on dropping the "the" from church

Lately I have noticed that a number of colleagues no longer use the definite article "the" when referring to the church. In fact, at last evening's meeting of our presbytery the majority of references to the church were to "church" rather than "the church". People spoke of "doing church" and "being church" as they sought after language to express the future of the church. I am wondering about the reasons for this shift in language. What does it seek to express? What gains or losses are there in dropping the specificity that is provided by the use of the definite article?

I am no expert in English grammar but I sense that the loss of "the" from church turns the noun into a verb. It is now not a place or an institution so much as it is an activity. "Doing church" reminds me of "doing lunch". There is something about this that feels right. The church is more a social movement - a Jesus movement - than it is a location. The church is a people whose life is marked by the ways of life that it is learning to practice. Since the name for God in Hebrew - YHWH - is a verb ("I am up to what I am up to") it seems fitting that God's people would also be know by what they are up to, what they are doing and being.

Yet if there is something to be gained by this seemingly minor shift in language there is also something to be lost. I notice that when we speak of "doing church" that the word church becomes synonymous with "faith community". It feels more generic, less specific. Harder to pin down, more nebulous. Now the focus is on a way of being together and not on which particular church we are speaking of. My friend Doug reminds me that the official name of The United Church of Canada includes the word "The" with a capital "T". When we speak of "The Church" we are talking about The Church of Jesus Christ. I hunch that it is becoming fashionable to drop the definite article when referring to the church because we are increasingly uncomfortable with being at home in the ecumenical church of Jesus Christ across the generations and across divergent theological and denominational locations. We notice all of the trouble that comes with the flawed witness of the church. We hope that we can somehow escape the trouble by freeing the idea of "church" from all the problematic specificity of being the church that has a history and a location and an identity. Well, maybe I am overstating the case but, after all, it's scribbling.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ed -

    Just so you know you're not talking into thin air (or perhaps thin cyberspace), I happened to look at this blog this morning, after seeing a video interview with Peter Collins of Ikons in Belfast. Given that he is an expression of this new search for "church", I have to say that "extraordinarily, almost mind-bogglingly esoteric" would be my take on him.

    This, however, led me to other younger people/websites in the emerging church. What strikes me about all this is that there is a valiant effort at re-packaging the traditional church - making it accessible or appealing or whatever to those who do not currently attend any form of church. To me, it seems there is virtually NO mention of any kind of faith formation or theology, particularly Christian theology (except, as in the case of Rollins, who seems to be trying to deconstruct theology, a concept that is WAY beyond me).

    I can see where younger and/or more alienated people are coming from with this - the appeal of the new (and perhaps more accurately, the hip) is, after all, a central fascination of younger people (and is not always restricted to the young). Of course, we are also not meant to be static - otherwise, all you ministers would still be behind rood screens.

    But just none of this speaks to me. I don't GET it. As you write, "We hope that we can somehow escape the trouble by freeing the idea of "church" from all the problematic specificity of being the church that has a history and a location and an identity." Kind of like the days when we thought we could escape what was perceived as the hassles and drudgery of marriage by having open marriages, polyamory and the like - without ever exploring the deeper meaning and connections of marriage. (This glorification of marriage is, of course, offered by someone who has never been in a lengthy marriage!)But you get my point.

    Just my Saturday morning ramblings...

    Susan Henry