Why can’t we simply say what we mean?

Published June 1, 2005

Parsing the statements that emerge from the church is an art, not a science.

Such statements are often the product of writing teams who agonize over verbs, massage texts and sometimes skillfully inject nuance into what is ultimately released to the church.

Sometimes, this effort results in exactly the opposite of what the drafters intend, obfuscating the meaning of the statement. Other times, the intention seems to be to include “something for everyone.” Then, there are the times that we seem to be saying something simply because it is expected.

Take the papal election, for example. Various denominations and church officials remarked on the papal election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a hardliner known by many in his own church and in ecumenical circles as “God’s Rottweiler” and “Cardinal No.” These welcoming press releases and statements that trickled in to the Journal offices certainly bore little resemblance to the discussions that one would hear in church halls at coffee hour or in church meetings of various denominations. For all his intellect and credentials, it is no secret that many people both in the Roman Catholic church and in ecumenical and interfaith circles had serious reservations about this new Pope and what his election might mean for church unity. One church leader, however, was notable for speaking from the heart: the head of United Church of Christ in the United States expressed “personal disappointment” as Pope Benedict XVI began his papacy. UCC general minister and president Rev. John H. Thomas offered prayers that the Pope “may have the strength and wisdom sufficient for the leadership he is now called to exercise,” but the leader of the 1.3-million-member church expressed concern, calling the former cardinal’s theological tone “rigid, conservative and confrontational.”

How refreshing. Clear, concise, respectful language.

Too often in the Anglican church, confusion reigns. Case in point: asked by the primates of the Anglican Communion in a communiqué last February to “voluntarily withdraw” its members from the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the Council of General Synod (CoGS) instead decided that the Canadians should “attend but not participate” in a meeting next month in Nottingham, England.

Its decision was nearly identical to that of the Episcopal Church in the United States, which was also asked to withdraw its members for the period leading up to the next Lambeth Conference. Both North American churches appear to believe they have bowed to the primates’ request, but early signs are that the hardline primates and others – those who had hoped for a suspension of the two churches from the worldwide Communion – see the response as a sidestepping of their wishes.

Similarly, also responding to a request from the primates, the Canadian house of bishops agreed last month “neither to encourage nor to initiate the use of” same-sex blessing rites, at least until General Synod 2007. The wording (“neither to encourage nor to initiate”), in fact, came from the primates’ communiqué. Immediately, some (including the media and even some bishops themselves) interpreted that agreement as a moratorium on such blessings, which seemed specifically called for by the primates. Other bishops argued that the agreement was decidedly not a moratorium and at least one news service suggested the bishops had actually “skirted” the primates’ request. Still other observers said the bishops were equivocating, that they deliberately omitted the word moratorium, agreeing specifically (and only), “neither to encourage nor to initiate” the blessing of same-sex couples “until General Synod has made a decision on the matter.”

In yet another recent example, a national church committee made a recommendation about what it believed should be the Canadian response to the primates’ communiqué. The eco-justice committee sent a report to CoGS that included the following resolution, advising: “That the Anglican Church of Canada continue as a full member of the Anglican Consultative Council.”

Taken one way, the resolution could mean that the committee was urging the Canadian church’s governing body to confirm its membership in the council, but was leaving it up to CoGS as to how the Canadians might at the same time remain part of the international body. Certainly, that is how it was explained by one member of the General Synod staff whose work the committee oversees.

Taken another way, however, the resolution seemed to be encouraging attendance and full participation by the Canadian members of the ACC. And that is how a member of that same eco-justice committee interpreted it and clarified it to the Anglican Journal.

It is no wonder that the media (both secular and church media) and the public often “get it wrong.” The advantage is clearly with the wordsmiths, but where does that leave the rest of the church – the person in the pew, many aboriginal members and others whose first language is not English?

Some call it wiggle room (“Leave room for the Holy Spirit,” as the nuns used to say at Catholic high school dances,) some call it waffling; a less charitable term for it might be “weasel words.” In the end, the way we describe such statements depends on what we deem the intent of them to be.


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