Beloved of God,
One morning during the summer before leaving for seminary as I pulled the car into my usual parking space in the satellite lot and gathered my things together to catch the shuttle bus to the Cornell campus, a little white Honda Civic zoomed up behind my car and the handsome fellow inside offered me a lift to my office. It was my oldest son, Bob, and instead of playing raucous music with the subwoofers in the trunk BOOMing during the ride, this time he had a serious question for me:
“So, Mom, after you get ordained, what are people going to call you? …Because it would be really weird to have a bunch of people calling you Mother when you’re our mother.”
This led to an interesting conversation. I explained at first that in The Episcopal Church, “Mother” is the traditional spoken title for a woman priest, just like “Father” is typical for male priests. That still wasn’t settling well, so Bob asked, “Couldn’t they call you ‘Reverend,’ like “The Reverend Al Sharpton?!!” I explained again that Reverend is a written title. “Well, what else have you got then?” he asked.
I explained that some women priests go by “Pastor,” but that is more of a Lutheran or Presbyterian title. Although it IS used by some Episcopal priests, many see their role as both pastoral and sacramental (priestly), and typically revert to “Mother.” “Isn’t there anything else?” Bob wondered, an edge of exasperation in his voice.
I had been thinking about this a little bit, so I told him about the desert mothers and fathers. In ancient times, the desert fathers were called “Abba” and the desert mothers were called “Amma.” I thought that “Amma Ann” sounded quite nice and might consider that as a possibility. Bob thought about that for a few seconds and then said, “Oh. Kinda like, ‘Amma go get me some cheese?!!'” ~Needless to say, his response tickled me all day, and I found myself chuckling aloud whenever I’d remember it. I have told this story to a number of people in the intervening years, and there are a few who call me Amma, even now.
When I was ordained as a Deacon, the spoken title was much simpler. A Deacon is a Deacon, male or female. When I was ordained as a Priest, the people at Caroline Church where I served as Curate chose to call me Pastor Ann. I lived with that for a year, but was unsettled by the facts that a) although I cherish my role as a pastor, it didn’t encompass my priestly role; b) it set me way apart from my Rector, who was always “Father Last Name” until you got to know him, then “Father First Name,” then, if you knew him really, really well, your could just call him “Father.” No one would have dared call him by his first name, but I discovered that they were perfectly fine calling me by just my first name and affording me much less respect as a priest with the same kind of ordination he had; and c) wherever else I went – whether to Diocesan events or home to visit my home parish, I was always “Mother Ann.” I wrote an article at that time, and made the change from Pastor to Mother.
As I continue to evolve in my role as a priest and pastor, I am feeling the need to once again change my spoken title. As your Rector (that’s my job description, not my title), I have grown to love you all – yes, every one of you, without exception – very dearly, with an all embracing, unconditional, persevering kind of love. It is a love that has grown fierce and strong like, as I wrote last summer, a Mama Bear loves her cubs. I feel protective of you all, and I always want the very best for you all. But I am learning that the love I feel for you needs to be more clearly differentiated. It is a priestly/pastorly love which is indeed very similar to, but not the same as, a motherly love. Quite simply put, I am Bob and Dan’s mother, not yours, and the understanding of what I can/should do for you should be different as well.
Am I here for you when you have pastoral needs? Absolutely! 24/7 – 365!!!
Do I still love you like Mama Bear? To the extent that it is appropriate, YES!
I am still working out all the expectations and boundaries in my own mind and heart, and I pray that you will join me in thinking about all of this. For now, many of you will have noticed that I have begun to sign e-mails and letters and e-news articles as Rev. Ann, and I would respectfully ask that you call me “Reverend Ann” as well – instead of “Mother Ann.” It is a much more accurate title, I think, that encompasses both the priestly and the pastorly roles that I serve, while not confusing the role(s) that I play in your lives. The Church has evolved since I set out in the ordination process, and this is now a far more acceptable and increasingly engaged way of addressing a woman priest.
I know that for some this will make sense, and for some it will be a strange little quirky nuance but it is, I believe, a worthy and healthy endeavor for all of us.
As we approach Thanksgiving this year, please know that I give thanks to God every day for the gift and blessing that you all are and I carry you in the priestly/pastorly place in my heart always.
Yours in the Great Love of Christ,
PS Since the Bishop appointed me as Dean of the Southern Erie Deanery, my written title (should you send me anything in the mail, etc.) is “The Very Rev. Ann M. Tillman.” 🙂