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Preachers need to mind their language

06 January 2023

In an increasingly oral culture, communicating the gospel requires a grasp of how linguistic concepts are evolving, says Mark Rudall

THE auction site was advertising an antique desk as having “a most beautiful bettina”. Perhaps the seller had heard the word, but never seen “patina” written down. It was amusing to see linguistic horrors such as this, but I now see them as examples of a cultural wave growing rapidly into a tsunami.

The Church has its own book culture, and uses a lot of phraseology drawn from the deep wells of history. We are all about words. If we are not attentive to the prevailing culture, however, we can easily find ourselves out of step with a communications world in which solecisms abound and expressions are now being used that have somehow been cut adrift from their roots, so that their meaning has been lost.

Startling linguistic abuses leap out at me every day as I open websites such as eBay, or news and comment websites. They suggest that UK — and probably Western — society as a whole is becoming increasingly “oral”.

It has nothing to do with intelligence or social standing, because it occurs across social classes. It seems much more to reflect the frantic pace of life at which many people, of all walks of life, now live. It also reflects how much or how little they read literature — particularly pre-21st-century material — over and above what is necessary for survival in a complex world.

BUT if we have, since 2000, quietly segued into a predominantly oral culture, there will still be the need for people sometimes to express themselves in writing. As a result, they will use words, idioms, and expressions that have been picked up through only half-hearing, and for which they have no background.

If we want a sidelight on the state of the nation’s general education and literacy, then news comment websites are fascinating places to look, if we don’t suffer from high blood pressure.

A good example is the website for the Daily Mail, where anyone with fingers and a keyboard can vent their opinions on current news stories. “Vox pop” comments have always helped news providers to judge the Zeitgeist and maybe pursue a new angle on a story. Opinions offered can be particularly vibrant sources of solecisms and misuses of all kinds, however, because they are usually typed in a hurry, probably on phones rather than keyboards.

And so we find ourselves being told “we’re in unchartered waters,” or we can be “in the throws” of something happening. We hear about someone being treated as “an escape goat”, or we feel precarious and are “walking on egg shelves”. We might hear that something is “iconoclastic”, when we know that really it is “iconic”. We encounter these “foe pars”, and wonder how the perpetrators get away “scotch free.” I blanch when I hear the word “irregardless”, and hear people talking about “aircrafts”, marking something with an “asterix”, or expressing just a thin “slither” of hope. Indeed, the growing imprecision in language really is a “mute point” nowadays: “for all intensive purposes”, it seems that most people “could care less . . .”.

THOSE who are keen to communicate the gospel probably should care, however.

It is gratifying that Advent still brought high numbers of people into church, together with their children. Such people rarely, if ever, darken our doors. But their presence prompts me to be mindful that the way in which I communicate needs constant review. I wonder how, as the year unfolds, those of us who preach can communicate theological concepts in straightforward language to any degree of depth?

Few sights are more demoralising in church than that of a preacher mounting the pulpit steps carrying several sheets of A4 paper, the contents of which we know we will have to sit through without fidgeting. How will the young family sitting near the back feel as the stream of long words, complex phrases, and awkward syntax is delivered? Will the visitors bother to come back next Sunday?

I think that it was when I saw, in print, the phrase “this is all smoking mirrors” that I realised that I needed to be a little more careful in the way I used what I thought were quite usual phrases and idioms at the front of the church. I also recalled introducing pew Bibles to my congregation, some of whom commented that, for some of my sermons, pew dictionaries might be useful, too.

Thus, I write in humility and suggest that it is useful to be reminded that, as preachers, we are not up on our hind legs to impress with flamboyant language, which may be meaningless to many today. We are there to get a message across with clarity, and to move hearts that may be preoccupied with life’s challenges and unfamiliar with our bookish idioms. That is the challenge.

The Revd Mark Rudall is a retired priest based in the diocese of Guildford, and former diocesan director of communications.

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