Monday 17 September 2007

Those labels - Evangelical, Catholic, Liberal, ...

Labels worry me. Once there's a word - or a choice of words - in common currency, there's a division. Jesus prayer, "that they may be one, as we are one," suggests that we should be very, very cautious about factionalism.

Yet the glory of Anglicanism has been that over many generations it has united - imperfectly yet actually - what could be thought of as the two sides of the Reformation coin, catholicism and evangelicalism.

There is, perhaps, not too much interest outside the confines of the Christian faith in the distinction, although 'evangelical' seems to be becoming something of a media boo word, used as a shorthand for rabid, fundamentalist, far-right etc. And this seeps into church culture too. It's so easy, and in many ways so comfortable, to seek the party line and, for the most part, to toe it.

Let's be honest. The pay-off is less that we feel we agree with each other, more that we know "they" are wrong about this... and that...

When we lived in the Caribbean, one of the strange-seeming facts of life was that a vast proportion of people headed off to church on Sunday (and indeed Saturday), and this was to many, many denominations and individual churches including at least one essentially founded to oppose/annoy another.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the Federation works out day-to-day. Its ethos of "roots down, walls down, bridges out" is exciting - to bring Anglicans of every churchmanship, Methodists, Orthodox, United Reform Church and Roman Catholics into common structures seems from my nearly-there vantage point an exciting demonstration of valuable ecumenism.
Is it too much to hope, that in my lifetime I might see the unity of the visible church increase and the divisions truly turned into areas of discussion not bones of contention?

I would be happier to own a label that felt more like 'red haired' than 'Man Utd' - a distinction with a difference, yet no flag for battle.


  1. Labels should not be flags for battle, I agree - though, it is true that the unbelieving in the Church are "for battle" when we are "for peace". They are, however, necessary - and other such means of making generalisations - for the sake of discourse on particular topics. Otherwise, discourse becomes impaired by the variety of particulars. The informed and gracious spirit will recognise in the use of generalisations that exceptions always exist and will give credit to those exceptions, should they enter into discussion. There is no need to keep bringing up "but what about this particular or that" - the exceptions - at every possible point. Again, nothing would get done.
    Labels as labels, generalisations as generalisations, categories as categories, if they are properly and well made, are not evils in themselves. What is an evil is to squeeze people into our generalisations when they do not fit. But the refusal to use labels at all is no solution to this problem; we are sinful enough to always find some way to be unfair to people we don't like.

  2. I'm less concerned with the concept of convenient tags and generalising, than with a few specific issues.

    Most significantly:

    1. The common use outside church circles (which is a misuse, of course) of the term 'evangelical'

    2. The tendency within the church to use the terms 'liberal,' 'catholic' and 'evangelical' to set up dividing walls of hostility

    I don't have any answers, sadly.

  3. It's a lovely idea, that labels could be separated from the tribalism that they support and actually are intrinsic to, but there's no possibility at all that it could ever happen.

    If you could remove all the labels that you could now identify as being grounds for tribal conflict, if you could whisk them out of existence so completely that nobody would know they had ever existed, then others would be found to fight about before the day was out. For that matter, there are places where "red haired" is a sole basis for hatred, in this country and in recent memory.

    People want to discriminate, they will generalise based on things they shouldn't, and they can't stop.

    No, it's not right, seen from the inside of an intellectual, liberal framework. But who's to say that the ugly majority isn't actually responsible for the future of the species, in the same way it was responsible for all its past?

    At a tangent, complaining that common currency misunderstands evangelism is itself a misunderstanding. Common currency is, however you may mislike it, right and if you'd rather it wasn't, you can either flog everyone who understands the word to mean something different to what you think it should mean, or you can find another word that says what you want and hope that that works better. A ministry based at the top of an ivory tower rooted in allegedly superior language skills is not, I think, what it's all about. Dictionaries and encyclopaedias (and any other reference work you can name) are out of date before they've finished rolling off the press. Live with it; think or thwim.


It's great to get comments - a good way to encourage, challenge and help me! Thank you. Jeremy