Call Me Mother

By |2018-08-13T15:45:14+00:00April 26th, 2016|Categories: Anglican Life|Tags: , , , , |14 Comments

Since I was ordained as a priest two years ago, the question I’m most asked is, “What do we call you?”

In Anglicanism, people often refer to priests as “Father,” following Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition. I have no intention to argue here about the use of that term, which can be controversial among lower church folks, but the practice is rooted in Paul’s notion of spiritual fatherhood (1 Cor. 4:15.) The term ‘pope’ is a derivative of ‘papa,’ the endearing and authoritative name given to early Christian bishops. My husband, who is also a priest, is “Father Jonathan.” But am I Sister? Reverend? Father?

I have been called all of the above. Most often, I’m simply called by my first name. And that is fine by me because I’m an evangelical so, at heart, I’m a little uncomfortable with labels and formality of any sort. But if people want to use a title (and some do), I tell them to call me “Mother Tish” since ‘mother’ is the commonly used term for female priests. And I say, “Whatever you call me, don’t call me Father.”

My answer to this often asked question usually stops there. We move on to other subjects– believe it or not, ecclesiastical naming conventions isn’t the most riveting party conversation. But the theology behind my answer is worth unpacking because it provides a glimpse into what the priesthood is and why, after spending most of my adult life against women’s ordination, I came to be for it.

Motherhood and Fatherhood

I’m not for women’s ordination because I think men and women are the same; I am for it because I think men and women are very different. By carrying the office of “presbyter,” I do not leave my womanhood behind to try to embody the role of a male priest or a gender-neutral priest. No, I bring everything I am—including womanhood and motherhood–into the role of priest.

I am, soul and body, female. I am not a man, nor even simply, neutrally human—a Homo sapiens who happens to have female parts. I am truly, irrevocably, wonderfully woman, and I image God as a woman. For this reason, just as my husband will never be a mother, I will never be a father, either biologically or as a priest.

I got an email recently from a male priest who was concerned that calling female priests around him “mother” instead of “father” denotes some different, lesser office for female priests. But, why, I wonder, must difference connote inequality of authority? Although in American culture and law, different often implies unequal, this is not so in the kingdom of God. We see this in Genesis when God, after making man and woman separately and distinctly, calls them both together to dominion and fruitfulness without any subordination of roles. In the garden, manhood and womanhood are distinct yet non-competitive, sharing equally in the creation mandate.

We see this kind of collaborative distinctiveness in our families as well. If you ask my kids who holds the greater authority–me or their father– they could not answer. They know we equally hold power, even as they know we are different people with different roles in their life.

To verify this theory, I left my writing desk just now to run an experiment on my three year old. “Who is more the boss,” I asked, “me or Daddy?” Without a beat, she answered, “You and Daddy.” You and Daddy. No competition. No power struggle. No uncertainty about who is in charge. And yet, she does not see us as a neutral office, a “parent.” No one on earth is a parent. We are mothers or fathers.

Motherhood and Priesthood

I became a priest slowly, through a long ordination process, in the same years I became a mom slowly, through fertility struggles, then the joy and queasiness of pregnancy– one daughter, then two. The two identities– priest and mother– have therefore become entwined in my mind as they were entwined in my timeline. When I was ordained as a transitional deacon, I was 8 months pregnant. In photos of my ordination service, I’m surrounded by friends, my huge baby belly still visible under a loose white alb. I looked like a swelling marshmallow. Less than a month later, we welcomed our second-born into the world.

Priest and mother. For me, the identities run together. Both love, both bless, both fail, both try again. Both serve meals, both clean up messes, both bear a greater responsibility than they can carry, both need grace, both nourish, both instruct, both hold hands, both nurture, both protect, both bear authority and vulnerability. My children cracked me open, quite literally. They have caused me both the greatest pain in my life—more than I could have imagined– and the greatest joy. In motherhood, I’ve found anxiety I didn’t know possible and beauty more fierce and luminous and lasting than I could ever ask for. Second in all of it—pain, joy, anxiety, and beauty—is ministry in the church.

Ideally (and I know the world is not ideal), kids know a mom and a dad and are loved by both, formed by both, known, cherished, guarded, and celebrated by both. I’ve come to believe that the church, as a family, also needs both Fathers and Mothers, same authority, but unique, uniquely male and female. I want to serve the church as I serve my family, teach the church as I teach my daughters, nurture the church as I nurture my children. I am not a Father. But I don’t need to be a father. I am a priest; I am a Mother.

Womanhood and Priesthood

Though a full theological argument about women’s ordination is too much to get into in a brief essay, it’s clear that my identity as a woman is not inconsequential to my understanding of the priesthood, but essential to it. My husband’s and my journey towards supporting women’s ordination began not in the emotional or metaphorical, nor in the canonical, but in the technical. It began mainly with parsing Greek sentences. Over years, we meandered through NT Wright and William Webb, patristic thought and dozens of contemporary perspectives.

But somewhere along the way, the root of the argument became a fascination with the Imago Dei being most fully evident in maleness and femaleness together. It’s not that the image of God is incomplete in men alone or women alone. God’s image is completely present in both maleness and femaleness, but in different ways. The unity of maleness and femaleness—the garden’s non-competitive collaboration now possible in Christ’s New Creation — amplifies and magnifies the glory of the Image. Because of this, men and women profoundly need each other. We need each other in every area of life, including in church leadership.

A priest I know whose wife is also ordained told me that one Sunday, after he and his wife celebrated and served the Eucharist together, a man approached them with tears in his eyes. He told them, “when you serve together, I see the image of God at the table of God feeding the people of God.”

This is a family meal. And like the best of family meals, mothers and fathers, men and women, daughters and sons, all of us unworthy, all of us beloved, feast on Christ together.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, serving as Co-Associate Rector of Ascension Anglican, Pittsburgh. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She writes regularly for The Well, InterVarsity’s online magazine for women in the academy and professions, Her.meneutics, and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Christ and Pop Culture, & Art House America.


  1. Paul Neeley April 26, 2016 at 9:43 am - Reply

    Thank you, Mother Trisha, for writing this and living it out. I’m also Anglican and have followed your journey through your online writings for a few years. I appreciate your pastoral call, and your writings, so much! Continue to “speak this truth in love” to those in and out of the Anglican church.

  2. Theron Walker April 26, 2016 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    Thank you for a fine article. I’ll use it when we come to the subject in our confirmation class!

  3. MCM+ April 26, 2016 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    I would ask how one “mothers” who has no biological children? I am childless. Not every woman or man becomes has children to relate that image to. Even we can have those qualities like our colleagues who have birthed biological children.

    • Tish April 26, 2016 at 6:19 pm - Reply

      I don’t often respond to comments to my pieces (I wish I could more but it can take a lot of time to do so!), but I wanted to let you know that I saw this and think it is an important question, one I thought about when I was writing this piece. Perhaps, I should have addressed it directly.
      There’s a lot to be said, but, briefly put, there is no requirement whatsoever to be a biological mother or biological father in order to be a spiritual mother or spiritual father. I think it’s clear from the history of the church that many (even most!) of the people who have mothered and fathered the church have not had biological children.

  4. John Fisher April 27, 2016 at 11:36 am - Reply

    Tish, can you offer a response to the “In persona Christi” argument often used, especially by Roman Catholics and tractarian Anglicans, in favor of a male-only priesthood? (Briefly, if I understand it correctly, the priest celebrating the Eucharist is supposed to take on not the role of the whole, quite arguably sex-comprehensive, Godhead, but of our specific and gendered Jesus sacramentally reenacting the Last Supper.)

    One flippant response I’ve read–which I would delicately redact in this family publication if it weren’t so widespread–is that priests are supposed to “be like Jesus, not pee like Jesus.” Which, assuming good faith, I take to be an expression born of a belief in sexual equality and that one’s sex is more a material accident than an essential characteristic. But your approach seems to be quite the opposite of that!

    • Greg Goebel April 27, 2016 at 11:43 am - Reply

      Note from the Editor: Tish is not often able to respond to comments because of her writing schedule. I would love to hear how our readers would reply to John’s excellent question! Thanks for commenting and for the discussion.

    • Emily McGowin June 28, 2016 at 5:26 pm - Reply

      John, I’m sorry that I am only now entering this discussion. Even though I affirm women priests, I think you are right to dismiss the flippant response. The best response to the in persona Christi argument that I’ve read comes from Sarah Coakley. I recommend to you her essay in the Anglican Theological Review, “Woman at the Altar: Cosmological Disturbance or Gender Subversion?” She thoughtfully engages Balthasar on this subject while making the argument for women priests.

      The other point I would add is that the question of whether women can be in persona Christi seems intimately connected to the question of whether Christ as a man can redeem women. Of course, what has not been assumed has not been redeemed. If women (by virtue of their shared humanity) cannot represent a male Christ, does that mean a male Christ (by virtue of his shared humanity) cannot save women? No. Obviously, Christ has indeed redeemed women by his shared human nature (not his specifically male sex or gender). If that is the case, then why can’t women represent Christ by their shared human nature?

      To be as clear as possible, I do not think God is glorified by flattening gender differences or refusing to distinguish between the sexes. But I do think God is glorified by both male and female serving as his priests.

      • John Fisher June 28, 2016 at 8:37 pm - Reply

        Thanks, Emily. (Yay for email notifications!) That’s a great argument, and one I’d not seen before.

  5. Jeffrey B McKim April 28, 2016 at 10:11 am - Reply

    Personally, I am deeply suspicious of newly discovered liberties that curiously managed to elude billions of believers over thousands of years. And of course, still manages to elude 1.5 billion Christians (i.e. Catholic and Orthodox) world wide.

    I get that it’s not the cultural norm, at least in the developed West. I get that it’s not the way people want to feel about it. What I personally don’t understand is the refusal to address the core, very difficult question of whether a gender neutral priesthood was ever the point of a liturgy that centers around the vicarious presence of Christ, which has for 2000 years been taken to include masculinity in the total summing of his identity. I don’t get this for the church at large and I really don’t get it for the individual involved here or for her editors.

    We’ve heard very analogous arguments before. These eventually led to schism. I think I could make quite a strong case that near their beginning they were cloaked in every bit as much good intention and well meaning and even a bit of Latin.

    • Paul Neeley April 28, 2016 at 1:37 pm - Reply

      Here’s a well-thought-out lengthy essay that I recommend, “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ordination and the Priesthood of Christ (in persona Christi).”

      • Jeffrey B McKim April 28, 2016 at 3:19 pm - Reply

        Thank you. It was good of you to offer that. The author there seems to beg the question a good bit and then build a veritable army of straw men to defend his assumptions. (I commented a small bit on his page if you’re at all interested in the brief specifics I offered in this regard.)

        He is consistent with what I find in challenges to masculine priesthood and by extension, any doctrine that seems difficult or unfair. Specifically, he picks a point on the dialectic of the given argument and makes (usually) faulty or incomplete assumptions about the how the point was created. i.e. “Aquinas applied Aristotle to theology and therefore the idea didn’t exist before Aquinas.” It doesn’t follow from the fact that Aquinas expressed the doctrine Aristotelian terms that the idea didn’t exist previously. In fact, given the late Middle Ages, it’s likely the idea was common. Further the fact that this doctrine was so taken for granted that it is only slightly treated is not an indication that the church have a position on the issue. Rather, it points to the fact that the church didn’t have to express itself on the nature of the Eucharist because the central theology associated with it was widely understood and accepted.

        I do wish that people would have the intellectual and emotional discipline that didn’t start in the same point in which it ends. Until that time, I think I’ll have to stand with orthodoxy as it’s been understood and practiced for the last 2000 years.

  6. Ben Snyder May 2, 2016 at 8:13 am - Reply

    In Gal 4:19, Paul uses a “mothering” metaphor to describe even his own work (which derives from Isaiah). Thanks for sharing!

  7. Jerri D May 2, 2016 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    I cannot express in the small space here how much this post means to me. Thank you for writing it.

  8. Trisha Wilkerson June 3, 2016 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Thank you for writing this!

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