Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Hi Rev! (A discussion starter when there is nothing else to discuss)

"Hi Rev!" (boy to priest as he cycles by)

Is the word "Reverend" a word like Pastor, Minister, Doctor, Dean, Deacon, Presbyter, Father and Bishop?

If it is, then even as we can say "Pastor John Smith" and "Pastor Smith" so we can also say "Reverend [John] Smith"

Here Reverend or Revd or Rev. appears to be functioning as a noun.

It is common on the phone - moreso in the USA than in the UK - for clergy persons to be addressed as "Rev. Smith" or "Reverend Smith" and this has the functional advantage of addressing male and female clergypersons in the same way and making "Rev." into a noun like Pastor or Minister.

But what if "reverend" is not a noun and is an adjective and means "deserving reverence" ?

Because it is originally an adjective and because its original use is from the Latin form "reverendus dominus" [Reverend Sir] used of a priest, the older English way was to use "reverend" only with a title be it "dominus" or in English, Mr., Dr., Canon, Professor and so on. Thus "The Reverend Mr./Dr./Fr./Canon/ John Smith" or "the Revd Mr. John Smith" or "the Rev. Mr. John Smith". This was to insist that the person was deserving of reverence in view of ordination and of the church office that he held and not in his own personhood.

This older tradition of standard English has been modified in Great Britain and it is now common to leave out the "Mr./Fr." So the general practice in the Church of England in 2002 appears to be to write to "Rev. John Smith". Here the adjective (whose meaning appears to have been forgotten) is attached to a person with a name rather than to an ordained person with an office. Thus the person being addressed is declared to be in and of himself/herself deserving reverence.

In much of the Episcopal Church it has become commonplace to call male clergypersons "Father" and so they are often addressed as "Father John Smith" and the problem I highlight is avoided. But there is no common agreement yet on how to address a married woman, a single woman living alone, and a woman in a lesbian partnership who is also ordained. Some are using "Mother."

In modern American English it would seem that to speak of "Reverend Smith" is perfectly acceptable for Congress, the Law Courts, novelists, academic institutions and the media. "Reverend" has lost all its original meaning and is simply now a noun pointing to the occupation of a person in the religious sphere.

Personally speaking I shiver when people call me "Reverend Peter" (or the like) for I am very much aware that, as the Psalmist put it, "reverend and holy is thy Name", O Lord. I would much prefer that we recovered the original usage and referred to clergy as The Reverend Mr./Dr./Fr and so on (including I guess now, Reverend Miss/Ms/Mrs). This would highlight that they are set apart by ordination and for this reason only, and only for this reason, they are "reverendus."

Lent II 2002

The Revd Dr. Peter Toon

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