Tuesday, 19 June 2018

On Titles

A selection of titles in various colours and fonts: Dr, Sir, Ms, Mrs, Dame, Lady, Revd, Prof, Miss, Fr, Mr, Esq, Mx, Lord, Lt.
One of the little details of Quaker practice that is not completely unheard of outside of Quaker circles – though that does not mean it is well-known – is our rejection of titles. That is to say, we traditionally do not use such things as “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Miss” etc., preferring to simply use names.
There are several reasons behind this. One is our view of equality; especially in the society in which the Quaker movement developed, a huge range of titles existed and reinforced the expected structure of society, of social interactions, and of status. Nobility was still considered important by many, and the titles of right or of courtesy that went with them were often insisted on. Titles and styles related to offices under the crown, such as “judge” or “doctor” (usually for those who have achieved a certain degree of study – academic doctors or doctors of divinity – rather than physicians) were important, and people of standing who could claim neither noble nor official title often sought a knighthood. Those entitled to the style of “esquire”, not a general formal term as it is now in the UK, nor a term conventionally restricted to certain professions as it is now in the US, would often insist upon its use. As such, the rejection of titles stands for a rejection of the formal and conventional delineations of standing and status, as well as of the forms that derive from them (such as the giving of hat-honour, one of the most noted rejections of convention among early Friends).
This equality extends to equality within the Society, as we have no priestly class and admit little distinction between us, especially in the earliest days of the Society (before the rise of recognising elders etc.). All calling one another “Friend”, but using no titles, emphasises that equality. It also served as a degree of in-group identification, as it does today (a point I shall return to towards the end of this post).
It also serves equality in not differentiating the sexes, which is especially important when we consider the disparity between modern universal titles for men and women; there is one title that is used for men who have no other, and it says nothing but asserting masculinity. Women's titles indicate marital status, or a refusal to disclose marital status. The slow rise of “Mx” as a gender- and marital status–neutral title would only help this if it became near universal. A lack of any title serves it far more effectively.
Another important reason behind it, though not so often discussed, is the idea of “the world”. Early Friends saw convincement, involvement in the life of the Religious Society of Friends, as being taken “out of the world”; this did not mean that people physically left the world they had always known, but rather a transformation and a commitment, a change in orientation – away from the things that concern most people most of the time, and towards God. This is not contradicted by Penn's well-known assertion that “true godliness don't turn men out of the world”, though the words may seem to say so. It is different ways of looking at the main meaning; Quakers are still in the world, but they are not concerned with “worldly things” in the same way. Instead, we should be concerned with “that which is eternal”. In so doing, to continue the Penn quote, we become enabled to “live better in it [the world]”, and find “our endeavours to mend it” excited.
Thus in this model there are things that are of God – to use the language that was natural for early Friends, as it is for many today, though forgive me if I switch before long to language that is more natural for me – and things that are of the world. Our spiritual lives are of God, the way we run our Meetings should be of God, and as much of our lives as possible should follow that template. On the other hand, we do not cut ourselves of from the rest of the world; the urgings of the Divine lead us to try to make the world a better place. Whether as consumers or in our work, we do business with the rest of the world, without favour for other Quakers – and I think we would do so even if there were enough Quakers to sustain our own mini-economy. We endeavour to keep no separation between the sacred and the secular, bringing our whole lives under the ordering of the Spirit. Nonetheless, there is still that which we do not control, and which we would not try to control – everyone and everything else.
So, we might speak of things as “of the world” when they are beyond our power to bring under the ordering of the Spirit, or exist in a way that is contrary to that ordering. In this sense, this second basis for the rejection of titles is closely related to the first, the idea of equality. It is deeper, however, and subtler. Titles are part of how the world does things, and we refuse to re-adopt it – potentially even resist it in the world – because it is how the world does things, and that is a reason in itself, distinct from the reason that we don't do it that way.
Now, I'm personally divided on this idea, related to the idea of our becoming a “peculiar people” (not to be confused with the distinct Christian movement known primarily by that name), set apart by our submission to the guidance of the Light and the consequences of that. It stems from two uses in the Bible, in both Deuteronomy and 1 Peter, referring to the Jewish people and early Christians respectively. They speak of people being set aside through being chosen, and some of the early Quaker language suggests that, but for me we are not set apart by being chosen, but by our own choice. Much of our peculiarity has diminished; uniform plain dress is gone, use of Quaker numbering of days and months is inconsistent across the Quaker world, and few English-speaking Quakers thee-and-thou (except where they are speakers of a dialect that uses those forms) – and when they do, it sounds more anachronistic than levelling. Of course, Quakers operating in languages that have a functional T-V distinction do, as far as I'm aware, maintain the practice of always using the T-form for all singular instances; in languages where the V-form is also the plural, they obviously use that form when the plural is needed, just as the early Friends did in a country that was already abandoning the T-V distinction (this singular/plural sense of thee/thou as contrasted with you is visible in much of Fox's writing, especially his epistles).
We choose, we are not chosen. Yet still we might be peculiar, our ways different from others. There are Friends who choose to take a stand, attempting to get governments, banks, businesses and other organisations to let them have no title in their records. In my experience, most Friends don't. I don't go out of my way, but when I have the opportunity I leave the title field blank. Still, among ourselves we don't use them.
If we insist, to the outside world, on not using titles, we are setting ourselves apart as surely, if not as obviously, as we did by the wearing of uniform plain dress (which wasn't that obvious at first, being based on normal working clothes of the time). We wear our peculiarity. It is bothersome, and burdensome, but it is also more truly following the leadings in our hearts for many of us. Is it serving the Divine better than being quiet and not making a fuss? That's hard to know.
But suppose for a moment, for the sake of argument, that it is better that Quakers do all they can to avoid the use of titles even in our dealings with the world. What is the extent of that refusal? Should no title be used, ever? What about respectful stylings relevant to our context – should they also be refused? What do we call one another? Even if we all see and agree that the use of titles as part of our identity is to be avoided, is it as simple as saying “never”?
There are many contexts in which titles serve useful purposes. This is not a matter of everyone having a title, mind you – certain people, with certain roles, in certain contexts. It is useful in the world of medicine that doctors be titled as such, at least some of the time, and it is reassuring to patients. Should a Quaker GP insist that their patients call them by name only? I would hazard a guess that this would be disturbing to most patients. Should teachers in higher education refuse the title “professor”, or hide their PhDs by rejecting the title of doctor (which is more normal depending on which country you are in)? For that matter, how does this interact with other important concerns, like gender equality and feminism? It is not simple.
It is truly not simple, and I cannot claim by any special knowledge, research, or divine insight any authority to pronounce how it should be done. I can only rely on the meeting of my own reason and the leadings that I have experienced. In the thought that such reflections might be of benefit to others, I will share where I currently find myself on these questions. To be clear, I do not judge those who do differently; I merely offer the fruits of my own reflection, that Friends might do with them as they will.
I applaud those Friends who feel able, and/or led, to strive to divest themselves of titles in their life, arguing with service providers, government agencies and so forth, that they should have religious freedom to be free of titles. I don't think that those of us who don't should feel failures for not joining them, though it is obvious that more people doing so would have a bigger impact. We are all called to different things in our lives, and the only reason we should feel that we have not measured up is if we feel led to reject titles actively, but refrain from doing so because we don't want the bother.
Professional titles, however, present some of the biggest questions to the rejection of titles. Where a medical doctor is called “Dr Patel” in the workplace, this serves a role other than a hierarchical or traditional one, though it is both traditional and hierarchy-reinforcing. My own contact, as a patient advocate and expert patient, with the medical establishment has led me to support the idea of breaking down the physician-led hierarchy of the world of medicine. However, I don't think that removal of relevant professional titles is going to achieve this effectively, and would have the (perhaps temporary) side effect of disturbing patients, robbing many of socialised confidence in the medical profession. The end result might be good, with people no longer almost deifying doctors and distrusting other medical professionals, but it would be a most uncomfortable means of attaining that goal. Public perception is already shifting in the right direction, and need not be helped along by radically changing a relatively superficial facet of how the world of medicine is presented. Similarly, in many medical workplaces in the UK there is movement away from doctors as eternally and universally superior to other professions – though the move to nominally GP-led “clinical commissioning groups” as a matter of public policy pushes slightly in the other direction. It is also helpful, when you're in hospital, to be able to relatively easily (without having learned the colour code for the scrubs) know if the person talking to you is a doctor, and a title when they introduce themselves is one shortcut to this.
So for a medical doctor, in their workplace and otherwise acting as a doctor, being titled as such is an arrangement that makes sense to me. What about other professional titles? Depending on their qualification and role, an academic might be titled “Dr” or “Prof” (and the circumstances of each title vary on different sides of the Atlantic). An academic who never gained their PhD, but is nevertheless acting as both a teacher in higher education and a researcher, would have neither title in the UK, unless they had managed to reach the lofty heights of a professorial appointment despite their lack of doctorate. I have known academic departments who, for various reasons (not always clear to those outside of the department) decided to not habitually use titles for staff. Those with professorial appointments put “(Professor)” or “(Prof)” after their name sometimes, but staff in general were known by first name and surname – which struck me as quite Quakerly. Of course, when dealing with funding bodies and such, titles were brought out and used as if they were never dispensed with. Many other departments I've had contact with used titles formally, on doorplates and correspondence and so on, but tried to encourage students to refer to staff by first name and surname. I've actually known very few where it was common practice to refer to all staff using their titles on a day-to-day basis.
Yet they cannot be dispensed with entirely, as the most title-phobic departments show when dealing with funding bodies. I would not encourage Friends to go against the grain of their department when it comes to official documents, doorplates and so on, but would encourage them to go against the grain when dealing with students if they are in a department that generally encourages students to be formal with staff. This is partly out of Quaker conviction, but also out of my own view that needless formality between students and staff hampers the development of relationships that are beneficial to learning and development.
In particular, I agree with those women in academia who suggest that, for feminist reasons, it is important for women with academic titles to make use of them. I wouldn't go as far as to say that Friends in this position with a PhD should use the title of “Dr” in situations where they could avoid using a title at all, but I would encourage them to use the title in every context in which it is relevant, and indeed to use it – for both its gender neutrality and its reinforcement of the fact that women can have PhDs – when they are obliged to use a title. To reiterate, I do not judge those who do differently; I merely offer this as the fruits of my own reflection. I would certainly value the careful reflection and discernment of Friends in the position of being women with the right to an academic title over my own.
(I am also aware that some Friends consider professional titles more acceptable because they are earned, rather than inherent or inherited. I understand this position, but cannot agree with it, as there is no reason that a medical doctor or an academic should generally be recognised as such outside of that sphere. To do so would be conferring a particular status, even if it is never elucidated, a superiority or at least difference from those without such titles.)
Titles of nobility are an interesting question in the UK, given our current constitutional arrangements. On principle, I would say that Quakers ought to reject ennoblement, as a rejection of the system it represents. On the other hand, the upper chamber, the revising chamber of our parliament is the House of Lords, and appointment to this chamber (ostensibly on merit, for the skills and perspective that one might bring to the House) is tied up with ennoblement, seemingly inextricably (though it would truly be really a minor constitutional reform to change that). I cannot consider the rejection of the outward forms of nobility to be of greater importance than the possibility of bringing Quaker perspectives, values, and ways of thought to the work of the revising chamber. As such, I do not think Quaker principles should lead anyone to reject the offer of a life peerage and seat in the House of Lords.
On the other hand, even such a Quaker should reject as much of the form and substance of the idea of nobility as they can while a member of that House, and do all they can to avoid people calling them “Lord” or “Baroness” (as appropriate). They will have to be called “noble lord/lady” while in the chamber, and call others by that styling, but they can refuse to use it on their personal correspondence, to change their bank account to use the title, and they can even ask the media not to use it should they write about them (as often happens to parliamentarians), at least any more than necessary for context.
I should also say that all I have said is about what we should try to do regarding our own titles. I think it would be excessive of individual Friends to refuse to use anyone else's titles, disrespectful and likely to lead to unnecessary confrontation. On the other hand, when we act together as a Meeting, it may be appropriate to decline to use titles, such as a letter sent to a figure in Government on behalf of a Meeting. This makes a point, and stays true to our testimonies; because the letter is coming from a Meeting, not an individual (who might not be known to the recipient, never mind known to be a Quaker), the recipient can learn why this is done quite readily. I would make an exception for those who are particularly proud of their titles; where an individual Friend feels led to do so, or feels it right to do so, a pointed refusal to use the title can do good by taking such a prideful person down a peg or two. This should, in my opinion, only be done after careful thought and reflection (to the extent possible in the circumstances), however.
These are all complex questions, with no easy answers. I give my answers as I have found them, tentative and provisional, in the hope not that they give guidance or a set of rules for Friends, but that they are an aid in your individual reflections and discernment. Even if one were to claim that Quakers should utterly reject titles and do all they can to avoid ever using them, or having them used of others, it would still be appropriate to “wear them as long as we can”, not requiring or expecting anyone to change their behaviour until they are led to do so.
I also feel it appropriate to touch on what I consider an anomaly, though others will differ from me in this – and that is perfectly fine. It is common among English-speaking Friends to use “Friend” as a salutation; “welcome, Friends” at the start of an event, “Dear Friend(s)” to open a letter or email, “excuse me, Friend” when trying to get the attention of someone whose name you do not know. This is well and good, with much to recommend it, being gender-neutral and devoid of association with class systems and hierarchy. It is a statement of equality, rather than of deference.
However, I know that it is common in some Meetings (those I am aware of generally being in North America) to use it as a style or title as well, to refer to people as “Friend Joe Bloggs”. This is not something that has been done in Meetings with which I have direct experience, and does not seem to be a part of the British tradition. I confess that it makes little sense to me. Why is it necessary to have such a title or style at all? Surely it is enough to say “Joe Bloggs”. To use that title at all is, in the sense I have described, bringing a worldly pattern into Quaker matters for no good reason. Should it be necessary – and it certainly is not always so – to make clear that someone is a Friend when referring to them, it need not become a title. “Our Friend, Joe Bloggs” says what is necessary without falling into that pattern. To make a title of it is to invite its habitual use, creating the habit of creating a separation between Friends and others that need not be reinforced. While the conception of “things of the world” and “things of the Spirit” creates a division, it should not be a division of people, but of principles and actions. In-group identification is all well and good, it serves a role, but we must be careful to stop short of creating more of a division than actually exists.
I do not say that Friends who use the term “Friend” in this way are somehow fundamentally wrong, I do not see it as apostasy; please, continue to do so. I merely share my thoughts on the matter. Though I will ask, should you meet me, to say “Hi, Sam”, and not “Hi, Friend Sam”. If you forget, I won't berate you, though I may wince.
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