Monday, July 20, 2015

Call me Mother

Last Wednesday a friend and I found ourselves leading a workshop on priesthood and parenthood.
Some of those attending were probably slightly disappointed, as they had hoped for practical tips for saying Mass with a toddler tucked under the arm, or ways of retaining the respect of your congregation after an enthusiastic Y1 has regaled them with tales of "What Mummy said to Daddy when  the car broke down"...but we were intent on something a bit different.

As a priest in the Catholic tradition I'm entirely comfortable calling my male colleagues "Father", though when I was first ordained I was oddly resistant to being called "Mother". In retrospect, I think this was mostly because I was very conscious that my ordination would have a considerable impact on my children, who had been used to having the first call on my time and attention, - and asking them to share the name that they called me as well as so much else just seemed like a bridge too far. In addition, having grown up in the kind of traditional parishes where "Father knows best" was a code for "So just sit in your pew and be quiet", I was absolutely resistant to any hint that this might be reflected in my ministry. I was not prepared in any way to subscribe to the use of parental language to encourage generations of the faithful to rest, passive and dependent as new-born infants , accepting no responsibility for the life of the church at all, though sometimes invited to share in carefully chosen chores, "to help Father". So, for the first few years after ordination, despite serving in a relatively Catholic context, my answer to the "What do we call you?" question was always, quite simply, "Kathryn".

Latterly, though, I've begun to adjust my ideas. This came about in part by spending time with friends in London diocese, where the language of Father and Mother feels entirely natural (even in quite catholic parishes in Gloucester it felt rather contrived, - you could somehow hear the inverted commas whenever it was used), and partly because I realised that actually, what people choose to call their priest is important in helping them to establish the relationship. So, while I absolutely REFUSE to answer to "Rev Kathryn", and enjoy "Canon Kathryn" (in a wryly amused "how on earth did THAT happen?" kind of way) I am now entirely happy to be called Mother as well, because for me that is all about relationship. I was scrabbling around trying to work out exactly what I meant by this when John-Francis Friendship wrote a rather helpful blog on the subject
"I have no desire to be addressed as ‘Reverend’ nor, for that matter, Vicar (another lazy way of referring to clergy) – I am not a vicar and never have been!  But I value being called Father and I will call women priests Mother because it reminds me and, I hope, them of that relationship in God we are called to both embrace and live out.  It reminds me that, as a priest, I am not called into an ordinary relationship with those I encounter but into a relationship in God our heavenly Father – and Mother.  "

Isn't that lovely?

So - in our workshop we went on to brain-storm some parental roles - and our list looked something like this:
Referee                     Challenger                  Negotiater                     Lender of resources
Comforter                  Mopper- up                 Confidante                   Provider of rituals
Welcomer                  Nurturer                      Protector                      Playmate
Celebrater                 Enforcer of discipline  Enabler                        Peace-maker  
Teacher                     Listener                      Boundary-setter           Story-teller
Setter of moral tone   Faith-keeper              Walker-beside              Someone who is always there

As we talked through these parental roles, it became increasingly clear that there is a huge and genuine cross-over between the tasks of parenthood and priesthood...

Of course, the priest exists to enable the ministry of the Church, and to facilitate encounters between God's people and their God. TOGETHER priest and people are called to be walking sacraments, living signs that the Kingdom of God has come near, and our collective task is to respond to those who say                    "Sir, we would see Jesus" (John 12:21)
We, and all God's people, exist to mediate God's love, to continue the work of the Incarnation - as Augustine so wonderfully puts it 
"You are to be taken, blessed, broken and distributed that the work of the Incarnation may go forward". is not, even for a second, actually all about US.

The other role that we identified gets to the heart of this...for both priest and parent are called to work ourselves out of a job, to let go, sometimes even to push our children out of the nest so that they can truly fly.
Always, always, it is about the priest (and the parent) getting out of the way...
Whenever I preside at the Eucharist, I  aspire to become transparent....
This is a paradox, of course, because the only thing I can bring to my priesthood is myself - and in shaping and setting the tone for a congregation's life, or that of a family, my own gifts and skills woill have their part to play. I don't comfortably identify with the traditional catholic clergy of my childhood who would remove their wedding rings in the vestry before celebrating Mass, as a sign that they left their own personal identity behind, any more than I want to create children (or, dear heaven, a congregation!) as mini-me's. Nonetheless, I've been conscious over the past few years of the risk that exists in that loving family relationship which can be part of parish life at its best...that sometimes, just sometimes, the deep affection of priest and congregation for one another can divert the focus from the God who is the ONLY reason for any of it.
"Sir, we would see JESUS".

We need to have strong relationships with our children - and with our churches - but those relationships are not there to serve our own needs but to enable children and churches alike to fly..So another key text is those words of John the Baptist
"He must become greater and I must become less" (John 3:30) 

On Friday of last week my daughter phoned in a state somewhere between joy and panic to tell me that she has a place on a 2 year post-graduate course IN CANADA!!!!!
She is 28,. She left home for uni a decade ago and has since collected a whole raft of degrees, lived in different towns and cities, coming home from time to time, but dancing her own dance, independently, to the music given to her alone.
And now she is going to do so on a different continent - and I have to let her - because, actually, that's the point!
Like it or not, as her mother, my job is to make myself redundant and let her go joyfully (though perhaps the odd tear is allowed) see her and her brothers independent, adult, living their lives, singing their songs, not copying mine.

I lent them resources for a while, - and I guess I always will. It would be a strange parent who refused to feed her children, no matter how grown up, - but they don't need to need me. You see, for them as for the congregations I serve, I'm simply the 18th camel.

1 comment:

UKViewer said...

Thanks for a lovely reflection on Priesthood and Parenthood.

The strange thing about how we address Clergy from the Catholic Tradition, is that having been brought up a Catholic, I have no difficulty in addressing Male Clergy as Father, but using the Term Mother for female Clergy makes me strangely uncomfortable - I don't know why, perhaps it's because I lost my own mother at age 4? And subsequently, didn't have anyone to call Mother as she was never replaced in my (our, I had two siblings) affections.

But as I'm not in an Anglo Catholic parish, it doesn't really arise in my day to day church life, albeit, when our area Dean took a service in a local Anglo-Catholic parish, she introduced herself by her Christian name, while the curate there addressed her as Mother.

So, there is some ambiguity across the Church and presumably custom and practice is involved. But for me, I think that I will become used to it in time, particularly as I move around in ministry, visiting other parishes to learn and to grow in experience. I have a parish placement next year and I hope it's with an Anglo Catholic parish.