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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, July 22, 2008
    Against taken-for-granted truths
    Here's what I was leading up to with yesterday's unapologetically dense quote from Foucault - an argument with the Liturgical Commission, the bods who write the books we have to use in church services. Today I was in a meeting considering representations we might make to them, we who want to try to use words in our services which are at least remotely accessible and understandable to the people we share them with. Here's an extract from the Liturgical Commission's Commentary on Initiation Services:
    In framing these services a sharp distinction has been drawn between, on the one hand, the language and phrasing that could reasonably be put into the mouth of parents, godparents, sponsors and congregation and, on the other, a richer use of biblical types and allusions in presidential texts.
    In other words, in any service of this kind only the church leaders ('presidents') have the facility to use 'rich' language, so best keep it simple for the bits spoken by the plebs in the pews.

    This is the sort of hegemonic thought that Foucault was on about. In the Liturgical Commission it is taken for granted that the direct and grounded language of ordinary people is incapable of richness and complexity. The Commission's notes continue:
    Some would also argue that the risk of losing people by esoteric language needs to be balanced by the danger of patronizing them by simplistic wording.
    Some truth in this, but what is really patronising is the underlying assumption that straightforward, direct and grounded language is 'simplistic', ie simple-minded, inferior. As the liturgies of the Iona Community have demonstrated for decades now, it is perfectly possible for the word structures of ordinary everyday life to express the faith in the deepest, most mystical, wondrous - and engaged - ways.

    Like their peers in government, business, arts and the media*, so also the church bosses do this all the time: write off the cultural and political expressions of people unlike them (usually the working class), without much consciousness that this is what they're doing. This was brought home to me recently on rereading Joe Hasler's critique of the similarly-flawed document Mission Shaped Church (first blogged about here). That unjustly influential book validates a concept of 'mission' based on the idea that 'we' live in an increasingly 'networked' society and thus church mission should move away from geographical ('parish') bases into 'network' forms of expression.

    Clearly 'we' means the mobile professional classes, though the report does not overtly acknowledge this. And in ignoring the cultures of other classes - eg the less mobile working classes - it misses out on far richer and more relevant analyses. As Joe points out, working class life and culture also expresses itself through complex networks of family, work and community, but the report is silent on this. (And equally, the professional classes are far more attached to 'place' than the report cares to acknowledge).

    In his perceptive critique of Mission Shaped Church John Hull wrote, in words which would equally apply to the Liturgical Commission's comments above, that '[these criticisms] would not matter ... if the partisan nature of [this] perspective were acknowledged, but it is not. The Report thus leaves little or no imaginative space for otherness, and thus represents one more example of the central control exercised by the national church for centuries. It is this taken-for-granted truth of what is really a particular point of view that dominates and stifles.'

    [1] *See also my blog on Tricky / Mark Fisher of July 15.
    [2] Sorry about the religious rant; quite out of character. I'll blog about something more life-affirming tomorrow, perhaps the thrilling No Magic Man by Sunburned Hand of the Man