Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Ecclesiastical deference
Simon Jenkins on the problem with ecclesiastical deference
I was standing in the crowd outside Westminster Abbey one afternoon in 2010, waiting for the Pope to arrive in his “bulletproof ice cream van” (as one Twitter user had nicknamed the Popemobile). As the holy vehicle drew up, a host of banners on our side of the road jostled each other for Pope Benedict’s attention. They made interesting reading.
Half of them hailed him as “Holy Father” or “Your Holiness”, while the others denounced him as the antichrist. Had Ian Paisley been there, he would undoubtedly have waved a banner bearing one of his favourite anti-Pope titles: “Old Red Socks”. It was a reminder that whatever fancy title you might claim for yourself, there’s always someone who will call you something different.
Church leaders have been awarding themselves styles of address for the best part of two millennia. Even today, popes, cardinals, eastern patriarchs and archbishops are addressed respectively as “Your Holiness”, “Your Eminence”, “Your Beatitude” and “Your Grace”. My favourite clergy honorific belonged to Bishop Madison of the House of Prayer for All Nations, an American Pentecostal church. Until his death in 2008, he was saluted by his adoring congregations as “Precious Precious Sweet Sweet Daddy Madison”.
Many clergy titles – prebendaries, archdeacons, exarchs, archimandrites – are words no normal human being understands. They exude an aroma of grandeur and sanctity, but some frankly leave a bit to be desired. The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, for example, has always sounded to me like a small camping stove struggling to warm a saucepan of baked beans.
Archbishop George Carey once threw a reception at Lambeth Palace for the Coptic Pope (one of whose titles is particularly unassuming: “The 13th among the Holy Apostles”) attended by the top brass of several other Churches. At the end, a photographer lined them up for a group portrait; but, in a scene worthy of Monty Python, he struggled to fit all the dignitaries into the frame. “Your Reverence, if you could stand a little closer to His Beatitude,” he said. “And Your Eminence, if you could move in towards His Grace?”
That left only the Superintendent of the Methodist Church to slot into place. “I’m very sorry,” said the photographer. “I don’t know how to address you.” “Just call me Bill,” said the Superintendent.
Only two or three decades ago, traditionalists were still insisting on high doses of deference in concluding a letter to top state church clergy. When writing to an archbishop, the correct ending was: “Kissing the sacred ring”. For a cardinal, it was: “Kissing the sacred purple” and for the Pope: “Kissing the sacred foot”. Thankfully they have since followed the lead of nonconformist and low church reverends, and few clergy today expect a lot of kissing. But Debrett’s still advises that a letter to a Catholic archbishop should end, Uriah Heepishly: “I have the honour to be, Most Reverend Sir, Your obedient servant…”
In church life, special forms of address have only ever been for the ordained. Curiously, no one else – church wardens, elders, PCC members, treasurers, secretaries, caretakers, church magazine editors, the people who make the after service tea or take up the collection – are awarded this honour. Maybe it’s time it changed. Next time you see your church treasurer, why not address him or her as “Your Cost-Effectiveness”?
The trouble with ecclesiastical deference is that it goes hand in glove with privilege and secrecy. Grand titles and exaggerated greetings have played their own insidious part in making the clergy untouchable – even by the police – until recently. The Scottish theologian William Barclay, who died in 1978, once said: “For some extraordinary reason, the Church moves in an atmosphere of antiquity. I have no doubt that it makes for dignity; I have also no doubt that there are times when it makes for complete irrelevance.” We now know it makes for much worse than that.
A Sufi mullah, Nasreddin, who lived in the 13th century, was once approached for advice by a warrior who had conquered his town. “Mullah,” said the warrior, “I want to award myself a splendid honorary title. It needs to have the word God in it, just like the great conquerors of the past, such as ‘God’s Warrior’, ‘God’s Soul’, or ‘One With God’. Do you have any suggestions?” Nasreddin looked at him and said: “How about ‘God Forbid’?”
This article was published in the May 2016 edition of Reform.