PZ’s Podcast: "Mr." Priest and The King’s Speech (Cosmo Lang)

EPISODES 33&34 You can usually tell when things aren’t going well for an institution, when […]

Mockingbird / 2.14.11


You can usually tell when things aren’t going well for an institution, when professional titles become inflated. Great academics in this country used often to be called by the title ‘Mr.’ rather than ‘Professor’ or ‘Doctor’. Or take the United States Navy. Then, too, in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England, ministers were always called ‘Mr.’. That is, until recently. As with other things, no one believes you when you point this out. It is simply inconceivable to the great majority of church folk that the rector of their parish should have been known as ‘Mr.’ Smith. ‘Mr.’ is heard today as if it were a devaluation of the office somehow, or a less religious form of address. But back then, in those distant days before the 1979 Prayer Book, the title ‘Mr.’ was normative, just as the word ‘minister’ was normative, rather than ‘priest’ — not just for the Eisenhower era but for the 400 years up to the Eisenhower era. ‘Mr.’ Smith for the parson was a democratization of the clergy, a welcome expression of Jesus’ own repeated injunction, ‘Call no man father’.

In Episode 33 of PZ’s Podcast, the story is just told, the story of titles for clergy in England and America. Novels are the chief evidence, from Fielding through Forster. It’s always ‘Mr.’ — right up through the era of “Mad Men”. I know this, because I was there.
Why is this footnote to history important? It is important because it tells us something interesting: When churches go on the defensive in relation to the outside world, titles become inflated in relation to their inside world. First, I was ‘Mr.’ Zahl. Then I became, against my will (but there was nothing I could ever do about it) ‘Father’ Zahl. Then — O frabjous Day! Calloo! Callay! — I became ‘Father Paul’. Paging Bing Crosby, which was the only way I could reconcile myself to this. Funny thing, the higher the title, the lower one’s rep in the community. The more dirty looks I got, out on the avenue, the more fixated ‘my people’ became on my title.

Episode 34 (to be posted on Thursday) is inspired by “The King’s Speech”, but sadly, not by the wonderful teacher who helps a future king, but rather by the film’s portrayal of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang. Cosmo Lang’s famous ‘teaching moment’ in December 1936, by which he sought to use the abdication of King Edward VIII to ‘recall’ the nation to religion, not only backfired, but caused the whole Church of England to be regarded as judgmental and pharisaical. The Archbishop, acted superciliously but accurately by Derek Jacobi, played right into the hands of a culture that desires to see the Church identified with Law, in the negative sense, and Free Thought identified with emancipation. This podcast tries to understand why Christians have such a hard time expressing the very Grace we’ve been given, ironically packaging it in terms of its opposite.

Listen here.