Why I am a Father

In the Episcopal Church, titles are complicated. When written, my title is 'the Rev.' Cathie Caimano. but this title is adjectival, so to call me Rev. Cathie is not correct (it is on par with the way a judge's title is 'the honorable', but you would not call a judge 'Honorable' Hernandez). Of course, you could call me 'Priest' Cathie, the way you call someone a bishop or a deacon, but that has never caught on (don't ask me why, because that seems to make sense to me, and it would eliminate the gender issue altogether). Instead, people in the early church began to call priests 'Father', for their presbyteral role as protector and leader of their flocks. Of course, back then, all priests were men. As women began to be ordained priests in the Episcopal Church, they were first forced to take the title 'Father'. Later, women insisted on the separate but equal title 'Mother', and many woman priests still use this as a title.

But I do not. and here's why:

1. I am not a ‘woman priest’. I am a priest. The fact that I am a woman is secondary to my vocation, professionally speaking. Like 'lady doctor' (or for that matter, 'male nurse'), 'female priest' presumes that the default is male, and the gender adjective is necessary. Frankly, from a professional perspective, I would much rather that people know that I am a priest (which the title 'Father' denotes) and be confused about my gender, than that they are clear about my gender and confused about my vocation (when you say 'Mother', people inevitably think you are a nun.) Not only that, but when my male colleagues are referred to as 'Father' and I am referred to as 'Mother', it is hard to get folks to remember that our jobs are the same.

2. We call God 'Father', and we hopefully do not, therefore, presume that God is a man. By the same token, I think we can call priests 'Father' and not presume they are necessarily men. I think it is high time that feminism be expanded to include typically fatherly notions of protecting, providing for, and leading that the word 'Father' conjures up. There is no reason women can't be 'fatherly', just as there is no reason that men cannot be 'motherly,' that is, nurturing, warm and caring.

3. Not using titles undermines the authority of the church. Most female clergy I know use neither ‘Mother’ nor ‘Father’, not even ‘Rev.’ for a title. ‘Oh, just call me Ingrid,’ is what I most often hear, and when I press my colleagues as to why, they inevitably say that they do not feel comfortable with authoritarian titles, with ‘separating themselves from their flock’. And yet, they serve the hierarchical church, and as such, they definitely do have authority. My title conveys authority, and it is not mine, it is the authority of the church itself. I would never dare do the job I have been ordained to do, never dream I could bear the traditions and the sacraments of the Episcopal Church, if I had not been duly formed, trained, tested, and upheld by my community and ordained by the people of the church and the Holy Spirit. To deny this authority, is, to me, a denial of the great responsibility with which I have been entrusted, as well as to deny the rock on which I stand, which is the Scripture, Tradition and Reason that has been handed down in community since Jesus himself.

4. I love it when people ask me why I am called 'Father'! I will admit that the title, used by a woman especially, has a lightness and an unexpectedness that opens itself up to many wonderful conversations about God, gender, and leadership in the church. One of my most endearing memories is leading a summer camp in New York City, with over 100 children. every morning I would greet them all by shouting, 'Good morning everybody!'. And they would shout back in unison, 'good morning, Father Cathie!' Incidentally, the kids never had any problem with this. The only questions I ever got from kids is when they went home, and their parents told them they must be wrong about my name. And one day, the mother of one of my eight year old campers told me that her daughter reported that at school, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said she wanted to be a priest. One of the boys in the class mocked her, and said, ‘Girls can’t be priests.’ And she said, ‘I know a girl who is a priest.’ I will never stop being a Father for this reason alone.

Today my title is Canon, as I work on the Bishop’s staff, and so I am Canon Cathie. But in my heart I am ‘Father’, and I visit many places from my past where people know me as ‘Father Cathie’. I even have a very funny online dating experience that I may share someday regarding my title. And yet it is not a joke, and not primarily a comical experience at all. I do not take myself all that seriously, but I take my Christianity and my priesthood very seriously, always. And that is why I am a Father.

The Rev. Canon Catherine Caimano. Edited January 2014.