A male priest of the Episcopal Church is appropriately called “Father” for many reasons — all historical and practical.
A priest is the spiritual father of those for whose “new birth” he is responsible by the administration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
He is a father because he is the one human being to whom people may come in their sin and affliction for Christian admonition and comfort, and to whom, above all others, they are accountable for their conduct as Christians, and for whom the priest is accountable to the Bishop of the Diocese, and “to the Chief Bishop and sovereign Judge of us all, hereafter.”
A priest is a father because he is the head of his parish, which is his family. In the old days a priest normally was ordained to a certain parish for life, and cared for his people from their cradles to their graves.
The Prayer Book recognizes the bishop as the father of all priests and laymen in his own diocese. He can easily contact the priests, but only occasionally and with difficulty contact the people: So the priest stands in loco pare ntis (in place of a parent) over a particular parish in the absence of the bishop. When the bishop is present, he is the one who gives absolution and blessings, because he is the arch priest and therefore the chief minister of discipline in the diocese. We have therefore a priest as the father of a particular parish, a bishop as the father of a particular diocese, and God as the Father of all bishops, priests, and people
Several centuries before the Reformation in England, many of the parishes were governed by priests who were also “priests regular” — monastic priests who lived according to monastic rule: they were all called Father: but the monastic influence waned, and “priests regular” were replaced by “priests secular” — priests who were not monks and who did not live according to monastic rule. The people were unable to tell the difference and continued the custom of calling the parish priest “Father.” and nobody could stop them: so. As she often does, the Church finally conceded the custom. Hence, the use of the title derives from the habit of the people, rather than from any law or ruling of the Church.
A priest should be called by an intimate title, but not a flippant one: “Father” is intimate but not flippant; the title also avoids the formality of “the Reverend James Jones,” the presumption of “Jim,” and the impropriety of just plain “Reverend.” Furthermore, calling a priest “Father” teaches all who say or hear the title that the parish is a family and reminds both priest and people of their heavenly calling and spiritual relationship.
THE VEN. FREDERICK C. BYRD
From The Piedmont Churchman