Monday, April 20, 2009


I wrote this piece for the GA Zette last week, and seeing as its made it into the Bolton News today, I might as well share it here, slightly adapted:

I have been asked by the Ministry Commission to write an article here to explain the fact that the honorific title of “Reverend” was not used for me at the Anniversary Service. I must explain that this is entirely at my own insistence, and is a matter of personal conscience.

The title “Reverend” meaning literally “one worthy of being revered” was a medieval title of respect that in the fifteen century began to be restricted to clergy. This was despite Jesus’ specific condemnation of special titles for religious leaders (Matthew 23:6-12). As someone who considers himself a follow of Jesus, I feel the use of such titles runs against Jesus’ teaching, which warned against the love of status and religious pomposity. This is the main reason I don’t feel like I can use the title.

Also, as a Unitarian I am committed to the inherent and sacred worth of all people, and I feel designating some as more worthy of being revered than others is inconsistent with this belief. As a Minister I believe I am defined by my professional training, spiritual calling and accountability. This makes me able to offer spiritual leadership, but it does not make me inherently more sacred or worthy than anyone else.

This is a difficult thing for me to say, because it is difficult to say it without sounding critical of my friends and colleagues in the Unitarian ministry. I do not mean to be. But after much prayer and thought I have decided that I must take this position for myself. Thank you.


Anonymous NUFer said...

I have a lot of sympathy with your point of view, Stephen - whenever I hear the term I think of the verger in 'Dad's Army's use of 'his reverence'!!- however,given that there must be occasions in which it is necessary to identify your position to those who do not know you personally, some title would seem to be useful ; trouble is most of the alternatives - 'pastor,padre,' probably carry 'baggage' that you wouldn't wish to take on board ;Minister Stephen seems rather clumsy and you might get mistaken for a government minister - perish the thought !!

5:48 pm  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

Your admirable personal integrity on *this* particular issue is duly noted Stephen and I will duly refrain from referring to you as Rev. Stephen Lingwood from here on in. Allow me to be critical of certain number of U*U clergy who do not deserve the honorific title Reverend for the simple reason that they are not only "less than excellent" U*U ministers but "less than reverable" reverends as it were. . .

8:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree entirely with what you say Stephen. The Quakers have got it spot on and I respect you for taking a stand and following in their footsteps.

The title 'Reverend' is outdated, against Unitarian principles and in my opinion, denotes power - which in turn can lead to abuse.

8:50 pm  
Anonymous Tim (from his phone in S Manc) said...

Hi Stephen.

I think this one is similar to your comments on clerical garb, which you wrote about recently. I also understand your concerns about the use of the title "reverend", but as NUFer put it, the alternatives carry just as much baggage.

I don't think the medieval origins of "reverend" are very important any more. As with clerical garb, I still hold to the view that the "Rev" is one of the main things that show your accountability, training, and role in the community (which doesn't necessarily mean hierarchy).

Like the wearing of clerical shirts, etc, I think the way the title "reverend" is perceived by a community depends on the person using it. As a minister, you have a set of duties to perform unique to your community. Being seen as hierarchical or superior depends much much more on how you act in public.

10:47 pm  
Blogger Rich said...

When I first read this article in the Zette I wanted to say "well done", so here you are: Well done.

I don't think you're being critical of your friends and colleagues who choose to use this title. You're taking a dissenting step, which is something we as Unitarians have been doing non-stop throughout history, and I'm sure they're proud of you for taking it.

Have you considered using a different, less uncomfortable title? What about Minister Stephen Lingwood? That has many positive connotations and also sounds quite pleasant when spoken aloud as part of your name.

9:01 am  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

:The title 'Reverend' is outdated, against Unitarian principles and in my opinion, denotes power - which in turn can lead to abuse.

Well it certainly implies that the person holding the title Reverend is worthy of a high degree of respect if not outright "reverence" and with that comes a certain amount of real or *imagined* power. There is absolutely no question that *some* U*U ministers abuse what power they may have although abuse of power does not automatically come with having power AFAIAC. In fact, I am often bemused by how people with comparatively little power, like most U*U church ministers for example. . . misuse and abuse what little power they have available to them.

God knows that there are no shortage of tin pot dictators in the U*U World. I like to refer to them as Totalitarian Unitarians myself. . . Let's face it U*Us, just how much *real* power can *any* minister of *The* Tiny Declining Religion *really* have? Not bloody much as far as I can see. . . So why misuse and abuse what little power you have?

4:18 pm  
Blogger Paul Oakley said...

It's been a month since your post, so you may never even see this post. But here goes...

I was raised in the American fundamentalist denomination (or non-denomination, as they see it) generally known as the Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

They never refer to their ministers as Reverend, specifically because of Psalm 111:9 (King James Version): "He sent redemption unto His people: He hath commanded His covenant for ever: holy and reverend is His name." Thus, in their view, use of the word reverend in reference to a human being is to make the absurd claim that that person has the same worshipful qualities as God.

Similarly, they do not call their ministers Pastor, because pastor means shepherd, and Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10:11 and 18.

Like UK and North American Unitarians and UUs, that denomination is congregational in polity. In purely organizational terms, they refer to their pulpit leaders as their "minister" or "preacher," to the lay leaders responsible for the spiritual issues of the congregation as "elders," and to the lay leaders responsible for fiscal matters as "deacons."

But as a title or honorific for those leaders they use only the designation "Brother," which is also used to refer to male-gender members of the congregation generally, though it is used more consistently to refer to the ministers or elders.

One is reminded of the linguistic idealism expressed in the use of "citoyen" under the French Revolution or "tovarish" in the Soviet Union. The point being only that the idealistic shift to egalitarian language has no effect on the reality of inequality.

Personally, I like the universal use of Brother/Sister or Comrade as a form of address. I like the ideals implied and I would encourage any congregation that wouldn't feel outlandishly awkward doing so to give it a try. Even just for one Sunday each month to address everyone who enters the doors of their fellowship with a form of address that implies equality (of rights and obligations) and brotherhood.

But even if you just go by Stephen within your congregation and as Mr. Lingwood throughout Bolton (and I certainly have no problem with that), you, your congregation, and your community will all still see you as not exactly an equal because you were hired because of specific credentials/training to do a specific job that, like it or not, sets you apart from people without those credentials and those responsibilities.

In other words, eschewing the title Reverend has several good reasons behind it, and I support you in your choice, but I doubt that not using the standard title of convenience will have a great deal of impact on how people interact with you or practice their faith. Without suggesting that you change your mind, I can imagine that for the rest of your ministerial career you will have to educate people over and again about the values your choice is based on.

Then again, if your choice is about a way your parishioners can grow in their faith rather than being about you, you may make some of the difference you hope for after all.

7:38 am  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

Well said Paul!

I only just saw this comment now (December 14, 2009) as a result of following the link from your Inner Light, Radiant Life blog post of today.

8:41 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

One other thought occurs to me... if one uses a title in public life that indicates that one is a minister, it's an opportunity to raise awareness of liberal religion - but then on the other hand, so is wearing a chalice badge or pendant, and one that is less ambivalent, I suppose. I know a lot of people who are very confused about the differences between a vicar and a minister, for instance - so perhaps the title Reverend blurs the boundaries.

12:02 pm  

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