On Weasel Words

The Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention starts its work this week, as even totally uninterested newswatchers will have been informed. We can anticipate a great deal of heat, and a good deal less light, and a sizable number of dissatisfied Episcopalians, no matter what the convention decides.

Some observers have offered pre-emptive strikes against the use of “weasel words” about issues that demand firm, clear, unambiguous verdicts. I’m not so het up about this one — my acquaintance with Anglican history suggests that the strength and weakness of the Anglican tradition depends to a great extent on keeping as many people as possible on board. To the extent that carefully worded resolutions (that may be read in more than one sense) contribute to sustaining broad participation in the church, I think that they reflect one of the defining characteristics of this stream of Christianity.

I’m not defending vagueness, but rather precision — about matters on which there is not a clear, distinct agreeement. That’s not a vice, but a virtue.

On the other hand, I see so little clear, precise writing that I sympathize with partisans who doubt that official church pronouncements aim not so much at precision as at empty but congenial sonorousness.

On a separate but related topic, I finally edited and added the sermon from Paula Harris’s ordination, and on another separate but related topic, Kevin points to the eerie convergence of catholic and agnostic sensibilities.

4 thoughts on “On Weasel Words

  1. AKMA:
    Thank you for this. I try to steer clear of the obsessive overreporting of every jot and tittle to come from convention: as with almost any political, theological, &c. reportage these days, it seems there is an intense emotional dynamic which discourages patience and perspective. Such avoidance is also good for my blood pressure! (I leave it to others to determine if this is neglect or responsibility on my part.) But this is how I respond to the ‘more heat than light’ of convention.

    I particularly appreciate your point about precision. Often, it seems that we think of precision in terms of narrow, tight definitions, with little or no allowance for ambiguity. This might be great when it comes to, say, building a bridge, but in other pursuits being precise might be a matter of faithful description, acknowledging and honoring our limitations. The example that came to mind was a conversation with a friend the other day. Talking about the creeds, we agreed that as (catholic sorts of) Christians, we weren’t meant to consider the creeds and make up our minds about them, but to live and think within their parameters. Living under this ‘order’ might seem to some on the outside as restrictive, but it hit us that it is also, at least to some on the inside, not restrictive enough. The creeds define a certain space, which we are not being more faithful to by constricting — so, for example, to insist on my favorite theory of atonement as the sine qua non of orthodoxy won’t do; nor would stipulating, say, dispensational hermeneutics. So the creeds, etc., are both constriction and dilation, closing off some avenues, yet leaving others open. All of which is a long winded way of agreeing with what I take your point to be about precision: being precise may require us to be less specific than we would like at points — although your point was about ECUSA legislation and mine about creeds.

  2. To someone who came back to Christian faith after a 20 year absence, there is something uniquely depressing about hearing about an ordained minister who now spends her Sunday mornings not going to church but preparing for her week’s courses and working on the farm. (Both of which are — don’t get me wrong — fine things in and of themselves. But so is going to church).

    We live in a doubting age, and doubt is the story of the day. The priest who doubts biblical authority gets a write up in USA today. To our secular sensibilites, she’s a hero of sorts. It’s a turning on its head of the old story of religious conversion, I suppose, so I understand it to a degree.

    But I really don’t understand what stories like this are supposed to mean to those of us who, without fail, wake up Sunday morning, make our kids get dressed (despite whatever protests they may offer), and come to church to worship God, with the strong feeling that in doing so, we are simply doing what we ought to do. I spent so many years away from the Christian faith I feel I’ve lost some of my interest in doubters. It’s not that I don’t deal with doubt — everyone does. But the current fascination with it seems misguided and unhealthy.

    On the other hand, Chesterton’s man who “discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas” … he’s someone whose story I will come back to again and again.

  3. Whoops. I was talking about Barbara Brown Taylor and ended up here. You get my drift …

  4. Downtown Columbus has a preponderance of priests and bishops mingling about it. None as handsome as you, however.

    I can attest that they are all sweating in their collars and eating a good amount of Italian food from the restaurant in our basement. They do not seem to be spending much time in Chipotle, however. I’m sure Pippa will be disappointed.

    Beyond that, their indoor proceedings are a mystery to me for now.

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