Addressing Priests as “Father”
It is often confusing for loyal churchmen to navigate ecclesiastical circles, since in a social gathering that includes several priests it is not uncommon to hear the same person address multiple men as “Father” in the course of an evening. The loyal churchman gapes in astonishment, wondering what complications of consanguinity might explain this behaviour. The woman next to the punch bowl has acknowledged at least five “fathers” since she arrived here a few minutes ago; the gray-bearded old man next to the window is obviously senile, for he has identified as his “father” a mere youth in his twenties; and the bespectacled clergyman whom you know to be unmarried has already been greeted by several of his children, all presumably illegitimate.
If you find yourself in this situation, you may think that the people around you are playing an elaborate practical joke, or are simply insane. Either would be preferable to the third possibility, that you are surrounded by gin-swilling, rosary-clutching Ritualists.
Horrible as it may seem, ritualists are taught from childhood to address their priests in this manner, a symbol of the powerful influence that High Church clergymen have over their flock: the thoroughly indoctrinated Ritualist is prepared to sacrifice even his closest family members at the will of his cassock-clad “Father.” When he leaves the sphere of influence of his parish priest, the Ritualist layman is totally helpless; he will address even low-church clergy as “Father” and pepper them with requests to hear his confessions, bless his thurible collection, and say special prayers to shorten his pet iguana’s time in purgatory. His requests met with either incomprehension or indignant refusal, he will return to his home parish even more firmly in the grip of Ritualism than before.
The above photograph is illustrative of the confusion that may arise from Ritualist practices. An ordinary Englishman would identify the older man in the middle of the image as the “father,” but a ritualist will cheerfully admit that all three people could be “fathers” to each other; after all, they are all wearing vestments and a hat which seems to be a regional variant of the biretta.