Floating around social media the last week or so has been an article on church jargon. The article opens with a priest in California who talks earnestly about forgoing traditional church language which might be off-putting or simply foreign to many in today’s culture in favor of titles or descriptive phrases that may be clearer to the modern listener or reader. For example, rather than calling himself a Christian, he tends to self-describe as “a Monday through Saturday follower of Jesus who worships on Sunday.”
The article goes on to talk about the challenge of words like “diocese” or “Episcopal” or even “church.”
I had two countervailing thoughts as I read the article. The first thought was that those quoted in the article are absolutely right – we do have a gap between the language we use and the language that is immediately accessible or understandable in the wider population. The second thought was that I am not sure that this is a bad thing.
The Episcopal Church will never be all things to all people – nor should it try to be. It has an appeal that is grounded in the beauty of language, fidelity to an ordered manner of prayer, and an expansive understanding of theological complexities. Our of this grows a commitment to justice, reconciliation, and mission that is an expression of our commitment to live lives of faith that are not lived instead of or in spite of our life of prayer and worship but because of it.
The Episcopal Church is situated as a tribe within a broader Americanized Christian culture. In a cultural and religious landscape that stresses personal faith journeys in some corners or theological (or Biblical) rectitude in others we stand in a unique place as we attempt to hold in balance the best of multiple strains of religiosity while also attempting to provide theological, spiritual, and lived balances between the less savory impulses of those strains.
This kind of balance does not make for an easy sound-bite friendly Church – nor should it. We are a Church of poetic engagement with God and one another. That poetic engagement means that we and others will wrestle with some aspect or another of our community’s common vocabulary and parlance. This is part of tribal identity.
Without presuming to borrow the experience of others, I looked up what First Nations tribal peoples are talking about as they ponder what it means to be tribe in the face of seemingly overwhelming cultural pressures.
The Native Learning Center hosted a conference in April titled “Training for Building Sustainable Communities in Indian Country.” I was struck by the titles of many of the workshops and breakout sessions:
- Cultural Revitalization: Keeping Our Culture Alive for Generations
- Designing for Future Generations
- Including Tribal Traditions and Knowledge in Language Building Curriculum
- The Influence of Language on Tribal Culture and Identity
- Learning from our Elders
- Preserving Language: Turning Teachers into Speakers
- Using Storytelling to Preserve Community
This kind of work was done amidst lots of other practical work such as developing sustainable business practices, promoting tribal NGOs, and using market credits for development. Crucial to their conception of sustainability, however, was a concern for the centrality of language and story as critical to the building up and longevity of the community.
Now, the concern for language preservation in a First Nations community is a different one than our own concern – they are dealing with the need to preserve languages being lost due to cultural pressures and historical coercion.
Yet, by shifting our understanding of our Church from one at the very center of American life to thinking of ourselves as a tribe, at the periphery, we might actually have a more accurate picture of where we truly stand today. Moreover, we might find ourselves concerned less with being palatable to the widest audience and more drawn into the work of making a deep and lasting impact as a tribe of disciples.
Faith communities are under constant pressure to adapt their message, presentation, and communication “strategies” to meet the needs of the wider culture. The cost, however, in too many instances is a watering-down of the difficulty of the Gospel in favor of a therapeutic faith that comforts rather than convicts.
I do not mean “convicts” in the legalistic sense of condemnation – there is plenty of that in the wider Christian landscape. I mean convicts in the sense of conviction – in the sense of a countercultural demand on our whole being to allow Christ to shift our commitments, priorities, and very identity such that we are a people who look less like the culture around us and more like the community that gathered around Christ, that gathers around the Altar, that is given life at the Font.
The story of a Christian tribe fully living its faith is not one that will ever be easily packaged or even readily intelligible. It is a mysterious thing to be caught up in the Divine will for new life. We are not simply consumers of a package of beliefs or practices – we are a Royal Priesthood – a holy people of God charged with curating the mysteries of faith. We are sharing the stories of elders, building webs of continuity and conviction, and telling the stories that shape who and what we are.
The vitality of a tribal Christianity will be found in its ability to constantly find within itself new riches to explore and new challenges. When I visit a place like New Orleans – I am confronted by the strangeness of its local culture – by the uniqueness of the place, language, and culture. It is a place that holds onto the heart and imagination not by trying to be all things to all people. It is why Austin and Portland attract huge numbers of young adults each year – they are curious places that delight in their difference from the culture around them. They are strange places that draw us in with interwoven stories, landscapes, and characters.
We are a Church that delights in imagination and exploration. Our history and the oddities and quirks of our story are part of what makes us a unique and captivating home for so many. I would argue that many of the challenges we face now are not because we are distinctly Anglican but because we have forgotten what it means to embrace that distinction in too many ways.
In a culture looking for the authentic and the real part of that real authenticity, for us, is going to be the complexity and even occasional incomprehensibility of our language, customs, and traditions. Our challenge is not so much in undoing that which makes us different or eliminating that which marks us as a tribe – but in being such joyful stewards of that identity that others are drawn to learn more and to be part of something that is recognizably counter-cultural.
Our traditions and our “jargon” can be tools that lend us a deeper sense of community, continuity, and courage in the midst of constant pressure to make bland that which is sharp and to make simple the endlessly complex walk of Christian discipleship.