Hold up, sir John…

A few times, recently, some have thought it insulting to me to address me as “Mr Chadwick” so as to refuse recognition of my status as a cleric or a priest. Sometimes I would just be called Chadwick like when I was a schoolboy, Mister or Sir being reserved to schoolmasters and not even the house or school Monitors (prefects in some establishments).

It is a difficult one, knowing whether to treat me as a gentleman or a cleric – or both. Ecclesiastical titles have changed over the centuries and differently in various countries. In pre-Reformation England, a priest would be called Sir Forename, as in this famous quote from Reformation polemics:

When the bell once rings … they forsake their seats and run from altar to altar, from sacring to sacring, peeping here and touting there, and gazing at that thing which the pilled-pate priests holdeth up in his hands. And if the priest be weak in his arms, and heave not up high enough, the rude people … will cry out to the priest: “Hold up, sir John, hold up; heave it a little higher”. And one will say to another: “Stoop down, thou fellow afore, that I may see my Maker: for I cannot be merry except I see my lord God once in a day”. (Becon, The Displaying of the Popish Mass, fol. 270; Becon, A Comparison, fols 359-360).

A correspondent wrote to me today:

I always think that addressing a secular priest as mister is so classy because it’s so Anglican.

Indeed, this is standard Anglican practice, though Father has been increasingly imported from Roman Catholic practice. When I was a boy at home, my parents, middle-of-the-road Anglicans, would also refer to a clergyman as Mr Surname. This is the custom. We in the ACC have adopted widespread Anglo-Catholic usage and use Father. I generally invite people to address me as Father Anthony, unless they are intimate friends or family. It is for their sake, not mine. Friends just use my Christian name, and I don’t bat an eyelid.

Calling someone by their surname implies a position of authority over them, as at school or in the army. That is quite rude when the person calling me Chadwick (or the same to anyone else) has no authority over me.

Comparison with other countries is interesting. The French Monsieur l’Abbé comes from the days of the abbés commendataires in the seventeenth century, when the benefice of an abbot could be held by any cleric, even if not a monk. Then came the custom of calling all clerics by that title unless they were a curé of a parish, a canon, prelate or bishop. The priests of Saint Sulpice, community and seminary founded by Monsieur Olier, were simply called Monsieur Surname. When I was in seminary some of us used Monsieur instead of Monsieur l’Abbé as an old-fashioned affectation, a mark of distinction. It is simply the old usage in France. In common use, it is equivalent to the English Sir or Mister. In our days, the title is used for all men, including those of modest families.

In Italy, the title of a cleric is Don, as in Don Camillo. It comes from the Latin Dominus. In Portuguese usage, it is Dom, like in the Benedictine Orders. In German, the title is Hochwürden Herr (Pfarrer for a parish priest). Vocatively, a German priest is called Pater. Eastern Orthodox priests are called Vater.

Properly speaking, the title Father is that of a religious or monastic priest, and only come into use for the secular clergy in the nineteenth century.

So, if certain polemicists on the internet think they insult me by not calling me Father, they can save their breath. It is only for their good that I suggest their using an ecclesiastical title. I once remember a vagante bishop here in France showing me a letter from a dicastery in Rome calling his S. Exc. Monseigneur, and using that as evidence that he (or his “validity”) was in some way recognised by Rome. I later asked a Roman official about this. It is simply a courtesy, a matter of protocol, using the same title as the person used when he wrote to the dicastery in question. That is all, a simple courtesy.

It doesn’t cost us anything to use a clerical title when addressing someone. It doesn’t mean that we agree with him or what he believes, or whether or not he is truly a priest according to my Church’s discipline and criteria. It is just a mark of respect.

I’m a bit of a rough diamond myself, something of an anarchist and rather informal in my ways. At the same time, I was brought up and educated to be a gentleman, and I try to continue in this way as much as possible. An old-fashioned seminary has the same quality in this way as an English college. It isn’t always easy with those who are insulting in their manner. Life is a learning curve and there is always room for progress and growth.

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11 Responses to Hold up, sir John…

  1. Patricius says:

    In pre-Reformation England, prelates were addressed vocatively as “venerable sir,” depending upon rank. I have no difficulty in addressing you as, father, since that is how I was brought up to address priests. In any case, you’re older and wiser than I am and infinitely more experienced.

    People can call me whatever they like. Who am I?

    • I call you Patrick, but if I didn’t know you, you would be Mr Sheridan. If I was serving you in a shop, you would be Sir. It isn’t difficult. As I say, I invite those who are not in my circles of friends to call me Father Anthony as it is both intimate and shows a mark of respect to my priestly character received through ordination. It rounds out the “difference”.

  2. Caedmon says:

    The custom of calling secular priests ‘father’ seems to be of post-reformation origin in the British Isles. I first became aware of this possibility when I was reading Compton Mackenzie’s books about the Hebrides, in which there are snatches of Gaelic conversation. I noticed that the RC islanders addressed their priest as ‘Father’ in English but ‘Maighstir’ in Gaelic. This got me wondering was ‘Father’ a more recent innovation. Then years later I was flicking through a biography of a nineteenth century Cardinal of Westminster and read that in the 19th century the RC hierarchy was still struggling to get their people to address priests as ‘Father’. I’ve also read that in parts of Scotland and North America Anglicans were calling their priests ‘Father’ before Roman Catholics.

    • William Tighe says:

      The word “father,” applied to clergy in pre-Reformation England, was used only of one’s “ghostly father,” and, by extension, to priests who had a reputation for being notable spritual counsellors, whether as confessors (and, remember, not all priests had faculties to hear confessions, although most did) or as writers of works of spiritual counsel (e.g., Richard Whitford). In fact, for nearly a century after 1559 those whom we term “puritans” (by which I do not mean sectarian separatists, but rather “hot Protestants” eager to convert the “ungodly multitude” and desirous of further protestantization of the worship and discipline of the Church of England) referred to some of their leading preachers and especially spiritual counsellors by the title “father” as well.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I suppose the Dutch use of ‘Oudvader’ may parallel the latter: the Wikipedia article “Oudvader” notes its use in certain circles (the sort that look for ‘tokens of election’) for pietistic theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, adding that a few such were provided individually with the addition of ‘vader’, such as “Vader Brakel” and “Vader Smytegelt”. Many of the “Oudvaders” listed there are English or Scottish.

  3. Stephen K says:

    As a Roman by native formation, I am well-used to the salutation ‘Father’, when addressing priests. I wouldn’t know, of course, without researching it, what its origin is, but in any case it isn’t problematic for me: I regard it as conventional. However, I do occasionally query whether it is the best or most appropriate salutation. Is a priest primarily in a relationship of ‘fatherhood’ to me? Presumably, the rationale lies with the concept of some level of spiritual or religious ‘guidance’ or ‘providence’, and that is how I have always understood the connection, namely, that as a father looks out for his children, so a priest looks out for (his) flock.

    But is that really accurate? One of the corollaries of the controversies about priesthood, women’s ordination, independent orders, etc. is a reflection as to how many of the things that underpin a ‘father’ or ‘providential’ or ‘educational’ analogy have less or nothing to do with the concept of priest – as sacerdos – i.e. ‘Mass-celebrating’ or ‘sacrament-administering’ – but most or all to do with the concept of ‘pastor’ or ‘presbyter/elder’. Thus, a priest is a ‘father’ – analogically speaking – insofar as he is a pastor, but not simply because he is ordained.

    Now, in practice, the two may mostly, or at least commonly, occur together, but it is not necessarily so. It would seem an awkward, if not impossible, fit, to call a woman priest or priestess ‘father’ of course, but also, the more I think about it, a purely formal and artificial fit to call someone with whom one has no subjective relationship a title that implies a spiritual intimacy. [On the other hand, it seems very appropriate for a monk to call his Abbot ‘Father’ or a nun to call her ‘Abbess’ ‘Mother’.]

    On the other hand, if the title of ‘Father’ is conventional, then, just as we salute strangers as ‘Mister’ – which derives, I believe, from ‘Master’ – who are certainly not in any significant manner in charge of us, so any incongruence is probably not worth worrying about.

    However, all the above said, I am increasingly of the view that in a religion like Christianity, where the ethos of loving fraternity is discernible over and over again in the Gospels, and where we are encouraged to call God ‘Abba’, as the ‘Son’ who is, in sharing our humanity, like a brother, we are really, all brothers and sisters of and to each other, and so there would be no incongruence in saluting anyone including Popes and Bishops, as ‘Brother’.

    Well, it’s just a personal reflection. It’s not worth suffering over. But a ‘father’ (or a ‘mother’) is someone who would care about me, as me, and not just for their own purposes or pleasure. Ironically, I’d find it difficult to regard someone who insisted that they were my spiritual father whilst not acting accordingly, as either my ‘father’ or my ‘brother’!

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Properly speaking, the title Father is that of a religious or monastic priest, and only come into use for the secular clergy in the nineteenth century.” I remember our mutual friend, Dr. Winch, enlightening me on this point.

    “Calling someone by their surname implies a position of authority over them, as at school or in the army.” But, interestingly, it has also been a sign of a certain degree of mutual intimacy and affection – “Holmes” and “Watson” calling each other that, in the stories (and I seem to remember reading of “Lewis” and “Tolkien” calling each other that for a goodly time before proceeding to anything more familiar).

    Trying just now to see if I could find why ‘Sir Knight and Sir Priest’ echoed in my mind as possible quotation or set phrase, I came across this interesting note:

    In 1585 is the marriage entry of one of Oxton’s vicars: “Richard Burges Clarke and Agnes Harstap was married together the xxi day of October.” This vicar died in 1614, described in the burial entry of June 17th in that year as “Sir Richard Burges, vicar of this parish.” The use of the title “Sir” does not imply that he was a Knight, but was an honorary title given to priests down to a late period. A law of Canute declared a priest to rank with the second order of thanes—i.e., landed gentry. “By laws, armorial, civil and of arms, a priest in his place in civil conversation is always before any esquire, as being a knight’s fellow by his holy orders, and the third of the three sirs,” viz., Sir King, Sir Knight and Sir Priest. In Shakespeare’s characters we have Sir Hugh Evans and Sir Oliver Martext, and at a later period still “Sir John” was the popular name for a priest. Piers Ploughman (vision xi, 504) calls them “God’s Knights.”


  5. “Calling someone by their surname implies a position of authority over them,”
    If somebody calls me by my surname, I assume he is treating me as a social equal, and that he expects me to respond in kind. An exchange like this was overheard in a local parish church:- Lord Feversham, coming into church, to the Vicar: “Morning, Barclay”. Vicar: “Morning, Feversham”. This was overheard, and much commented on favourably among the parishioners.

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