I’ve spent the past several weeks going on about social and political things, but this week I’d like to discuss a pet peeve of mine in the glorious church Church of God I’m a part of: the issue of honorary doctorates, and the calling of their recipients “Doctor.” Fortunately our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Tim Hill (to use the Anglican form of address) has come out with a nice piece on the subject, Let’s Talk About It: Honorary Doctorates. Coming from someone who a) received one, b) is called “Doctor” as a result, c) doesn’t require it and d) is now Presiding Bishop, it’s a welcome treatment of the subject.
I like Tim Hill, think he’s a man of integrity and transparency, know many in his family. I think his personal qualities are worth far more than whatever title he holds. Putting that first comes from years of working in the Church of God at the denominational level, to say nothing of my years-long involvement in Anglicanism. Pentecostals like for their leaders to have “the anointing,” but personal integrity before God and the church is really more important, and once that’s established the anointing will flow.
My own journey with this issue is only partially related to the fact that, much closer to the pearly gates than to my birth, I received my own earned doctorate. A product of an Episcopal background and a Roman Catholic early adulthood, I didn’t join the Church of God until my late twenties. To be honest, it was (and still is) an alternative universe. Being in the construction industry, people with “too much education” don’t always get a warm reception (or maybe they do!) One professor at West Point even cautioned me about putting “PhD” after his name on my website, as he was concerned about the “warm reception!”
One thing I discovered early in my years in this church was that many in its upper echelons were called “Doctor.” Growing up in a church with clergy equipped with plenty of formal education, that was no surprise. It didn’t become apparent until much later that these doctorates were honorary doctorates. Where I came from, the only people who were referred to as “Doctor” were either a) medical doctors or b) those who earned what accreditation types refer to as the “terminal degree.” Some parts of the press only refer to people this way with (a). So I thought this was strange, not only because it ran against general practice but also because I figured our laity wouldn’t take to educated people!
Part of solving this mystery in the “alternative universe” came when I came back to teach regularly about ten years ago. Since most of my colleagues have a PhD, some of the students called me “Dr. Warrington.” I tried to dissuade them from this practice but found it a “whack-a-mole” proposition, as Tim Hill did. I think that some of it was just habit but some of it was currying favor. I suspect that this same motivation inspires our people as much as it did my students.
But a great deal of it, I think, comes from a deep-rooted inferiority complex in our people, and a desire to move up in the world. That’s a reversal of some long-held values, but a reversal I was unaware of until it was, for me at least, too late. Our people wanted to show that they had arrived, and having a surfeit of doctors at the top was one way of doing that. I still think that this inferiority complex is dangerous and will get us into trouble sooner or later, if it hasn’t already.
So what’s there to be inferior about? Modern Pentecost’s position in Christianity reminds me of an apocryphal story about Maurice Ravel, the French composer, and George Gershwin, the American one. Gershwin decided to take some lessons from Ravel, who asked Gershwin, “How much do you make in a year?”
“Oh, a quarter of a million dollars,” Gershwin replied (this was back in the 1920’s.)
“Perhaps I should be taking lessons from you,” Ravel replied.
Most churches would do well to take lessons from the Pentecostals and Charismatics regarding their outreach and the growth that can come from it.
One pastor up north had a series of sermons entitled, “Trading Your Title for a Towel,” referring to the foot-washing in John 13. When he quit his church to take another one, he should have entitled his last sermon, “Throwing the Towel In.” Let’s throw the towel in on calling everyone “doctor,” stop worrying about our “inferiority,” and be the men and women God wants us to be.