Labels and libels

I was reminded today of a statement I’ve heard a few times in various ways. The first time I heard it was in the context of a church which is outside the “traditional” set of churches in our area; a lady talked about “becoming a Christian” and I asked what she’d been before that, expecting “non-believer”, “agnostic” or even “atheist”, or just possibly some other religion entirely, and was told “Anglican” (for an American audience, read “Episcopalian”). Other members of that church were, it seems, previously Catholic, Methodist, United Reformed or (in one case) Baptist, but I didn’t find one who had previously self-identified as anything other than a member of one or other Christian denomination. Note the use of the word “Christian” in that. Exploring further, I found that most of the members of that church did not think that Anglicans, Catholics or, indeed, any other denomination except possibly Baptist were actually Christians.

I had clearly fallen into Humpty Dumpty’s world, in which words mean what you want them to mean, I thought. Now, I really do not like the feeling that everything someone has said to you might possibly have meant something completely different. I’m used to words having multiple meanings; these are well-recognised and the intended meaning can almost always be gleaned from the context. I’m also not insensitive to the fact that even within a single meaning of a word, there is often a value-range. One person’s “soon” does not mean the same as another’s, as a very simple example. However, here the word “Christian” was being used in a sense which denied it to something in excess of 90% of Christianity as I then knew it.

Now, I understand how the usage has come about. This particular church is not affiliated with any of the large denominations, and it’s perfectly reasonable to say that it’s members are Christians. All of those to whom I spoke had come to this church as a result of a conversion experience; they were not previously what they now were, in terms of their faith. People do change denominations as a result of conversion experiences, for example Newman.  No confusion arises from a conversion from Anglican to Catholic or vice versa. But it does from a conversion from Anglican to “Christian”, which denies the Christianity of the whole Anglican communion. That, I submit, is a libel.

Indeed, it’s palpably ridiculous in this case, as the church in question makes great use of the “Alpha Course”, which was created by members of Holy Trinity Church, Brompton. That was, the last time I looked, an Anglican church. The lady in question had come to this church as a result of an Alpha course. She had a conversion experience, which she labelled as having been “born again”. Clearly the Anglican church which she’d previously attended had not delivered to her a “born again” experience. It’s members did not commonly describe themselves as “born again”.

However, I happened to know that several members of the congregation from which she’d come, including the then vicar, would admit to having their own conversion experiences and would accept the label “born again” if they were pushed to. However, they didn’t consider that to be an useful label; to them the useful label was “Anglican”, as it described the church they attended and the praxis they followed, in distinction from, say, the local Catholic church and it’s slightly different praxis.

In fact, I think she was wrong to just use the label “Christian”. She should have used the term “born-again Christian”: she was Anglican, and then she became “born again” and moved to another church.

There’s a further libel implicit in her usage; she is not just dismissing Anglicans generally as “not Christian”, but the larger group of those who practice one or other form of Christianity but who have not yet had the peak emotional experience which is described as being “born again”. There are other ways of acquiring a deep and abiding faith which lack the immediacy and drama of the “born again” experience, and there are probably more people of that description in Christianity than there are of the dramatic experience variety.

In suggesting that she is now a “born-again Christian”, I am swallowing somewhat, as I actually think that term is used misleadingly where it describes not just someone who has, in the Christian tradition, had a peak emotional conversion experience, but also someone who is fundamentalist, literalist and evangelical. As I mentioned, I was aware of a number of people in the church she’d left who had had an experience which I couldn’t distinguish from hers, but who wouldn’t normally use the term. By and large this was because they were not literalists. While they might similarly admit in private to being “evangelical” in that they accepted the Great Commission, or to being “fundamentalists” in that they believed themselves to be based firmly on the teachings of Jesus and the earliest practices of the Church. However, I fight a losing battle there; all three terms have been so successfully appropriated by groups who are literalist that they aren’t really available to those of us who aren’t without potentially causing confusion.

Please, though, can I argue against the appropriation of “Christian” in the same way? Let us please agree that “Christian” describes Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Orthodox and indeed everyone who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ in any denomination or lack of one, and which describes literalists, relativists, process theologians, creation spirituality theologians, liberation theologians and even, dare I say it, those who have a subsequent prophet and Christian atheists?