Wednesday 23 September 2009

Labels, tins, and stale sauce

Are we all going nuts, in a world of labels, factions and namecalling? Tim’s Post-Christian Blog surveys the wraths and sorrows of current US Political discourse, as revealed in some of the idiotic polarized scare tactics over healthcare this year. This could be a perfectly rational debate about how to tackle a pragmatic necessity that everybody knows has been a costly mess for years. Instead people with wide flaring nostrils shout past each other. You can’t, suggests Tim, have civilisation without a certain degree of civility.

And nearer home, in gentler mode, Church Mouse questions our increasing need to find the right pigeonholes for others. Do Anglicans really need a whole complex alphabetti spaghetti of acronyms, factional descriptors and sub-species?


We're starting to build a two dimensional model. Along one axis we have the liberal – conservative dimension, along the other the Anglo-Catholic – evangelical dimension.

Unfortunately, the complexity of this has led to the use of numerous other labels to fill in some of the gaps, or to describe particular intersections on these two axes. Step forward the charismatics, the liberal evangelicals and the open evangelicals. Take a bow orthodox Anglicans, confessing Anglicans, affirming Anglicans and inclusive Anglicans, and apologies to any mouse has left out.

Mouse quotes, illuminatingly, a Guardian interview with Nicky Gumbel, leader of Alpha and prominent Christian Evangelist:
This may sound pernickety but I wouldn't describe myself as an evangelical. These are labels, which I don't think are helpful. If I was going to use any label it would be Christian, and if you push me any further I'd say I'm an Anglican – that's the family of the church that I belong to. There's nothing wrong with any of the other labels, but if you have any of them I want them all. If you're going to say, 'I'm Catholic, liberal, evangelical … ' let's have them all. But I wouldn't want to isolate one of those. Personally I think labels are terribly unhelpful because they enable you to dismiss things.
It’s up to us how we choose to label ourselves, and others, and what significance we attach to them. Four thoughts strike me:

  1. In days gone by the Church of England, like all Western Christianity, was probably, to use a marketing term, over-branded. Sub-species identifiers gave some shape to a complex rambling bundle of institutions, colour coding them with the quaint simplistic language of “Churchmanship.” The term, in itself, is a subtle hint that women always were probably rather more grown up about this stuff.

  2. There is a world of difference between the kinds of labels people use to describe, themselves, what they are trying to achieve, and name-calling. Nicky Gumbel makes a very wise point about the power of the names we stick on others to absolve us from engaging with them. Take the most basic label of the lot. If someone says to someone else “You remind me so much of Jesus that I’m going to call you a Christian” that is immensely cool. However, if I say of myself, “I (as opposed to all these other people) remind me so much of Jesus that I’m gong to call myself a Christian,” it’s almost impossible to resist the tsunami of pride, ego and folly that follow directly from the whole exercise. Do this on a corporate level, and you end up with a tangle of astroturf organisations that take themselves far too seriously having largely taken leave of God. Clichéd words reveal clichéd thought, and soon we are all idiots.

  3. There’s a basic principle in St Paul’s writings that what proceeds from faith is faith. That’s something we all need for this journey. By implication what proceeds from fear, ego and political indoor games is, er, fear, ego and political indoor games. Someone said of Zwingli that he was a great campaigner and lousy theologian. By their fruits ye shall know them. That’s what the man said.

  4. This is a missional no-brainer. However pleased with themselves partisanship may make partisans feel, the punters can see through ithe sillinesst from a mile off. The world is full of self-important screwed-up Mr Angry factions. People on the threshold of faith are longing for better possibilities and, quaintly, surprisingly often, look to the Church to model them. They have no desire to join yet another sect. And the idea that any denomination or faction has some kind of franchise on being a real Christian actually obscures the key notion that the Church actually is supposed to be the bridgehead expression of a new humanity God is pulling together in Christ. The most “successful” factions win the battle but lose the war. The Devil has a good laugh, and the show rolls on.
So I’m rather with the Mouse. Let’s try consigning the labels to the fiery pit for a while, and see what happens if we entertain the daring notion that ths enterprise is all about Jesus Christ, not human ego, vanity and insecurity?


ROBERTA said...

this piece hit me in the gut - do i label myself a Christian because i think i am so like Christ? - how do i label others? and what effect does it have on our relationship? so for today i'll leave my labelmaker in the drawer & see if i can actually see the person i've labeled - which includes myself.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for this wisdom. "Factions there must be" as Paul observed, "in order to discern what is true." (1 Cor 11:19) But the angrier and more inward-turning the factions become, the less willing are they to discern what the other might have right while they are in the wrong. If it is all about one side "winning" then no one really "wins." What's the old saying, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
Thanks again,

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