What I Mean When I Say Things

I’m a member of an ecumenical (read: lots of different types of Christians) Facebook group, and someone asked us yesterday to define some of our Episcopal jargon that we throw around without thinking. Episcopalians have a prodigious vocabulary when it comes to church words, and keeping up with the difference between rector & vicar (read: senior pastor of a self-supporting church vs. senior pastor of a church supported by the diocese (read: regional group of churches)) can be tricky.

Now, this trickiness is not necessarily a reason to get rid of all our cool Episco-speak entirely. I agree with fellow Episcopal priest Robert Hendrickson that language can help form community, and we shouldn’t shy away from our historic vocabulary just because those words aren’t common knowledge anymore. But without explaining what we mean, we’re not building a community, we’re just being needlessly pedantic. And exclusionary. Part of the problem, though, is that we often can’t agree on what these words mean. As discussion raged on Facebook, we began to argue about our definition of certain words, confusing our Methodist and Presbyterian friends even worse than before.

This is a new blog, and so I’d better explain what I mean when I say things. Not only can I not rely on institutional or cultural knowledge, I can’t even assume that I use words to mean the same things as other bloggers, even bloggers who are like myself. I recently read Winnie Varghese’s incredible piece on the need for more inclusive language in church. I found myself saying “right on!” over a dozen times in reading the article. Her point is incisive and desperately needs to be heard: so many of us in the progressive (read: supportive of women’s and LGBT ordination) church fear becoming whatever our conservative brothers and sisters warned us we would be, and so while we strive for greater inclusion in action, we resist any innovation in our language. We get stuck, idolizing the words of our fathers, claiming that by sticking to the rubrics (read: instructions for worship) we can escape being labeled as heretical.

There’s that word, heretical. Rachel Held Evans, Morgan Guyton, and others have written about how easily that word gets flung around, such that it has come to mean “someone who disagrees with me, and that I would like to exclude from the category of Christian.” Varghese doesn’t use that word, but she has this line about its opposite, orthodoxy, that greatly troubles me:

We seem to want to claim traditional and orthodox more than faithful, just or compassionate. As though traditional or orthodox equals unquestionable truth, not simply what was done or thought in the past.

Because you see, to me being traditional and orthodox means being faithful, just, and compassionate. In our baptism, Episcopalians promise that we will “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers”. This is being orthodox, and it is being faithful. We promise that we will “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord”. This is being orthodox, and it is being just. We promise that we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” and that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. This is being orthodox, and it is being compassionate.

Varghese is right: some people use the word orthodox to mean what was done or thought in the past. Tragically, more people use it as an excuse to escape culpability for the impact their beliefs have on others. After all, if it’s the orthodox (read: right) way of thinking, I can’t be held responsible for the harm its causing other people. But that’s not what I mean when I talk about orthodoxy. And if I mean something different by it than others do, then I had better explain what I mean.

What I mean when I say the word orthodox is this: faithful to a God who is known in a vibrant, living tradition based primarily on the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbor, especially those who are the most despised by the world, and secondarily on the great cloud of witnesses who have known and loved God for far longer than I have. A shorthand can be found in the Nicene Creed, and a somewhat longer mission statement in the heavenly visions of Isaiah 55-65, the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), and Paul’s assurances that Christ died for us all (cf. Romans 6-8, 1 Corinthians 12 & 15, Galatians 3). This may not be what everyone means when they say they are orthodox, and that’s ok. I’m not capable of making every Christian or even every Episcopalian agree. But I will strive to always explain what I mean when I say things.

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