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Angela Tilby: The words we use must speak the truth

08 September 2023

Alamy

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.

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