by David Easton.
The language that people use can sometimes be quite indicative. For example, in the endless Brexit debate whether people say ‘them’ when referring to Europe, or ‘us’ probably says something about where they see our nation’s place and, indeed their own, in relation to the other twenty-seven countries.
If I ask someone about their church, I notice whether they say ‘them’ or ‘we’. And in Scotland, where I live, does ‘the Parliament’ refer to what goes on in Westminster or in Holyrood? In one sense it doesn’t matter very much maybe, beyond being sometimes quite irritating as in when someone refers to ‘England’ when you know perfectly well that they should be saying the United Kingdom or Great Britain – and it’s amazing how many people don’t seem to grasp the difference between these last two titles.
As I, this year, approach retirement from active ministry, I sometimes find myself in reflective mood and one of the things I have been reflecting on is the changing use of language in and about the Church. I hope the following isn’t going to sound too much like an old man’s rant.
The default term that is now used across the Church when referring to one another – especially when ministers speak of each other – seems to be ‘colleague’. I even use it myself sometimes. Looking back, I couldn’t say when this term first became common and then usual. I do know that when I entered circuit ministry thirty-eight years ago that I could not have imagined any minister referring to another in such a way. The usual term would have been ‘sister’ or ‘brother’.
Is this all part of the Church simply getting more professional and on the ball:
our buildings now have to have professionally conducted quinquennial inspections – this never used to be the case;
our circuits are encouraged to have ‘mission statements’ – an interesting example of religious language being requisitioned by the business world and then reclaimed by the Church. You will be able to think of other examples.
So what about the use of ‘colleague’? As I have confessed, I use it myself sometimes but when I do and when I realise I have and when I stop to think about it, I feel that I have been less than true to the nature of the Church and our relationship within it. We are in essence, surely, the body of Christ and children of God, something we affirm every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. In one way it doesn’t matter much if I call another Christian ‘colleague’ but in another I do feel that I have in some way demeaned them. It’s a bit like the story of Martha and Mary where the former refers to ‘my sister’ not warmly but as a way of expressing how she feels about her supposed laziness. You, dear reader, whether I’ve met you or not, are my sister or brother in Christ. And, if I am to be true to my ecclesiology and theological understanding of the nature of our relationship to God then surely my language should begin to reflect that.
I have a sense that increasingly we are keen to rediscover our Methodist roots and essence. One of the marks that we have is in the call to be in fellowship one with another. The early class meetings weren’t just about collecting the penny for the work of God, they could also be occasions of a brotherly/sisterly bonding. Some asked to be buried with their class tickets, so deeply did they value this ‘fellowship below’ and which they believed would find its full expression ‘when round his throne’ they met.
In a society where there is often a sense of ‘unbelonging’ and disconnectedness, is it not possible that those of us in the Methodist tradition with our belief in a loving and affirming fellowship may have, by this means and, yes, in the language we use, a possibility of making what we believe, real for those for whom it is often just a meaningless stream of words.
4 thoughts on “The Language We Use”
Maybe the word ‘colleague’ just seemed more appropriate when ministers became more like church managers than pastors?
Once, after moving to another circuit, my previous District Chair provided a reference for a role outside the church, referring to me as a ‘ex-colleague’, The reference was wonderfully warm, but the designation unsettled my sense of Methodists having a common connexional bond and of being co-workers in God’s kingdom, wherever we are geographically.
When I was brought up in Yorkshire in the 40s and 50s we were often asked “where do you belong?” It meant where do you live but it felt deeper than that. There was a sense that you drew your character and strength from a place and you therefore owed it something. We all travel far more widely now and live in many different places and therefore our belonging may not be to a place but to a family or institution. I feel a sense of belonging to Methodism and as a local preacher I am automatically on the plan of any circuit in which I live. That sense of belonging makes me shares its joys and sorrows.
I often wonder why some presbyters refer to their congregations as “us” and others as “they”. There are strong arguments for both but does it indicate an attitude. Also I hear stewards talk about “our own minister” which is certainly not a correct statement of their relationship but is understandable.
My very old (pocket) Oxford dictionary, published in 1924, gives the meaning of ‘colleague’ as – “member of joint office in relation to others”. David, as you said, “We are in essence, surely, the body of Christ and children of God, something we affirm every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. In one way it doesn’t matter much if I call another Christian ‘colleague’ but in another I do feel that I have in some way demeaned them.”. Personally, I don’t think you do, given the original meaning. In saying ‘my colleague’ in the context of your Christian life you are referring to a member of the body of Christ – with whom you have a relationship.