Are we understood? Brian Tucknott reflects on our ‘church’ language and practices.

An 'old school' evangelist asked the question "Don’t you know that you were bought with a price?" To which a wit in the crowd responded "I didn’t realise I was up for sale!" This is a story retold by the Rev Dr Robert Reiss, Canon Treasurer of Westminster Abbey until his retirement, in his book Sceptical Christianity.

The story took me back to my younger days and the utter confusion at being sent to two different Sunday Schools – one at my maternal grandparents fundamentalist, Pentecostal church in the morning and then, in the afternoon, the Methodist one. At aged fourteen, that confusion drove me to walk away from both churches. When I had sorted my head out, I returned to the Methodist church where I remain to this day but not with a cast-iron certainty of what it is that I believe. Even now I have many questions, doubts as well, and as a Methodist Local Preacher, every service I lead and preach at causes me a lot of soul-searching before I feel comfortable in myself about what I plan to say and comfortable too that others will not be offended or confused by my words – although, inevitably, there are occasions when what helps one upsets another.

At our last District Synod, Rev Trey Hall, Director of Evangelism and Growth for the Methodist Church of Great Britain, challenged us to express what we believe in not more than twenty words and using only words that would be understood by someone with no experience of any kind in the Christian faith. He went on to suggest that much of what we do and say, as Christians and as a church, has no meaning to anyone who is not a part of the church. Indeed it will be like another foreign language to them. So, he said, we need to learn to be translators and interpreters of our church language for those to whom we want to communicate.

During his ministry my brother-in-law, along with other Methodist ministers, saw the need to tailor particular services to the needs of those attending who might be from outside the church. Particularly on ‘rites of passage’ occasions like baptism and marriage he would re-write our liturgy to make it meaningful for those involved who might not otherwise understand or be comfortable with the language we use. I have, in the past, asked the question "Why, at a baptism, do we seat the family and friends of the child (or adult) at the front where, if unfamiliar with our practices, they cannot even see when to stand up or sit down?"

The difficulty with much of our liturgy is that it has to be suitable for a wide range of belief positions if we are to continue to be able to call ourselves a ‘broad’ church. History tells us that the Nicene Creed, which is still used today, was adopted by the First Council of Nicaea in 325AD after much discussion and compromise. In 381AD, it was amended at the First Council of Constantinople. The earlier Apostle’s Creed is Trinitarian in structure, was based on Christian theological understanding of the canonical gospels and is widely believed to have been put together by the apostles themselves, with each contributing one of the twelve statements. It is also still in use.

It is inevitable that any such statement is a compromise and will, therefore, be challenging for an individual to subscribe to in its entirety. It is also difficult to see any church taking up the challenge of writing a creed that uses simple everyday language for today. At a recent meeting of the Methodist Regional Theological Forum we were presented with the findings to date of a presbyter researching into the way ‘A Catechism for the use of the people called Methodists’ is used. This booklet has been re-published recently with the addition of the headline title ‘What we believe’ but, essentially, remains the series of questions and answers that has been on my bookshelf for decades. At the forum, the question was asked "How can a church be called broad when such a statement of belief puts a fence around what individuals are supposed to believe?"

In many areas the traditional language of the church probably needs a thorough overhaul, but I am sure that any attempt to do so will end up with another compromise and be no more satisfactory than what we have. So we will each need to take up Trey Hall’s challenge and be translators and interpreters for all those who may ask us about our faith as they search for their own understanding on their spiritual journey. It is therefore important that we have the ability to express what we believe in a clear, concise language that those who may have little or no knowledge of our language can understand. That also, for me, has the imperative of demanding that I acknowledge, in any conversation or discussion, that my beliefs will not be exactly the same as another’s. I dare not be so dogmatic about my beliefs that I cause the sort of confusion in others that I suffered as a teenager.

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