There are many sorts of titles one may accumulate, and some people pursue them with great passion. There are familial titles like “Grandmother,” military titles such as “Ensign,” academic titles like “Associate Professor,” and ecclesiastical titles as in “Archimandrite.”
And that’s only the tip of the titular iceberg. Titles are prominent in many fields, such as medicine, politics and the judiciary. And appellations such as “Coach,” are precious to multi-millionaire athletic leaders and folks working with preschoolers in the gym or on the field alike.
The best way to tell how important a person’s titles are to them, is to witness how they respond to the “misuse” of one. My wife and I have a joke when I show my identification card when we enter a military installation. If the guard courteously says, “have a good day, colonel,” after I roll up the window and proceed, I will sometimes say (for Delores’ benefit) “that’s lieutenant colonel!”
If you’re unfamiliar with the armed forces, there’s a good chance you miss the joke. A lieutenant colonel is junior in grade to a “full” colonel, although addressing one simply as “colonel” is allowed. In fact, in a sense it’s an added courtesy or sign of respect. (I should mention that it’s not uncommon for some of the civilian guards to follow up such a greeting with a glance towards my wife and the words, “and a good day to you, general.”)
I have mixed feelings about titles, a trait I believe I share with C.S. Lewis.
In 1952, Lewis declined appointment as a Commander (CBE) in the Order of the British Empire. He did so to avoid entangling his Christian witness with political considerations. But by declining he forsook the opportunity to be known as “Sir Lewis,” although, I doubt he lost sleep over his decision. (In fact, in his humility, Lewis never revealed the matter for public scrutiny.)
A 1959 letter to Lance Sieveking, the BBC producer who wrote the radio script for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, offers an interesting insight into Lewis’ attitude about titles. He begins with this greeting:
(Why do you ‘Dr.’ me? Had we not dropped the honorifics?)
Volume three of Lewis’ letters reveals this was representative of his thinking. Once he had established a rapport with some correspondents, he requested that they drop the use of titles. A typical example reads, “We may both drop the honorific now, mayn’t we?.” In one case he writes in the imperative, “Dear Hooton (Do drop the honorifics!).”
So, Do Titles Matter?
My grandchildren surprised me the other day by addressing me as “Doctor Grandpa.” They proudly shared in my joy (read “relief”) at having completed my Doctor of Ministry degree.
I responded to their adulation with “actually, kids, it’s ‘Reverend Doctor Grandpa.’” This led to a fun discussion about titles during which I was able to explain to them how my pastoral title was of greater significance to me than the doctoral honorific. After which I reminded them the matter was moot because all I want them to call me is grandpa. I explained how only eight people in the entire world can call me that, and it made that title extremely precious to me.
Ultimately, the most valuable title any human being could have is to be addressed as son or daughter, by God. As Jesus’ disciple John wrote:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1).
On this, I have no doubt C.S. Lewis would agree.
Despite this, there are cases where titles are critical. The military, with its “chain of command” sometimes being a life or death matter, is a prime example.
In other settings, the honorifics are less significant. I addressed all my instructors in college as “Professor,” regardless of whether they were full/associate/assistant/whatever.
I doubt that many of Lewis’ very fortunate students thought less of his lectures because of Oxford’s politics which withheld from him the full “professorship” he had certainly earned. (It would be left to the wiser University of Cambridge to rectify this oversight.)
This suggests to me that titles mean less to most people than the way others think of them. If people respect you as someone with integrity . . . if they call you “friend . . .” how much more fortunate could you be?