Church & Jargon: Is accessible language always the primary concern?

by maggi dawn

I’ve been thinking again about theology, church and jargon.  I noted a couple of weeks back that Addie Zierman listed five jargon phrases that might make sense if you spend all your time in church, but sound strange and even scary if you don’t belong to that “club”. Then Nadia Bolz-Weber picked up the conversation, giving her own humorous exposé of how meaningless this can become if you string them all together in one sentence: “After my quiet time with the Lord, where I was bathing in prayer, God laid it on my heart to be a transformational leader by just loving up on my blog readers and offering them some ideas from my missional imagination.”

I have two thoughts on jargon and church. One is that specialist language is inevitable, perhaps even essential. The other is that it is exclusive. These two are related, and neither of them is entirely a bad thing.

Every group, every club, every society, family, school, team, business, has its own jargon. Groups have their own sets of stories and history and in-jokes and running gags that are unique to them, as well as their own technical shorthand. This is how language works: we don’t continue to use full length formal prose with people we know well and see often. We develop an adapted code. Any given person will speak variations on their own language depending on whether they are at work, at home, at church, or with friends. Church language varies locally – Westminster Abbey and Holy Trinity Brompton in London, or Trinity Wall Street, Redeemer Presbyterian, or Abyssinian Baptist in New York – they all speak a common faith language, and use similar words, but go from one to the other and you immediately notice that within one city the church has multiple “local accents”.

The language of a particular group is part of what makes it a group – it’s part of the social glue, part of the sense of belonging that develops within the group. We should stop feeling bad about having Church language, and recognise that making language easily and plainly accessible to anyone at any time is likely to break down the linguistic aspect of belonging that is inherent to social cohesion.

But it’s precisely this that makes specialist language exclusive. Knowing the language of the group is a good feeling – it gives you a sense of belonging, as well as access to discussions of ideas or expertise. But for newcomers it takes a while to learn the language. If I am in a group of theologians or musicians, I know their language and can join in very swiftly, whereas if I found myself at a meeting of the Harley Davidson restoration club, or an American Football party, I would feel like an outsider because I wouldn’t understand much of what they were talking about. But if they were friendly and welcoming people, and if I were inquisitive about Harley Davidsons or American Football, it wouldn’t take long for me to learn their language, and feel part of the crowd as well as part of the discussion.

I’m all in favour of re-wording prayers and liturgy into current language. Making liturgy accessible, in the sense of understandable in one’s own language, was not an invention of the 1980s, but a primary concern of the Reformers in the 16th century. The eventual publication of the KJV Bible and BCP Prayer Book, 1604 and 1662 and both still in use, are examples of the Reformation drive to make the language of faith accessible to the common person, and not the sole preserve of the clergy.

The over-veneration of such texts, then, and the romantic wish to keep them forever unchanged is misplaced, and out of step with the intentions of those who produced them. The 17th-18th century Anglican scholar Humphrey Prideaux commented on the Book of Common prayer, “As to the Liturgy of our Church, I freely acknowledge, and I think no man can contradict me therein, that it is the best which was ever yet used in any Christian Church, but that it should therefore be so perfect as not to be capable of amendments or alterations for the better, doth by no means follow.”

And as C. S. Lewis commented, “If you have a vernacular liturgy you must have a changing liturgy, otherwise it will be vernacular only in name. The ideal of “timeless English” is sheer nonsense. No living language can be timeless. You might as well ask for a motionless river.” (1)

Accessibility, then, in this sense of re-stating the faith in the language of each successive generation, is surely good thing. But it isn’t the same thing as the “plain English” campaign. This has to do with phrasing into everyday English the obfuscating language common in legal and bureaucratic contexts, making it possible for the ordinary person to read and understand their own documentation when dealing with such matters as bank accounts, passport applications, wills and such like.

Sometimes the call for accessible language in church falls less into the category of the English of the day (but allowing for poetics and some degree of sophistication) and more into the category of plain language. Here the concern seems to be about whether church language is exclusive of those who are unfamiliar with it, and leans towards the adoption of language so simply accessible that anyone can understand it. This is quite a different issue from re-wording in the current vernacular. To limit church language to quite such plain, everyday language has several negative effects. Firstly it disallows multi-layered, poetic, dense language to which one can return over and over again, each time seeing something new in it. Secondly it dismisses the importance in liturgical language of its capacity to be spoken aloud. And thirdly it “dumbs down” the theological possibilities of liturgical language. Lex orandi lex credendi is an old Latin phrase that in essence means the rule of prayer is the law of belief – that is to say, it states an ideal that what is understood theologically emerges from the place of prayer (or as Archbishop Michael Ramsey neatly summarized, Anglicans do their theology to the sound of church bells.)

If we re-word matters of faith not just in 21st century language, but in everyday, easy-read language, in language that has no vocabulary particular to matters of faith; if we iron out all the quirks and uniqueness of religious language, it doesn’t necessarily make it accessible; it can, instead, flatten it to the point of boredom, drastically reduce its meaning, and actually make the faith less than it is. Plain language is absolutely desirable in passport offices, on tax documents, at the doctor’s surgery or Emergency Room – everyday places that you pass through and need information to be readily understandable at the most basic level. But you don’t want to belong to the passport office, or come back next week, or read the forms ten or twenty or a hundred times, searching for deeper meaning. You want to pass through it as efficiently as possible and not think about it again for ten years. In church, though, language needs to create for us a far richer web of meanings and sounds in which we find joy and solace, both alone and in community, and give enough depth and cohesion to the project that the sense of belonging in the gathered community is reinforced.

The question for Church, then, as for any group, is not whether it should have its own language. It should – it will – and that is OK. The better question is, are we looking for newcomers at all? – and if we are, how do we interpret and explain our language in a welcoming (and not patronising) way? Interpreting and explaining is part of our welcome; learning the new language is part of what will reinforce a sense of belonging as newcomers learn it. We don’t need to patronise potential new members by assuming that they are incapable of learning anything.

Far from being a problem that we have our own language in church, then, it’s important that we do. But we also need to recognize that language is supposed to communicate, not exclude; we need to check ourselves and not treat language like a secret code or a badge of membership that is there to keep others out. Some of the language of faith doesn’t benefit from being put into everyday language, and it is not beyond the wits of the average person to learn what it means. But if they encounter a group of people that uses language like a suit of armor or a battleground, why would they want to? If people don’t feel welcome, it’s probably not because of the language we have, but the way that we allow it to become defensive and exclusive.

If we want to welcome newcomers, then, we don’t have to abandon beautiful, poetic or complex language, but we do need to pay attention to the newcomer, take the trouble to explain what we are about, and give them every opportunity to feel at home. Welcome is about drawing people in, not dumbing language down.

(1) Letters to Malcolm

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