By Melody Shobe

There is no question about it; the Episcopal Church has a “lingo.” We have almost as many acronyms as the United States government, from LEM (Lay Eucharistic Minister) to EYC (Episcopal Youth Community). We like to give perfectly ordinary things new and complicated names. The church’s lobby becomes the “narthex.” An ordinary plate, when it is put on the altar, becomes a “paten.” And, let’s be honest, our liturgy has the tendency to get fairly wordy. I doubt that most college graduates could explicate the phrase from our Eucharistic liturgy “…who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world…” I have trouble on Sundays reading it aloud without garbling the words, let alone attempting to break apart the syntax and meaning. In fact, we have so many special words and terms that Don Armentrout and Robert Slocum have published a 578-page book of them: An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians.

There is a part of me that worries about the impact of all of these words and terms on our identity as a church. Is it helpful to tell a newcomer to the church that there is coffee in the narthex, if they don’t know what a narthex is? Our church websites and printed mission statements may proclaim that we are an “open community” that we “welcome all” or that we “reach out” to those outside our walls, but is that reflected in our language? What does is say about our church that you might need a 578 page dictionary to understand what goes on during worship? How many of the people in our pews week in and week out actually understand many of the words we are using?

These are important questions that remind us of the need to continually reexamine our words, and see which of them are inviting and which are exclusionary. And yet, while I wonder about the impact our sometimes obtuse language might have on visitors, I also have a deep attachment to our exalted language and wordy liturgy. I am, without question, a word person. I love the way that some of the beautiful words of our liturgy embrace mystery and poetry. The words of this church, for all the baggage that they might carry, are a vehicle through which I experience the holy. Somehow, if I let them, words like “salvation,” “incarnation,” “grace,” and “hospitality” speak a truth of my soul that can’t be captured any other way. As Kathleen Norris said in her book Amazing Grace, “our words are wiser than we are.”

Words are not idle things, especially not in Christianity. We believe in a God who came to us as “the Word made flesh;” a God who empowers and indwells the words that we use in ways beyond our comprehension. And thus I think that the answer to our vocabulary difficulty is not to eschew the words of our faith that are difficult or confusing, but to explore them. As individuals and as a community, we need to take the time to sink in to our words, to see what they say for and about us.

The Rev. Melody Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.

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