Abbesses and Abbacies

We’ve recently come across ordained women who are styling themselves “Abbess” as a head of a parish. “Huh?” was our reaction. As ordained women, we are priests, ministers, and pastors. Only those who head an abbey (are elected to an abbacy, and confirmed to the office by a bishop) are abbesses.

Some Roman, Anglican and a very few Lutheran convents are designated as abbacies. The head of that order of women is an abbess, as the male equivalent would be an abbot. The more common title would be Mother Superior. Abbesses, though, had the right to a crozier and a pectoral cross which the head of a convent would not have.

But ordained women seem to balk at the title “Mother.” I don’t understand why. We can’t wait to hear it from the lips of our infants. We greet the first utterance by our children as a wonderful moment. “Mother” is not a negative word. (If your own mother was not a wonderful person, I’m sorry about that. Most of us aren’t as wonderful as we should be.)

“Father” has been an acceptable form of address to a male priest for millenia; I’m not going into the argument about Jesus forbidding anyone being styled Father on earth. His meaning was different, and it’s a subject for another post. It would be acceptable to call an ordained woman “Father”, in a way (and if she finds it acceptable.) It denotes an office and role in the church community, not a gender identity or a biological fact.

I used to be addressed in our small community as “Matuschka,” Slavic for “Little Mother.” I liked it. It seemed appropriate. My Anglican community called me “Pastor” after their Lutheran neighbours and antecedents. Some Anglicans seem to think this belongs exclusively to a bishop, though, but I disagree. I raised sheep, and I had a shepherd’s crook, although it wasn’t a crozier. (God has a sense of humour, but I doubt if He would play such a big joke on me and the Church as to make me a bishop.)

So those of you who are styling yourselves “Abbess” with no abbey behind you: Stop it. This is confusing to ordinary people. You have no authority to do so. “Abbess” is not the equivalent of “Abba,” Aramaic for father. “Amma” is Aramaic for mother. Abbess belongs to those elected and confirmed to that office, a long and arduous journey that few have the fortitude to take.

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