An exploratory reflection not a final word!
In the present crisis of American Anglicanism it may seem to be merely a superfluous matter to reflect upon how ordained persons describe themselves.
Yet it is possible that the choice of a title or name reflects a whole mindset or attitude and does therefore open a way into appreciating that mindset.
There seems to be little doubt but that the introduction of the word “Father” as a self-description by anglo-catholic clergy before and after World War II in the PECUSA was the cause of deep emotion and parish divisions all over the country. People in their 60s and older have told me stories of such and the memory is still vivid for them of those often bitter and long-lasting emotions and divisions.
Let us be honest and recognize that those clergy who introduced “Father” passionately believed that this title spoke of their relation under God to the local flock of Christ’s flock, the assembly of God’s adopted children. Under God and in the stead of the bishop they were “fathers” to these parishioners. They were there to protect, provide for, teach and lead the people as does a father in a traditional family. As the Bishop is the father in God to the clergy and diocese, so the local priest is the father in God to the local children of God. To use the word “Mr” as was the norm around them was to undervalue the role and vocation of the priest! Let him be called what he is by vocation!
Those who opposed “Father” believed that it had strong Roman Catholic overtones and implications and they preferred the more traditional Anglican form of “the Rev’d Mr/Dr/Canon” or the functional title of “Vicar” or “Rector.” For them it was the “Protestant Episcopal Church” – and don’t forget “Protestant.” The clergyman was the Minister (with upper case M).
But by 1980, or in some areas much earlier, the emotion had virtually disappeared and the divisions had ceased over the use of the title “Father.” What seems to have happened is that there was a general agreement that “if you can’t beat them join them.” The National Church in its publications and answering of the phones began to call individual priests by the name of “Father”; local dioceses followed on. Bishops addressed their clergy as “Father this or that” in letters and at meetings. Notice Boards and Newsletters described the rector and assistants as “Fr this and that”. In a period of twenty years or so all clergy had become “Fr” except where they had earned doctorates and were not anglo-catholic, and were called “Dr”!
What caused this process? The context of Liberal Catholicism is important. This certainly invaded the Episcopal Church in the 1960s and 1970s through the experimental liturgies and then the 1979 Prayer Book. This pseudo-catholicism gave impetus to the general use of “Father” (but, importantly, in a diluted sense from the original anglo-catholic high view). And further, the desire of the Episcopal leadership to differentiate the Episcopal Church from the growing number of Protestant denominations and sects led negatively to the dropping of the word “Protestant” in the Name of the Church, and positively to the desire to call clergy by a distinctive name – thus “Father” (and when women came along they became “Mother”). Episcopalians had usually been proud of their status and they wished to remain distinctive as the types of American religion increased by leaps and bounds after the 1950s. So they were in “the Episcopal Church” with clergy known as “Father” but not quite the same as the R C “Father.”
But how could Evangelicals in the Episcopal Church have accepted all this without apparently much protest if any?
This is an important question – if one is seeking, for example, to understand The Network in the ECUSA in 2005 – because in the Church of England and in Australia no evangelical churchman and priest would ever call himself “Father” because it was and remains for him the word adopted by anglo-catholics to describe their particular view of the pastoral ministry. The Evangelical prefers to be described as “The Minister” (as in the BCP) and to be called “Mr” or “Dr” or by his first name. “Minister” in terms of word and sacrament and pastoral care is the preferred description of the role and vocation of the presbyter/priest by the traditional evangelical school.
The answer to the question would seem to be that there were very few Evangelicals of the traditional kind around to protest at all! They were a minority without voice and influence.
Most of those who are called Evangelicals in the ECUSA today have little or no roots within the ECUSA in terms of either their historical existence or specifically conservative evangelical existence. From 1900 to 1960 there were very few Evangelical clergy; however there were many low church and broad church clergy; but these are not to be equated with Evangelical.
Evangelical clergy began to appear after the 1960s in the ECUSA through (a) personal journeys on “the Canterbury trail” from generic Evangelicalism (as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Bible Christians etc.) into the ordered liturgy of the Episcopal Church, (b) the influence of the charismatic movement on existing Episcopalians making them evangelical, and (c) the work of the new seminary in Ambridge, PA., which is Evangelical.
The new Evangelical school of the ECUSA from the 1970s emphasized personal conversion, the authority of the Bible, evangelization, relevant worship in modern language and so on. In other matters they fitted into the ECUSA as it was in terms of using its nomenclature and its new Prayer Book. Most of the members of this new school had no memory of and no acquaintance with the historic kind of Evangelical churchmanship known in the ECUSA in the mid-19th century and into the 20th or that which was known in Britain, parts of Canada, Australia and in many parts of Africa. They were Evangelical in the sense of the generic Evangelicalism of the USA (see Christianity Today!) and they set this in the context of the Episcopal Church as it was and is. Thus for them the title of “Father” for clergy and the use of vestments were part of the things that they accepted in the ECUSA, their adopted home.
If there is a measure of truth in what is written above, then this means that the Evangelical school of the ECUSA (which is found virtually in total in The Network) is unlikely to be transformed into a more historically meaningful form of Evangelical churchmanship and witness! Its present acceptance of (a) the title “Fr” and mass vestments, (b) the ECUSA Formulary of the 1979 Prayer Book and (c) most of the innovations of ECUSA [e.g. women’s ordination] since the 1970s apparently indicates that it does not as yet take seriously the Reformed Catholicism, which is the form of Christian religion that is expressed in the historic Formularies of the Anglican Way (rejected by the ECUSA) and to which the classic, historical Evangelical School was committed.
It is of course possible, indeed probable, that the modern form of Episcopalian Evangelicalism is the best that is possible in the ECUSA as things are therein. If so, we have to accept that its distinctiveness lies not in its expression of genuine, historic Evangelical Anglicanism, but as a fascinating manifestation of generic American evangelicalism within a liturgical and “high church” context. And we may add that it looks for support and fuller identity to evangelical Anglicans oversees and thus may have a longer life than the revisionist/liberal schools it is at war with in the ECUSA.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)