Watch your language

Truth Himself Speaks Truly

The Rev’d Stephen Stavrou asks some probing questions about the language the Church uses to describe its ministry and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Is the Church’s increasingly frequent adoption of the language of marketing, management and spin an appropriate idiom, or do we need to find a different language to speak truthfully about Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be Truth itself?

There is a problem with the language the Church of England uses to communicate about itself and share the Christian faith.

The issue I am identifying might appear to be superficial, but is actually a fundamentally important question. Language says something about the sort of institution the Church is, and the kind of people it has in positions of leadership. In turn, this has an enormous effect on public perception of the Church, and is eventually reflected in whether people find the Church of England an attractive place to be a Christian. Indeed, it goes so far as to shape people’s perceptions of the inherent truthfulness of the Christian faith itself.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing problems within the Church and created new ones. Some, such as a significant cut in the number of stipendiary clergy in the Diocese of Chelmsford, have been brought forward because of the pandemic. Others, like the cessation of services St Margaret’s, Westminster, are a direct result of it. Making such decisions is never easy and calls for great sensitivity when communicating them.

A topical example showing why this is so important is the recent statement from Sheffield Cathedral regarding the closure of its choir. The statement was filled with terms like ‘fresh vision’, ‘new model’ and ‘renewed ambition’. Many buzz-words such as ‘inclusion’, ‘engagement’ and ‘imagination’ were used. All of these qualities are good in themselves, but the statement read like a corporate press release. The amount of positive ‘spin’ obscured a genuine attempt to recognise the pain that the decision would cause, and tell us about the real reasons behind the decision.

In response to the ensuing outcry, the Dean addressed the congregation the following Sunday. By contrast, it was a thoughtful, kind and clear description of how and why the decision had been made. Even if you continued to disagree, you could at least now understand the situation. It was a much more authentic and honest form of expression.

Traditionally, the Church of England has been particularly good at expressing itself with nuance, sensitivity and beauty. Lex orandi, lex credendi (loosely translated as ‘what is prayed is what is believed’) has a special place in Anglican theology, indicating the significance we give to language and faith. So what is the source of the problem? It lies in the widespread adoption of a corporate tone of communication more appropriate to business. This is something we should all be worried about because such language is by its very nature dishonest.

It is often said that business language is about selling you something you don’t need and can’t afford. By adopting this language, the Church is unwittingly giving the impression it is a business or a corporation that is trying to promote something you don’t either want or need – when the Gospel is in fact entirely the opposite. The Good News is something that everyone needs to hear and immeasurably improves the life of every person and our whole society. The key point is that this language is inauthentic to Christian faith because it is about spinning an image or idea rather than sharing a truthful reality.

One only needs to glance through the Jobs section of the Church Times to see this sort of corporate language in full flow. Egregious examples of business-style jargon include diocesan slogans such as the appalling phrase ‘Going Deeper into God’, or a post advertised as a ‘Mission and Transition Enabler’ (Associate Archdeacon). Amusing as these examples are, the darker side of such corporate language becomes apparent when a strategy document commissioned by the Diocese of London speaks of the ‘elimination’ of churches and ‘rationalising presence coverage’.

It is hard to conceive that we are speaking here of beloved places of worship, the ministry of faithful clergy, and the existence of parish communities. This is the place where language and morality intersect, and the use of such language reveals a hardness of heart and disrespect for the people of God. There are real and significant issues that need to be faced with courage, and unenviable decisions to be made by Bishops and other senior clergy, but this kind of language is ungodly by its very nature.

Corporate language might be in common use in society, but when the Church speaks to that society, we should expect it to communicate with authenticity, resonance and depth. I’m not suggesting that every statement needs to be a theological treatise or a work of poetry. However, the type of language we use, our vocabulary and phrasing, should reflect the Christian faith as a source of life and the Church as a vehicle of God’s truth. I recall a revealing tweet issued by the official Church of England Twitter account that began ‘like any other organisation a church requires good branding…’ (italics added). But the Church isn’t any another organisation, it is a divine institution because it is instituted by Jesus Christ to be his presence in the world. Language is therefore also an ecclesiological issue because it says something about who we are.

Running through my mind is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ translation of the Latin hymn Adoro te devote and the phrase ‘What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do; Truth Himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.’ When Jesus speaks in the Gospels, his words are fresh and surprising, leading us deeper into truth and divine mystery. More than ever, and especially in the current situation, people need to hear ‘truth Himself speak truly’ and instead they receive from the Church buzz-words, slogans and corporate nonsense-speak. Language cannot be separated from theology, evangelism, morality, spirituality and ecclesiology. If we want to attract people to the Church of England and the Christian faith then we need to be delivered from our current manner of communicating and recover the ability to use language that stirs the heart and quickens people at the deepest level of their being.

The Rev’d Stephen Stavrou

2 thoughts on “Watch your language

  1. Stephen thank you for your timely words, and warning to our church.

    This growth in business speak has grown apace under the present Archbishop of Canterbury.. It does not ring true, or reflect the life of our clergy, and those committed to their care. Christ is left out of the equation, His gospel, and our living faith.
    It is cold,, uninviting, and full of dead words.
    More than ever at this time the church in its writing and actions needs to convey the life, warmth and love of our Christian faith.

    Fr John Emlyn.


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