Titles in the Church have often bothered me, and probably not for very good reasons. A somewhat recent link in the BCC sidebar noted, according to Judith Dushku, Governor Romney’s preference for being called by his ecclesiastical titles. Reading this made me uncomfortable, and not because I do not use ecclesiastical titles. It just feels unseemly. I remember hearing a Bishop being told that one of the reasons he might be struggling to motivate people in the Ward is because he did not refer to himself enough by his official title and that he should request this from other members. Similarly I know of Stake Presidents who insist on using proper titles, even referring to the deacon’s quorum president as President X. All this strikes me as peculiar or did until I recently re-watched The West Wing. Specifically, this TV show prompted me to question the extent to which the status of Bishop is governed by a different set of dialogic parameters than other types of conversation?
President Josiah Bartlet is a commanding figure in the show. In one episode a priest visits the President, and this minister, who has known ‘Jed’ as his local padre, asks whether he would prefer to be called by his official title. President Bartlet requests that he use his title. Again and again this title is used, not as a sign of divine power but as a symbol of a particular relationship that is currently enforce. This is a relationship that these parties have agreed to participate in; a feature which is somewhat similar to our local wards.
This shift in parameters is often signified by a specific series of cues, including: space (often an office or a private environment), special clothing (suit and tie) and props (such as scriptures). Titles also serve as one of these cues. They are a linguistic reminder that the current conversation is governed by a different set of assumptions. Yet, within Mormonism it is not always clear what those parameters are, especially because each leader understands those parameters differently. It is often difficult to avoid the fact that those parameters imply some sort of inequality, precisely because we do not use the generic brother or sister. This inequality can be uncomfortable because it seems like (and can become) unrighteous dominion. My experience suggests that claims regarding unrighteous dominion often involve conflict over the set of parameters that govern these dialogues. For example, I suspect that using the title of Bishop in order to get people to do things is inappropriate but others clearly do not.
Yet, despite these differences, this title does in actuality enact a particular relationship. As such I want to outline what I believe are the two parameters that most Mormons bring to these encounters, although there is certainly some nuance regarding how we experience and interpret them. When speaking to an ecclesiastical leader, many members of the Church will assume that the conversation could involve divine guidance. Often, it is believed that this person (i.e. the Bishop), in this role – and therefore in this specific conversation – is capable of engaging in a form of revelatory dialogue that would not be possible if the same person were in a different role. As such, the words of the Bishop are often considered to reflect (a greater measure of) God’s will because of this assumption and in this context the relationship between the speaker and the listener shifts. What is at stake here, at least for some, is that rejecting titles is also a way of rejecting the parameters that are embedded in this form of dialogue. Refusing these titles is also refusing the possibility of revelation in this dialogue. Hence, resistance is to be expected when someone articulates a different set of parameters and why some leaders will feel strongly (and often in misdirected ways) about insisting on these titles.
An additional parameter is confidentiality. To my mind, more than anything else, it this that shapes much of what is distinct about these types of dialogue . Conversations with the Bishop should be governed by certain forms of trust that make them unique and also, in my view, potentially revelatory. In one sense it is a similar dynamic to that discussed by Brad in his recent post on self-deception and prayer. This title signifies a form of trust and confidentiality between those persons involved in a dialogue that is different from everyday conversation. More than anything else, I believe that titles, particularly in certain settings, can serve to open up new modes of conversation that might not ordinarily be possible and with that experience God’s influence in ways that might have previously eluded us.
It is still a little strange to refer to the Deacons Quorum President as President X, but I have come to sense something about the work that these titles do in a Ward; and it is not just about dominion but it is also about trust.