Thursday, December 3, 2009

Equality, Honorifics, and Consistency among Friends


[Forwarded to QIC by Friends General Conference]
I am interested in participating in and finding out more about the Friends. I understand that the history of Friends is not to 'hat tip' —use honorary titles, for example. . . . I was concerned that the Friends religion may not be consistent with past spiritual and logical beliefs. [A Quaker publication’s] article on the physician, Marjorie Nelson, referred to her as Dr. Nelson. . . . "Your honor, Father, Mother Superior, Your Holiness " all show lack of respect for our fundamental, equal condition.

If Friends feel that verbal expressions of inequality are now acceptable as a form of acceptance or acquiescence to social norms, it seems that something dear has been lost. . . . Do you have any ideas where I can find a church that truly believes in the equal nature of humans?


Dear RC,

Friends General Conference has forwarded your message to me at the Quaker Information Center for a response. The concern you raise is one that Friends discuss among ourselves and has been a lively topic on Quaker list serves several times in recent years, so there is much to be said about our thinking on the use of honorifics, both historically and today. I am going to write a long response, including some of my own thoughts, but the first couple paragraphs will be a “short answer” to your question as you presented it.

That short answer is that if you are looking for a religion whose members exhibit full behavioral consistency, you are going to be disappointed with modern day Friends. We stress the value of individual conscience and we try to encourage members to be true to the Holy Spirit as they are guided by it. As a result, our witnesses vary from person to person, and we have many inconsistencies.

You asked about help finding a church that “truly believes in the equal nature of humans.” I believe that Friends come as close to being such a religion as you can find, but we are always learning, reconsidering, and evolving our practices. If we had it right from the beginning, there would never have been any Quaker slaveholders, and we cannot say which of our current practices might be considered deplorable in the light of future understandings. Thus, many Friends consider that spiritual exploration, that persistent testing of our practices, to be more important than a specific code of behavior that everyone adheres to in a uniform way. If there is a faith tradition that would be more satisfactory to you, I am not familiar with it. Perhaps you may find what you seek in a political group.

OK, here is a longer response, on the matter of recognitions of social status.

A common misperception—one held by many Friends— is that the original meaning of the “hat testimony,” and other such practices that withheld recognition of status difference between social classes, was an expression of Friends’ belief in equality. “Equality” as a principle was not much on the radar screens of early Friends. They believed in every person’s capacity to be enlivened by the spirit of God, they believed everyone had a soul (even women and non-whites, to the shock of many other Christians), and they valued the importance of honoring the sacred potential within every person. A number of Friends had been “Levellers,” a movement that sought to do away with differences in political power in England. So the seeds were there, but Friends were not yet thinking in the same terms that we now count as our “testimony of equality.”

Friends believed in truth. They also believed in humility as a quality necessary to be at one with the Divine Spirit. So social customs that contained flattery were objectionable to Friends because they were insincere. (Sometimes they were explicitly untruthful, such as calling a single person of high status by the then-plural term, “you.”) These customs were also seen as harmful, because to flatter someone would encourage vanity, not a healthy thing for their souls.

Modern Friends are more likely to interpret these customs of language and manners as expressions of our belief in equality, a testimony that is dear to us today. I have heard modern Friends wrestling very sincerely with the role of these traditions in their lives here and now. Some Friends feel these old customs are still meaningful and bear witness to them meticulously. Others feel that in our present society these oddities of speech are pretentious and legalistic and set us apart from other people rather than helping us forge connections. Some may argue that since equality is recognized (at least given lip service) as a social value in our culture today (as it was not in seventeenth century England), that point does not need to be made, and why alienate our potential allies with what they may experience as rudeness? They argue that if we care about equality, we should be putting our energy toward things like more just immigration laws or quality education in poor communities, rather than posturing over semantics.

For myself, situation has a lot to do with it. I don’t know what you think about situational ethics, but I find that in different contexts, the meaning of the words I use seems to change. Following are some ways I have wrestled with these matters.

A rigorous adherence to honorific-free speech would be never to use any titles at all, even “Mr.” or “Ms.” Traditionally Quakers called other people by both their first and last names, unless they were on a first name basis. This is a practice I mostly follow myself, but there are times when it does not seem right. For example, it feels different when I deny the prefix to a person whose rank is generally considered to be higher than my own than when I withhold it from a person over whom I have some kind of privilege or power. One instance involves elderly people in nursing homes, who are often infantilized by their situations and the treatment they receive. To call a resident in that context “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” in my experience, helps to equalize our status and preserve their dignity, rather than maintaining my “one-up” position as a person with mobility and resources.

I have no difficulty naming a person by his or her function. I am happy to call a judge “Judge,” although I would not say “Your Honor.” But sometimes the distinctions get fuzzy. I do copyediting for a Quaker organization. Our publications style guide says not to use honorifics. But that is easier in some instances than in others. When you write “Francis of Assissi” people make the connection to someone they know as “St. Francis.” “Mohandes Gandhi” is recognizable as the person many know as “Mahatma” Gandhi. But when a recent writer referred to Meister Eckhard, we faced a dilemma. His first name is so little used that historians disagree about what it actually was, and had that been resolved, how many readers would have recognized who “Johannes Eckhard” was? I honestly can’t remember what we decided, but the argument that our first responsibility was to our readers and that we owed them the respect of not confusing them was—we thought—a legitimate point.

Friends understand our traditional practices to have arisen because in their worship, early Friends experienced a condition of unity with the Divine Spirit. When they noticed that outward practices in their lives disrupted or were inharmonious with that inward condition, they changed the outward practices until they found them to be more consistent with their desired inward state. These practices are meaningful to us today only as long as we find that they still serve to keep us connected to the Spirit, in right relationship with God, ourselves, and one another. And if we are paying attention, if we are practicing our faith at its best, then we will continue to seek ways of living that preserve the unity of our outward and inward lives, whether those ways are a continuation of or a change in tradition.

If you decide that Friends still have a part to play in your search for a spiritual home, and if I can be of any further assistance to you, please contact me.

Chel Avery


  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply, both the short and long versions of it.

    I don't often write the White House or Congress but when I do, I ask myself about how to go about writing the letter while avoiding the titles President, Senator, or Representative.

    I usually take a moment to remind myself that I have within me that of God which differs from that of God that exists within the women and men who serve in Washington D.C. In this way, we are fundamentally equal in God's eyes.

    And then I address the letter--and the envelope--using the person's first and last name, without any title. In the body of the letter, I may certainly refer to "in your capacity as president..." or "as you are serving in the U.S. Senate..." etc., but that's been the extent to which I'll acknowledge the office or position that the person occupies.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  2. I see this in a slightly different way. I find that titles that identify someone based on a job/profession do not cause someone to be considered unequal. Calling my physician, Doctor "Smith" does not mean I am in any way raising him above me, it just means that I am acknowledging his profession. To me, an honorific is best defined as a title used only for the sole purpose of elevating someone. For example, I would never call Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, Sir Mick even though he is a knight of the British Empire, because he has a title bestowed on him that is not indicative of his job.
    Basically, a title that is used for the purpose of identifying someone's occupation is acceptable to me because it is, in my opinion, part of the person's name. However, I respect the opinions shared by both Chel and Liz.


  3. Being a practicing lawyer, I pretty much have to bend on this. I will refer to the judge as "Your Honor" as long as I would like to maintain the privilege of appearing in his/her courtroom. And it is also customary to refer to opposing counsel while in court as "Mr." or "Ms." so I do that too.

    Regarding how to address the president -- I have always understood that British Friends refer to the queen as "Elizabeth Windsor." I suppose I have never asked if that includes to her face and/or in written correspondence. Anyone care to chime in on that?

  4. FJP, I have been in court when a judge instructed the bailiff to stop trying to make me stand up when he entered and left the courtroom. The judge knew I was a Quaker -- I think he was being respectful of the religion, but it's also possible he saw it as a side issue not worth the bailiff's time. At any rate, it did not seem to prejudice him against the argument he knew I was supporting. -- On the other hand, if I were a lawyer, being paid for my services, I don't think I could in good conscience follow an outward practice that could do harm to my clients.

  5. I didn't try to insist that people stand when I took the bench, but I eschew being addressed as "Your Honor."

    I did encourage people to call me "judge." Judge I was, for certain. "Honorable" was something about which there might have some contention into which it would have been vain for me to enter.

  6. Didn't George Fox write to Charles 2nd, addressing him 'O King' (rather than 'your Majesty')? ie referring to him by his 'job title' (King) rather than purely flattering honorific.