What a Difference the Suffix ‘-ess’ Makes

Following a link from another religion blog, I dropped into today on Beauty Tips for Ministers (subtitled “Because you’re in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.”)

I read this:

SO many of you have written to let me know that TLC will be airing an episode of “What Not To Wear” this Friday during which they make over a young, beautiful Episcopal priest.

And I was thinking, “Well, this is going in a homoerotic direction” when the truth hit me.

But I suppose if you want to be chased out of an Episcopal church by a bishop swinging his crozier, start talking about the “young, beautiful priestess.”

What difference that “-ess” makes. You know why, don’t you?


It does not matter if you are speaking of the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome or someone more contemporary. To the monotheistic mind, the word “priestess” seems to conjure up “fertility rites,” flowing hair, and orgiastic drumming. Ishtar! Jezebel!

Traditional Episcopalians and other Christians opposed to the ordination of women have used “priestess” as a slur before–and maybe they still do.

No, having women in sacramental, priestly roles is pretty scary, and so the only thing to do is to pretend that they are men under those robes.

Never before has a chasuble looked so much like a burqa.

(And one Episcopal priestess-in-training fears that vestments designed for men make her butt look too big–but that is a separate issue.)

The issue is that religion can be very sexy. Religio-magical power can be felt as erotic power, which why clergy often get into scandalous situations.

Female beauty plus sacramental (i.e., magical) power? There is nothing in the Book of Common Prayer about handling that!

So must they just pretend it’s not there?

And what do we Pagans do?

9 thoughts on “What a Difference the Suffix ‘-ess’ Makes

  1. Rombald

    Can Christianity survive priestesses? It does strike me that Christianity is so male-dominated that it ceases to be Christianity with priestesses.

    Maybe the conservatives are right about Episcopagans? I certainly hope so; I'm English, and one thing that attracts me about the Church of England is being able to walk across the fields from home to a mediaeval church, instead of having to get the train to a moot in an inner-city pub full of pretentious pagans.

    Having said that, a lot of ancient paganisms were male-dominated, as are the only big surviving paganisms – Hinduism and Shinto. Discuss.

  2. Pitch313

    As a Pagan, I leave it to the legion of Christian denominations and movements to devise their own technical terminology. They may seek to devalue or neutralize gender and sex among their clergy if they wish.

    And say things that are nonsensical to speakers of ordinary English. Such as calling a women member of their clergy a "young, beautiful Episcopal priest."

    Now, I surfed through a couple web sites to find a photo of the clergywoman in question. Calling her a "priest" will probably add to lay misunderstandings of all sorts of human relationships.

    For instance, would her husband introduce her as "my wife, the priest." Or announce in a rowdy sports bar that he was married to a "priest."

    Or are we hastily creating a new category of "clergy-sexuals?"

    Pagans, at least the ones I know, don't do stuff like this. They understand and actively employ sex and gender as an aspect of magical working. They do not fear priestesses and the Goddesses and Gods who inspire them.

  3. Chas S. Clifton

    Since Episcopal clergy can marry, he would have to introduce her as "my wife, the priest," I suppose, as odd as that sounds to my ears.

  4. Rombald

    I'm not sure about the USA, but in England the word "priest" is not used much for Anglican clergy, except among self-conscious Anglo-Catholics, and they have to keep explaining to everyone else that, no, they're not Roman Catholic. The usual word is "vicar" – and I have heard "vicarette" used occasionally in a derogatory sense.

  5. Chas S. Clifton

    Rombald — British usage may differ, but the way I learned it in my Broad-to-High Church upbringing was that one was ordained a priest, but "vicar" was an administrative title. Not all priests are vicars; for example, the headmaster of one Episcopal boarding school I attended was a priest but definitely not a vicar.

    Low Church parishes did often refer to their clergy as "Mister" rather than "Father," at least when I was a kid.

    My philosophical differences caused me to stop considering myself to be an Episcopalian at about age 16.

  6. Ian Phanes

    As an active Episcopalian (who also happens to be pagan of multiple sorts), I would point out that about a century ago, the Episcopal church created "deaconesses" as a non-ordained role for women in the church. I rather suspect that my deacon, who is a woman, would be uncomfortable being called a deaconess, as that would imply that she is not equal to male deacons. The same logic applies to female priests. A "priest" is the term for an individual who can consecrate the Eucharist. A "priestess" would be unlikely to have that authority. On the other hand, many female priests do prefer to be addressed as "Mother X." rather than Father X." And I can't imagine anyone referring to the current head of the Episcopal Church as "the Presiding Bishopess"…except possibly those who are opposed to allowing a woman to be a bishop.

    To be honest, I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the use of the term priestess in paganism except in traditions (such as BTW) where priests and priestesses have distinct roles. I would never tell a woman that she can't call herself a priestess, but in ContraryWise Craft I refer to all 2* initiates collectively as "Priests", since it doesn't make any difference in our lineage what your gender is.

    Similarly, I don't have favorite "authoresses". I have favorite authors, some of whom happen to be men and some of whom happen to be women.

  7. PeaceBang

    A woman blogger calling a colleague young and beautiful is HOMOEROTIC!!? Aw, c'mon. And from a pagan, yet.

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