*** DEBUG END ***

Angela Tilby: The words we use must speak the truth

08 September 2023


George Orwell in 1940. His novel Nineteen Eighty-Four coined the concept of “newspeak”

George Orwell in 1940. His novel Nineteen Eighty-Four coined the concept of “newspeak”

AS A Church that believes that revelation comes in words, we need to pay more attention to the language being used to describe the C of E’s aims and aspirations in this very challenging time for the Christian faith in England.

Take “pioneer”, as in “pioneer ministers”. For me, the word immediately conjures up a swashbuckling Davy Crockett, with gun at the ready. Or, if not a cowboy, a lean, weathered explorer, stick in hand gazing out on the virgin territory he hopes one day to subdue and make profitable. Both are images from the American West in its age of violence and conquest.

Then there was “spearhead”, which was meant to galvanise support for the Decade of Evangelism. I believe that it was only when it was pointed out that this was the name of the National Front’s magazine that it was changed to “springboard”, replacing an image of war with a dramatic, energised leap as a metaphor for the Church’s mission. Then there was “Fresh Expressions”, which never quite disguised the hint of floral deodorant — masking the stink, presumably, of the cobwebs and death of ordinary parish life, patronisingly dismissed as “inherited Church”, full of grandma’s silver, which really should have been sold off long ago.

Then there was the “mixed-economy” Church, suggesting a blend of different models for the Church: one more “socialist”, the other the mirror of thrusting capitalism. Except, in the real world, some traditional churches grow; and some growth initiatives collapse. I carry some responsibility for suggesting a change of “mixed economy” to the current “mixed ecology”, because I feared that the word “economy” suggested too much that the Church was a business enterprise, and that “ecology” might just hint that the Church could provide a living environment in which people might flourish. Innocent days.

As I look at the wasteland of merged parishes, closed churches, and sold-off vicarages, I regret my intervention. The original was, perhaps, closer to the truth. So much of our mission-speak carries resonances of war, conquest, colonialism, and aggressive capitalism, fuelled by American populism and 18th-century revivalism, merged with contemporary celebrity culture.

Revolutions begin with an assault on language. Diocesan straplines, cute mission initiatives, the bullying insistence that there is no alternative — what is being rolled out in Truro, Leicester, and elsewhere starts with an assault on theology. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the point of “newspeak” was to reduce the range of thought, and so to make certain realities impossible. So, not much hope for parish, priest, tradition, pastoral care, contemplation, or liturgy. The new language has taken over.

It is extraordinary that our bishops do not have enough Greek between them to realise that they are being made redundant — if “oversight ministers” means what it says. Watch the words, and resist where still possible.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)