As I have been reading responses to a piece I wrote yesterday on Church jargon and pondering the issue – I wonder if a reasonable compromise might be offered for clarity.
I think perhaps there are distinctions to be made. What language do we have that is rooted in centuries of tradition and regular use? What language feels like a trend that could be jettisoned in favor of clarity and welcome? What language has lost connection to its historic understanding and needs fresh definition?
Happily enough, for us, language is only one mediator of meaning in our Tradition. We also have the power and mystery of movement and quiet in our liturgy. A well-designed liturgy will speak on its own terms with little interference on our part. We do not need to rely on its didactic qualities to find meaning because the very thing itself has power that transcends the language we would wrap around it.
Language is of a piece with the whole tapestry of our Church fabric. It can be consonant with the whole of the tradition expressed in art, music, movement, and voice or it can distract by being too filled with the jargon or slang of the day. It is easy for us to assume that ancient forms no longer “translate” for a modern audience and thus either substitute or eliminate that which is ancient for that which clangs and rattles in its disconsonance.
On Thursday, a fellow joined us for Morning Prayer who had mistaken the day for Tuesday when we offer a public breakfast for those in need of a warm meal. Our Curate invited the fellow to remain for Morning Prayer, however, and he did. He had no small degree of trouble keeping up with pages (in no small part because of a disability) and we helped as we could – passing along books turned to the psalms, canticles, and the like. He was graceful about the challenges and seemed notably nonplussed.
Yet, when we reached the Lord’s Prayer, a look of real peace came over him as he was able to recite the words from memory. His whole being shifted a bit as he found himself in sync.
I think this is one of those moments where I recognized the power of well shared language. Here was a fellow for whom much of our service was new – and yet amidst the newness was that moment of grace that only prayer known at the deepest core can offer. Had we decided, at some point or another, to substitute the “modern” Lord’s Prayer then this fellow would have missed that moment of grace and we would have missed an opportunity to connect at a level far deeper than jargon or even words. It was not the words themselves but the rich experience of knowing them at our deepest level together that was so powerful.
The encounter with the metaphysical Church is of a different nature than the encounter with the institutional Church. It is possible for us to use language about the institution that impedes someone’s ability to engage the deeper reality of the Church. The answer to the dilemma though is not to attempt to water down the mystery and poetry that is at the heart of the nature of the metaphysical Church but to create such a welcome that those who come can find their deepest being suffused with the shared rhythms of centuries of prayer and adoration.
I think that the middle way in this discussion is to recognize that there are at least three categories of challenging language.
- Jargon – Language which is unhelpful in its imprecision, “in-ness,” and lack of root in the deeper life and identity of the community. Perhaps contemporary examples might be missional, emergent, 815, the process, or countless other words that don’t communicate what we think they do and throw up boundaries or at least create unnecessary confusion when used. For example, I heard the word “pericope” used in a sermon recently.
- Traditional – This is language that grows out of long use but could be unfamiliar to many. This might be vestry, rector, (sub-dean in my case), narthex, sacristy, or the like. Many of these are words that actually give flavor and character to our communities but that we need to be careful, when using them, to provide context and definition when possible. In some contexts, even generally used words like Eucharist, bishop, liturgy, or parish might also fall into this category. The challenge is that these are things that we once could have assumed that folks would pick up in growing up in church-going households – this is no longer the case so we need to be thoughtful in use and explanation.
- Essential – This is language that forms the essence of the Church’s character both universally and locally. These are the kinds of words and language that must be taught, preserved, and held on to. This would be historic language from the Eucharistic prayers, the Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer Book, and the like. It is fundamentally unsettling to the form and life of the community to rewrite or recast these without substantial involvement of the whole of the Church in consultation and conversation. We should rarely be tampering with it as this is where the deepest, lasting learning happens. This is the stuff of the metaphysical, poetic encounter with God in the context of the Sacramental and liturgical life of the Church.
There are, I’m sure, different and more complex ways to view this – but this is where my general thinking lies. It seems that a focus on minimizing jargon, explaining the tradition, and deepening our shared understanding of the essential would lead us to a healthier sense of our own identity and provide not only a welcome but context for newcomers and lifelong learners in our communities. This approach may help us lead communities that make it possible to enter the mysterious Presence of God and be transformed in all the ways that God invites us to be changed.