CONVENTIONS OF WRITING TO A HIERARCH
by Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) of San Francisco and the West
To: Very Reverend & Reverend Clergy & Parish Secretaries
From: Bishop TIKHON
Subject: Conventions of writing to a hierarch
1. I recently got a letter from a brother bishop belonging to a neighboring archdiocese. It had apparently been issued using one of the contemporary "mail merge" methods. It requested me to appoint a layman from "my" parish and was signed off with: "Paternally yours, Bishop (X)." I've also long remembered being in the presence of the very first Orthodox hierarch I'd ever met when he received a letter. He opened it, began to read, then jumped up, waved it in the air and said, "He called me "you", that's the kind of letter we have to put up with these days from our priests!" Today I had occasion to review also a couple letters from clergy who were new to our diocese. These letters, while certainly meeting contemporary standards of courtesy for business letters, resembled correspondence of clergy not at all, much less correspondence of deacons/priests with a bishop. I know that you all want to act courteously and appropriately; moreover, I've been asked on more than one occasion by prominent lay members of our diocese to put out guidance on matters of "protocol" in general. This is one such matter.
2. You are all aware that a hierarch does not request or receive a blessing from a priest or deacon — just the opposite. So, too, is it awkward and inappropriate when a letter is addressed to a hierarch by a priest or deacon or even lay person beginning or ending (or both) with a generous blessing of the bishop, especially when the writer himself (or herself) does not ask in the time-honored way for any blessing at all from their bishop.
3. The most formal and conventional way to write a bishop is to address him in the third person and never in the second; however, there are now only a few who are aware of this custom or follow it, in America. Usually one did not start a letter with "Dear," either. The correct way was considered to be plain: "Your Beatitude (Eminence) (Grace), Most Blessed Metropolitan (Most Reverend Archbishop) (Right Reverend Bishop) (NAME)!. Priests never refer to themselves as "father" in their conversations with each other, although they certainly may address others as such. Likewise, no priest should inform the bishop, either in person, on the phone, or in writing, that it is "Father" so-and-so who is speaking or writing. That means it would be wildly inappropriate for a priest or deacon to call me or write to me and say, "This is Father …" or write "Yours truly, Father …" The priest or deacon is not in any respect "father" to the hierarch, while the hierarch is indeed "father" to the priest or deacon. Neither is one priest "father" to another. It should be kept in mind that bishops routinely extend the courtesy of addressing priests and deacons as "father," but this is clearly a courtesy and does not license the priest or deacon to refer to himself that way to the bishop. Priests and deacons, therefore, should refer to themselves, and sign their letters, according to their rank: Archpriest or Priest "X", Deacon "X". The laity use their Christian names in such cases and not their titles. (Likewise, a Priest conventionally would begin a letter to a fellow priest with "Dear Father," but end it with "The Priest (X).")
5. The first words of a letter from a priest, deacon, or lay person to bishop should be a request for a blessing, couched, as stated, in the 3rd person, e.g., "I request (or "humbly beg for," or "pray for," or "dare to ask for" etc.) Your (Beatitude) (Eminence) (Grace)'s blessing." The letter should likewise close with a very similar formula, the most frequently used one being this: "Requesting Your ( )'s archpastoral blessings and prayers ."
6. These and other conventions were developed in the process of mankind's becoming more "humane," in treating one's fellows with courtesy and respect appropriate to their station. I might add that in very recent times it has become popular to adopt formulas with "I press Your (Eminence's, etc.) hand," or "kiss" the same and so forth; however, these formulas come from the conventions of addressing royalty and nobility, and stress, when used in the Church, a kind of lordliness with which many bishops may feel uncomfortable. I myself always avoided such formulas, but I acknowledge that they are accepted and acceptable.