Saturday, July 08, 2006

'Being church': manipulating language to change meaning

[This particular piece does not specifically relate to the liturgy, however it takes up the theme which I was addressing about language mattering; whether that be the liturgical terms we use (versus populum?), how liturgical texts are translated (and also with you/and with your spirit), and most certainly in how we speak in terms of our theology and ecclesiology.

This particular piece takes up the theme with regards the latter and I wanted to share it with everyone here. It is an important matter, just as our liturgical translations are also important. I hope this helps to further highlight why language matters.]

by Msgr. Peter J. Elliott

It is atrocious English and irritating to hear or read: "That's not my way of being church" or "Her vision of church is interesting" or "Being church today in Australia is a challenge."

When presented like this, is "church" a noun or an adjective, or has it taken an unsteady trip into the land of verbs or adverbs? One is tempted to curse the jargon, but it is better to calm down and try to discover what people who play with the word are trying to say and why their mistake is more regrettable than poor grammar.

In whatever tongue we use, "church" describes the called and assembled ones, the baptised believers who are the Body of Christ, the priestly people of God gathered in unity around the Successor of St Peter. They are not "church". They are the Church on earth. They are a visible identifiable society.

Significant jargon
However, when you remove the definite article from "church" in a modern context, you move away from this understanding of the Church. You are using significant jargon. It has similar nuances to insisting always on "Eucharist" instead of "Mass" or teaching eight-year-olds to explain dramatically that they are making their "first reconciliation." We are being sent messages. But the message in manipulating "church" is much more significant.

Once you take away the definite article from "church", you cease to define the Body of Christ as a visible, organised society. "Church" becomes a process or an experience, a phenomenon which may be whatever you want it to be. When you cease to define anything by the definite or indefinite article you also adopt a kind of pop existentialism, for example, "We are family" or "I am woman". A universal reality is absorbed by a particular person or group. That person or group is saying, in effect, "We matter more than that big concept!" The net result is a narrow vision of the Church, sincere, no doubt, but limited. It may well be an attempt to express the joy and vitality of the community life of the Church, which we all value and which must develop and grow. But it fails to convey the true mystery of the Church set out by Vatican II.

Inexhaustible mystery
The Council's teaching on the Church in Lumen Gentium reveals that the word "Church" does not have only one meaning. The Church is an inexhaustible mystery, with many inspired metaphors, parables and symbols to describe it. The traditional and always timely distinctions between the Church Militant, Suffering and Triumphant also humble us with the sobering thought that, from our limited point of view, most members of the Church are dead. The mystery of the Church transcends time and space. But here on earth, the Body of Christ is the Universal Church which subsists in the Catholic Church.

The one Church of Jesus Christ takes a different form as a local Church. This raises another timely question: is the local Church the "Australian Church"?

Those who speak about "being church in Australia" seem prone to slide into the term "Australian Church". Used casually, a national description of part of the Catholic Church may be harmless. But once people start to use "The Australian Church" in the same way that some Americans constantly speak of "The American Church", then we are looking at something which happens to rest on mere supposition. It is also not a truthful description of the Church.

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