Recently there have been questions on Facebook about why I choose to call myself “Pastor”, so I am writing a response here.

In the Gospel of Matthew, in a speech warning about the behaviour of Pharisees as religious leaders, Our Lord clearly states:

Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven.

Matthew 23:9

Jesus is asking his followers not to do something. Now I made a personal commitment in 1993 to be a follower of Jesus and to follow his commands no matter what the personal cost would be. So if there’s something Jesus doesn’t want me to do, I need to work out what that is, and avoid doing it.

Taken absolutely literally, the words quoted above might seem to suggest that you should never call anyone except God ‘father’ – not even the man who, with your mother, gave you life. That can’t be the right interpretation – not only does it make the word ‘father’ meaningless, but Our Lord himself had the prodigal son address his parent directly as “Father!” and also has Lazarus in heaven cry out to “Father Abraham”. Clearly the word is OK for blood relatives in its natural sense.

Many Catholic commentators defending the practice of calling priests ‘father’ go to the opposite extreme, basically saying “Jesus said it but he didn’t mean it. He was just reminding religious leaders not to act with an air of superiority and using ridiculous exaggeration to make a point.”

Now I recognise Jesus does use hyperbole, or extreme words, in the expectation of modest results. Our Lord also said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off!” Well, we don’t cut off our hands – but we must cut off our sin! Jesus is saying something more than a very weak “Sin is bad, folks!” He does expect us to act on his words in some appropriate way.

We can all agree that if you read Matthew 23 in its fullness, that Jesus is warning religious leaders to act with compassion and sensitivity, and without unwarranted superiority. The question is, was he also asking his followers not to use ‘Father’ as a title for a religious leader? He seems to be doing this for two reasons – first to stop them getting too big for their boots, but second, to defend the unique honour of God, the First Person of the Trinity, whose very nature is to be Father.

Fast forward to the 21st century. It has become normal, in the English-speaking world, for Catholic priests to be addressed as “Father”. When did this start to be common? Not as early as the 17th century, when St Philip Evans addressed his fellow-priest as “Mr Lloyd” on the scaffold. Actually it became common in the middle of the 19th century, when Catholic priests could operate freely in England again and needed a title to distinguish them from Anglican vicars. But that’s still long enough for everyone within living memory to have experienced calling priests “Father” as the norm. So if everyone in the church does it, it must be OK, mustn’t it?

That doesn’t automatically follow. There are plenty of examples in the Old Testament where almost the whole community stopped following God’s Law and only a handful of voices spoke up for faithfulness. And as I shared with you when I arrived with the parish, I am on the autistic spectrum. This means I give a lot less weight than the average human being to feeling I need to conform to what I see other people around me doing. But I give a lot more weight to following instructions which have the authority of God behind them. It’s not enough for me to see that most priests are OK with the title “Father”. I need to understand what Jesus wants.

Does the Catholic Church have an official position on calling priests “Father”? No. In the service books used for ordinations, someone has to address the bishop (not a priest!) as “Most Reverend Father” and petition for the candidate to be ordained. But I have never found an official Catholic document from the Vatican or our local bishops giving an instruction that priests ought to be called Father and explaining what the Church’s official interpretation of Matthew 23:9 is.

Many people have argued with me over the years, trying to convince me that my stance is wrong. I do not need anyone to write to me to explain that St Paul called himself a “father” to his congregations. I have no problem with using the word “Father” indirectly to denote a spiritual relationship. I readily accept that in many ways, being parish priest is a “fatherly” role. I only have a problem with using Father as a title of direct address for a religious leader, because my reading of Mt 23:9 is that’s what Jesus was asking us not to do. If you do write to me about this, please write telling me what it actually was that Jesus wanted us not to do. If I ever receive a convincing explanation that it was something other than my current interpretation, I will readily shift my stance.

Now obviously it’s rather awkward being a Catholic priest who has an issue of conscience about using the word “Father” as a title. It has become so embedded in our culture that there are times that it would be insulting to another priest to fail to use this title when referring to him, so there are times that you will hear me use the word “Father” to avoid giving offence. But what I can do is avoid using the word “Father” to refer to myself. (I make exceptions to that when visiting a hospital bedside as an on-call priest, when the patient has no idea who I am but needs to be reassured that a Catholic priest has come.) But as far as possible, and certainly when I can explain myself, I try to avoid calling myself Fr Gareth.

So why “Pastor”? In the USA, what we call “Parish Priests” are conventionally called “Pastors” – it means shepherd of the flock. It is also correct to call a union of four parishes under the same Parish Priest a “pastorate”. In seminary we were taught of the importance of having a professional boundary as clergy towards the people we work with as confessors, parish priests and spiritual leaders. Using a title is part of creating a healthy boundary. Given that it would lack a healthy boundary to say “just call me Gareth” it seems to me that “Pastor” is the most natural title which indicates my role without claiming an air of superiority or going against anything Jesus instructed us to do.

So I refer to myself, and sign myself, as “Pastor Gareth”. I have never asked anyone directly not to call me “Father”. I am grateful when people choose to refer to me instead as “Pastor”. But don’t ask me what I would like to be called. Ask Jesus to show you the meaning of Mt 23:9 – and please give me the benefit of the doubt that in this matter I am sincerely trying to follow the instructions of Our Lord, as I understand them.

Yours, devotedly, Pastor Gareth.