Who Gets To Be A “Rev”?
CCS Principal Michelle Owens explores the question of whether deacons and diaconal ministers should call themselves (or let others call them) “Reverend.”
Has anyone asked you recently whether the diaconate are allowed to use the honorific “Rev”?
I’ve been asked three times recently! Or more precisely, I’ve been asked when United Church Diaconal Ministers started using it, and for proof that we are allowed to do so. Being asked once was amusing, twice seemed like a coincidence, and by the third time, I wondered what the Spirit was trying to tell me!
The short answer to the ‘show me the proof’ question is that in 2001 General Secretary Virginia Coleman offered an official Opinion that since “Reverend” is an honorific for members of the order of ministry, and diaconal ministers are part of the order of ministry, there is nothing stopping the diaconate from using the honorific.
The question of “Can we?” being easily settled, it seems to me that the more interesting question is “Why would we?”
Once upon a time, when streams of ministry were differentiated by gender as much as by any other calling, men became ordained ministers, wore collars, were allowed to marry, and were referred (and deferred) to as “Reverend” (Last Name). Deaconesses sometimes wore uniforms, sometimes did not, often wore pins, for many decades were disjoined from the order if they married, and were addressed as “Miss.” Internationally, some Deaconess uniforms or habits have persisted to this day – diaconal orders in uniform are a visual delight at ecumenical gatherings. In some orders the diaconate use “Reverend”, and in some“Sister”.
Wondering about the use of Reverend, I called up four friends of CCS, and had fascinating conversations about service, community, power, relationship and pastoral identity. I’m very grateful for Diaconal Ministers Kathy Toivanen and Rev. Marlene Britton, Rev. Deacon Tanis Kolisnyk, and Rev. Dr. John Young all taking the time to talk with me, sharing their stories, perspectives and opinions. Each conversation gifted me with something new to think about, and some threads wove their way through all the dialogues.
Power: when we talked about using honorifics, we were immediately having conversations about power and authority. More than one of my conversation partners used the phrase “set apart, but not set above” to describe being a member of the order of ministry. Interestingly using “Reverend” can be a choice to emphasize the ‘set apart-ness’ of that dynamic, while eschewing “Reverend” can be a choice to emphasize “not set above.” Very different expressions of the same value! Discussions and memories of people abusing the status of being clergy were often more historic than current. Clergy do not have the same social status and power as we did decades ago, and for some, using Reverend in contemporary contexts is less problematic because there is less social power and status accorded the role.
As the church becomes less influential in society, “Reverend” seems to have become more useful in secular, interfaith or ecumenical contexts. To use “Reverend” denotes that a diaconal minister has a particular leadership role in the United Church. To paraphrase Kathy Toivanen – if we are at a meeting of interfaith leaders to address a community concern, maybe the work at hand is more important than the titles being used. “Reverend” signifies to other leaders, many of whom might not be used to clerical gender diversity, a right to be at the table. This kind of usage clarifies role in wider society by acting as a function signifier.
Reverend Deacon Tanis Kolisnyk explores how using honorifics and titles signifies not only a role of community leadership, but also having met the educational requirements and competencies. She talks about using “Reverend” and wearing a collar as symbols that she has been entrusted with responsibilities by the Anglican Church, not as an individual claim to authority, but an outward sign that her community has asked her to represent them, and carry specific responsibilities. From a Métis perspective she notes that “Reverend Deacon” signifies a role, just as “Elder” does, and that using honorifics clarifies which role someone is occupying in leadership, and what community they are representing.
I was initially surprised when each person spontaneously brought up wearing clericals (such as collars, gowns and stoles) early in our conversation. With reflection, I think this speaks to the embodied nature of ministry: a place where our bodies (our selves) become intersections of presence and symbol – we are both with people wherever they are, and pointing to the all-encompassing presence of the Divine and the companionship of the cloud of witnesses. At protests or solidarity rallies, when signing petitions or testifying at Senate or Parliamentary hearings; wearing a clerical collar makes the presence of the church visibly manifest in a crowd.
I’ve worn my clerical collar to mosques and synagogues, when attending community events in the aftermath of hate crimes. I’ve worn my clerical collar when representing the authority of the church in sexual abuse investigations. I’ve worn it to Pride parades and to vigils. And I wore it last summer to the Black Lives Matter march in Winnipeg. There are contexts in which my beloved diaconal pin is not visible enough, not recognizable enough to signal who I am, why I am there, and who I am representing.
Both Rev. Marlene and Rev. Young spoke of how clerical collars literally open doors, of the usefulness of being immediately identifiable in a hospital ward late at night. As a white woman in ministry in Southern Ontario, I was frequently mistaken for a grand-daughter or niece when hospital visiting. My Asian male friend has been mistaken for medical staff. When I think about the way that pastoral identity becomes part of our social location, new questions started percolating for me.
I wonder how honorifics and clericals can function as a common sign and symbol of identity and function for ministry? I think about how often racism or ageism or gender bias pops out as the comment “You don’t look like a minister!” I wonder how often I mistook white privilege for ministerial authority. I wonder if giving up clothing and titles as status symbols for a time opens us up new possibilities for using traditional trappings of ministry as tools for equality? I think about the discourse I’ve heard from Black academics about using “Dr” or “Professor” in the classroom as a tool to mitigate against anti-Black racism from students, other faculty or the institution.
I wonder what invisible privileges I’m relying one when I don’t feel the need to use an honorific or visible sign of my role in a community? Am I taking advantage of my Ontario-accented English? My white skin? My immigration status or cis-gendered presentation?
While each conversation touched on pastoral and diaconal identity, and unpacked functions and roles of ministry, my lasting impression is the emphatic care for the impact of honorifics on others. How does using Reverend help in a specific community or context? How does it reinforce pastoral boundaries? How does it mitigate against white privilege or sexism? Can we liberate the honorific from signifying deference and use it as a tool of justice and pastoral presence? When we take seriously the diversity of clerical bodies, lives and experiences, does common usage become a teaching moment?
You may have noticed I’ve used honorifics inconsistently throughout this reflection. One learning I’ve taken from this is I would have done well to specifically ask my colleagues what usage they wanted in print! However, I think the inconsistency represents the diversity of opinion and practice in the diaconal community. I’m grateful to have had a glimpse of the thoughtfulness people bring to bear on ministry, pastoral/diaconal identity, authority, responsibility and relationships.
Michelle Owens, Principal (sometimes Reverend)