the title “Reverend” once in a while, it has a pompous ring to it, especially when it means “one who is to be revered” or “deserving of respect.” And if I really want to put weight to it or be formal, I can add my academic title, “The Revd Dr Robert Falconer.” Some protestant clergy call themselves Pastor X. However, while “Reverend” seems to be a professional form of address, and “Pastor” is functional, “Father” on the other hand is relational—it’s intimate and personal. Yet, a Father is also pastoral, he is a shepherd, but he is more than that, he is fatherly—not to mention the sacramental aspects of his priesthood. The truth is the church lacks strong father figures who are deeply rooted in Christian faith and devotion, and the title, “Fr.” is a beautiful reminder that we have spiritual fathers in the faith. There are certainly also fatherly men in the church who aren’t clergy, I know a few of them. And as you well know, there are clergy in the church with the title, that are anything but spiritual fathers or shepherds for that matter. Many priests don’t know the significance of being called Father. I’m a month into my priesthood and I’ve only been called Fr. Rob a few times, but whether it’s a novelty or not, it helps me feel a deep sense of humility and purpose in my vocation. Yes, it’s also an honor but it’s one I take seriously. And when I call someone else Fr. that too is profoundly humbling.

  2. I once heard someone about to be ordained into the priesthood comment that he would never allow someone to call him Father because of his concern for gender equality. Sadly, it’s a missed opportunity to embody all that I’ve mentioned above. But in addition to that, the title Fr. can help in some limited way, to bring clarity and stability, and promote biblical and traditional moral values in our current world which propagates, what is in my view, a disordered gender ideology. When the genders have become so blurred (not to mention a spectrum of gender identities), the title Fr. makes a powerful statement.


Why Clerical Titles Don’t Matter So Much

The problem with clerical titles is that if not used with deep humility, an Apostolic attitude, and a desire to embody spiritual fatherhood, we will fall prey to pride and idolatry. We ought never to covert honor or titles. Instead, our loyalty should be ultimately towards God, the one to whom all titles belong, after all, he is the “Our Father,” and he is the Great Shepherd, he is the one to be revered, and he is the one deserving of all respect and honor. We only get to participate in his titles. The title “Fr.” points to the Father who is in heaven, and so may we imitate him and his fatherly love.


I continue to have the policy I’ve had with my students; they can call me what they like, whatever feels comfortable to them. I’m just as happy being called Rob or Robert, as I am with Dr., Rev., or Fr. In the church where I serve, I’m simply called Rob, and I’m happy with that. But I can’t help thinking that “Father” is the most beautiful and personal description for a priest, reminding him of his priestly and pastoral responsibility. Lastly, you would be right to say that one could embody much of what I have described without any title. While titles matter in my view, they don’t matter too much, so hold them lightly and allow your context to inform how you use them, and do so with genuine humility.


Jul 01

Great reflection indeed. Blessings to you Rev.


Jul 01

Thanks Rob. I found this insightful and helpful.

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