Saturday, 23 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 34: The 'E' label

Alex Baker cartoon. Rather brilliant.
Labels are at once necessary and restricting, and Christian labels none more so.

I suppose even if we refuse to label ourselves, others are doing so the moment they meet us, and we're probably doing the same mentally.

I recall going to an evening ecclesiastical/social event - you know, the ones where you don't know whether to wear clericals ('I am serious about my vocation') or a pretty dress ('I am a normal human being'). There were clerics there I didn't know so while I sipped my white wine and made polite vicar small talk I played 'Guess the Christian label' inside my head by assessing clothes, partners and general demeanour. Turns out I was 100% accurate. Isn't that dreadful?

So even if we don't like them, labels are currency of the Church of England, sadly. And occasionally we shoot ourselves in the foot by complaining about someone else's type of label and making out they're less Christian than we are:

This can take a number of forms, depending on the label of the person doing the complaining. If the person complaining wears the (broadly speaking) label 'Liberal', as in 'Liberal Catholic', they will take offence at those with the (broadly speaking) label of 'Evangelical' when they perceive that some of the churches with the 'E' label appear to have young people in them, of whom some have highly paid jobs and a tendency to clap along to songs in church, in the manner of joy and happiness and generally having a good time. They assume, wrongly, that nothing troubles these jolly people and that they are not really proper, GRITTY disciples.

Obtusely, they ignore the fact that the word 'Evangelical' is so broad that it's quite hard to define it any longer. Of course some will argue with this statement, saying that those who find it hard to define the label are no longer part of the label. Those ones must be given the 'L' label now. As in The Sojourners, the Red Letter Christians and anyone who questions the C of E's current position on human sexuality.

I admit that people with the 'E' label do bring it on themselves sometimes. They tend to patronise you when talking about the bible; they assume no one else is doing mission except themselves, which is irritating and also untrue. They think that nothing is happening if there's silence in church and engage in some terrible name dropping. Though I suppose that's  a habit of most labels; it's just you name drop different people ('Rowan might have a job lined up for me') ('Nicky Gumbel gave me a lift home once').... (By the way, only one of these last sentences is true of me).

So I do love a bit of guess work, and it can be very funny: you know there's an Evangelical male hand shake and shirt/chino outfit, don't you? But when you get to know people, labels soon become inaccurate, unworkable, and at worst, unkind.


  1. Just thinking that if we self-label are we being conceited or are we trying to make a position statement in a defensive way?

    My reply to yesterday's post labelled me as a Liberal Catholic, which I believe might be better as Affirming Catholic, and since I appear to have signed up for their newsletter, it implies membership. But, I'm not an Anglo-Catholic quite yet.

    I actually like the title of the Church of England as both Catholic and Reformed. It appeals to my 'broad church' instincts of inclusion and liberalism.

    When I first joined the CofE I was on the rebound (after a gap of 25 years) from the Roman Catholic Church. I brought from that some pretty hardline views, and at the time was probably further to the right than Lord Carey. And would have been Evangelical by oulook and lack of knowledge, rather than choice.

    As I've grown and broadened as an Anglican I think that I've moved through middle of the road towards a much more liberal view of Anglicanism and I know that I'm still in transit. God knows where I will end up, but it will perhaps be somewhere close to Affirming Catholics.

    In our Benefice we have 5 distinct churches with their own traditions, albeit, none of them are evangelical. We have another 4 joining us this year as two benefices become one. Another 4 traditions to get my hear around.

    I also attend some churches on occasion for convenience (I live some distance from my parish) one of which is Evangelical, bordering on charismatic. Another is probably broadly liberal catholic. I feel at home in both, but if I'm honest find that I'm more comfort with the latter. I'm wondering if I should go more to the Evangelical church to challenge my prejudices (they are lovely people by the way) or stick with what I'm comfortable with?

    The point of all this, is that I know that God called me to the Anglican Church, so I'm in the right place. But, in that call he didn't discriminate and stick a label on me, Growth as a Christian and an Anglican has contributed to my being where I am today, and if it continues, where I will be in 5, 10 or 15 years time. Who knows, I might by than be an Affirming Evangelical.

  2. That's fascinating. You might have guessed that I would label myself as Evangelical, but not in the really technical sense of signing up to a set of beliefs that are rigid. I got 'broadened' during training, though actually looking back it was happening before that. It was as a result of starting to attend a village church, which was central churchmanship, not Evangelical. That's where I feel at home now, but I still get the most encouragement from the Evangelicals I know. I think it's just 'home' for me.
    Thanks for your thoughts.