The minefield of clerical titles in modern Britain


Yesterday, the BBC website carried an article headed "Catholic cardinals urge end of 'homosexual agenda'" reporting on the open letter of Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller in advance of the “Protection of Minors in the Church” Meeting. (The full text of the excellent open letter can be found at the National Catholic Register "Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller: ‘End the Conspiracy of Silence’".)

The BBC article is typical of the soft, understated and deniable, but unmistakable spin which makes our licence-fee-favoured national broadcaster so irritating. There is also a gaffe in which one paragraph refers to Cardinal Burke as "Mr Burke", leading to this exchange on Twitter this afternoon:
I agree with Damian - although the BBC chose to run the article, it is fairly well down the hierarchy of importance, being tucked away in the World/Europe section, and I expect it was not subjected to any meticulous sub-editing, or put before anyone especially knowledgeable on Catholic affairs.

In modern Britain, it is a lot to expect anyone to be familiar with the use of clerical titles. Having had several spells in various hospitals in recent months, I have been confronted with the very well-meant request to say how I would like to be addressed. I think that this is a part of making patients feel valued and respected. Elderly people do not always appreciate being called by their Christian name and prefer to be called "Mrs Jones" or whatever. For many people also, it is a kindness to address them in the way that they usually prefer, rather than by the name that goes down on official forms - "Frank" instead of "Francis" or perhaps "Buster" instead of "Horatio". I remember many years ago correcting a nurse who addressed my late mother as "Dorothy", a Christian name she never used and which we used to call her as a joke from time to time.

The considerate modern protocol does cause a conundrum for a priest admitted to hospital. People outside my family do not normally call me "Tim" (or "Timmafee"). To be honest, I am not particularly offended and do not make an issue if they do. When anybody looks like having a problem with calling someone "Father", I just say "Call me whatever you like, but don't call me Vicar". However, it seems right to respond accurately to the question "What do you like to be called?"

I have had a go with the light-hearted approach suggested to me by a brother priest by saying "My name is Timothy, but my friends call me Father" - but that is generally a bit subtle and results in blank incomprehension. So I have tried brazening it out and, when asked "What do you like to be called?", saying simply, with a smile, "Father Finigan". This actually seems to work by and large: I suppose it is less outlandish than some requests, and, well, they did ask. However, "Father" is a designation that is foreign to many British people nowadays. I have had staff coming to speak to "Mr Timothy Father" and other variants.

So it is not that surprising if Cardinal, His Eminence, Monsignor or other clerical titles are muffed by a staff writer for the World/Europe section of the BBC. Just you make sure that you get it right when it comes to the courtesy titles of the British peerage.

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