Monday, 1 December 2014

Purists in the Church?

"Purists brush this dilemma testily aside because it’s Mothering Sunday. They would no more say Mother’s Day than they would split an infinitive or drop litter. Such people make up ninety-eight per cent of the population of the UK’s Cathedral Closes." Catherine Fox, Acts and Omission.

 This is an excellent book, and well worth a read, but this particular passage stood out for me when I read it, because I do wonder whether this is true, and whether it is a problem. Earlier, there is a discussion about whether it is a Christening or a Baptism ("A baptism is simply a christening whose significance has been properly understood."), a discussion in real life which did reveal the pedantry that some people have for words.

Personally, I use Mothering Sunday and Mothers Day pretty well interchangeably. For personal reasons, I don't especially celebrate it as a major festival, as some do, but I don't have any problems over what to call it. Language changes, develops, lives, and while there are changes that should be resisted (not all change is good), there are many which are just part of the natural development. Do those people who insist on it being Mothering Sunday also refuse to give out flowers to mothers, because it isn't about mothers, it is about the Mother Church?

But is it a problem that some people are language purists? As a general rule, not at all - we need some people to be focused on accuracy, precision and correctness. We need the conservative pull to ensure that language actually means something, that we retain some semblance of communicability about ideas more complex than the colour of nail polish.

The problem I have is that "such people make up ninety-eight per cent of the population of the UK’s Cathedral Closes" - in other words, this is seen as a positive trait within the church hierarchy. In case those who are not Anglican want to feel superior, the same attitude is present in other churches, to various degrees and in different ways. Even in non-hierarchical churches, the people who rise to the top tend to be the ones who are purists for the particular style and form of that congregation.

I am reminded of the history of the language used in the New Testament - known as Koine Greek. When this was originally seen, it was thought that the style, which differed from most of the other official documents found, was a special, high form of the language used for spiritual writing. In fact, it was a common form of Greek, used for non-formal communication. The New Testament was written in Facebook and Twitter language, not literary language. They would have referred to Mother's Day.

If the Bible was written in language that ordinary people use, because it was written for ordinary people to read (not entirely, because not everyone could read), surely we should worship in normal language, surely knowing what LOL stands for should be more important than knowing that it is Mothering Sunday? Surely a concern to keep up with changing language should be more important than a conservative resistance to change?

In case you have missed it, I am not promoting change for the sake of change. I do think that those who seek to oppose change have an important place (I am not one of those, and I often clash with them, but I accept that they have a place to provide balance). I am just not sure that this place is populating the senior ranks of the church - any church. Because purism is seen as very elitist, and elitism gives a message of "we are better than you". Whereas the Christian message is "we are no better than you. We all need help".

So yes, I do know the difference. But I don't care - there are far more important things to care about.

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