Researching this Sunday’s sermon found me going through the church archives to look up an obscure point, and in the process I found a letter dated October 31, 1944, from Reverend Dan Huntington Fenn, then the Director of the Department of Ministry at the American Unitarian Association. It appears that Reverend Orval Clay, a brand-new Unitarian minister just settled at North Unitarian Church in New Bedford, had sent along a church newsletter, asking Mr. Fenn for his advice and comments.
As is still the case in smaller churches with no office staff, Mr. Clay was writing, typing, and printing the entire newsletter himself. No wonder he, a brand-new minister, wanted an older, experienced minister to look it over and offer advice. However, I’m not sure he got quite the advice he wanted. In the first paragraph, Mr. Fenn compliments Mr. Clay on the many activities reported in the newsletter. But the second paragraph offers this advice (which, by the way, directly contradicts the current advice given by the Unitarian Universalist Association):
I recognized the frequent typewriter slips but one which caught my eye was where you referred to yourself as Reverend Clay. That is one thing which always does bother me because it should either be Reverend Orval Clay or Rev. Mr. Clay, or just Mr. Clay, but it is not accurate to say Reverend Clay. I have always fought with every newspaper in every community I have been in trying to get them to give up the practice but they have a persistency which I haven’t been able to yet break down. This has become, therefore, a little pet obsession of mine but it is founded upon the requirements of accurate and good English.
The current practice of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to refer to ministers as “the Rev. Firstname Lastname,” upon first reference, and then as “Lastname” alone (with no honorific) for subsequent references. I have never liked this practice; I see no need to include a direct article prior to the word “Reverend.” Now I have the weighty Mr. Fenn weighing in with a different formula which he says is “founded upon the requirements of accurate and good English.” Of course, that’s basically what the advocates of “the Reverend” claim.
As is so often the case with the English language, there is no right answer. You pays your money and you takes your choice.