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Bill Sanford: Is 'Reverend' usage incorrect?

Bill Sanford

Question: Someone told me that "Reverend" is routinely misused in this country. Is that so?

Response: Some months ago, we were in the season of commencement addresses. Maybe you heard one or more. Do you recall what was said? I remember attending a commencement address while I was in seminary. The year was 1953. The speaker was the late Dr. George Hedley, who was at the time chaplain of Mills College in Oakland. I recall still that in the early part of his talk he addressed the subject of your question, the use of "Reverend" in America. He said flatly that our usage is usually incorrect.

Dr. Hedley asserted that "The Reverend" is in exact parallel with "The Honorable." And the article "The" should always be used with either. If you were writing a letter to the current Secretary of State, you might appropriately address it The Honorable Hillary Clinton. If you were introducing her in a banquet situation where she has been invited to speak, you would be right in saying something like: "Ladies and gentlemen, I count it a privilege to introduce to you The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton." But it would be quite wrong and sound funny if you encountered her on a Washington street and greeted her "Hello Honorable Clinton."

The use of "Reverend" in the U.S. has been misused so widely for so long that it may never be put right. It's probably no big deal, and I have not felt called to make an issue of it. If someone wants to call me Reverend Sanford, I'm not going to land on them with a lecture. But here in this column we may as well tell it like it ought to be.

Consider Billy Graham. You might put on an envelope The Reverend Billy Graham. You might present him to a congregation by saying "The Reverend Billy Graham." In theory, you should not run into him in a restaurant and say "Hello Reverend Graham." In practice, there's a good chance you would. And the sun would still rise in the east.

If you know a clergyperson has a doctorate, then, of course, Dr. ____ is appropriate. Some traditions, such as Catholic and Anglican, sanction the use of "Father." Lutherans in particular have long made use of "Pastor." In recent years, there has been a marked movement among Protestants to use "Pastor" and then a first or last name depending on familiarity: "Pastor Doe or Pastor John." In many cases, where "The Reverend" is not called for, the correct usage is simply Mr. or Mrs. Do you wonder that I have often said: "Call me Bill."

Anyway, Dr. Hedley went on from his introduction to talk about being worthy of having "reverend" attached to him or her. He suggested young ministers (not so young, too) should undertake to live so as to be worthy of the word. What might that entail? In the rest of his talk, he spelled it out. Truthfully, I cannot recall just what he said, but I think it was along the following lines: You are to be revered IF . . .

1. You are to be revered if you are a person of integrity. You should keep your word, do what you promise to do, practice what you preach, etc.

2. You are to be revered if you are a person who is kind and compassionate. You should have empathy, feel for and with others in their situation. I can't now recall who it was, but someone has introduced me to the question: "Whom do you know who has been helped by rejection?" You can certainly disapprove various behaviors, but you should help people feel you have their best interest at heart, that you want to assist them in being all they can be.

3. You are to be revered if you are a good steward. You should not waste or misuse whatever talents, gifts or abilities are yours. You should develop and take good care of everything under your care.

4. You are to be revered if you contend constantly for justice and work for peace. Probably justice comes first. It's arguable that there can be no genuine, lasting peace unless there is justice. So wherever injustice raises its ugly head, you should be active in opposition.

I don't recall if Dr. Hedley brought the following quote from John Wesley into his presentation or not. He could have; it would have fit. Wesley once wrote: "Only see that your heart be right toward God, that you know and love the Lord Jesus Christ; that you love you neighbour, and walk as your Master walked; and I desire no more." (Advice to the People Called Methodists, 1745, Works, v, 253.)

Also, I can't remember if Dr. Hedley cited I Timothy 4:12 or not. He could have; it would have fit. Here's the rendering in Today's English Version (TEV): "Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but be an example for the believers in your speech, your conduct, your love, faith and purity."

Two more quotations seem pertinent here. The late W. E. Sangster, a Methodist minister in England, once wrote: "I mediated on all my mercies and realized that nothing matters much in this world but to be a channel of God's love." Much earlier St. Francis of Assisi advised people to be "an instrument of Christ's peace."

Let a pastor -- or any person -- be all of the above, and "The Reverend" could be an appropriate form of address.

Bill Sanford, a retired United Methodist pastor in Atwater, undertakes to respond to "real questions of real people" every other Saturday. His e-mail address is