How many times have I sat in a group at a church conference, exchanging conversation, and the question comes up: “Which church do you belong to?” and we describe the location, the size, the people, the challenges and opportunities. One type of question always arises, however. We wish to know how to label the each particular church.
Is it a “Cursillo” church? Is it an “Alpha” church? Is it a church which uses the Book of Alternative Services? Is it an Anglo-Catholic church? Is it a “Bethel” church? Years ago, the labels went like: “Low and slow” or “bells and smells”. The labels have shifted somewhat. But they are still there, as powerful as ever.
Depending on your answer to the question, your questioner looks at you differently. It may be a friendly look, reflecting happiness that you and they have found common ground. It may be a puzzled look if they don’t know what the term means. Sometimes, when you mention one of these labels, a look of dismay crosses their face. “One of them!”, you think you hear them thinking.
Despite all our progress in the church, making worship and ministry more inclusive than ever, we label each other more than ever. As every new program emerges in the church, we brand its adherents with an invisible stamp. We only hang out with the right folks, then, those who agree with us, those who have the same tattoo.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Barbara Coloroso, the educator and author, debunks that myth. Names do hurt, and differentiate, and divide. She makes a further point. Once a child has a name in a playground, nothing they do will change their reputation. They can change their clothes or their hair, and the taunts continue. Church folks often behave the same way. Their methods are more subtle.
Jesus challenged his listeners to move beyond the groups they were in. Yet today, in pursuit of more personal holiness, we create more barriers between us. When will we learn to reach out and truly communicate with those whose vision of the Church differs from ours?
The column first appeared in Anglican Life, the newspaper for the three dioceses of Newfoundland and Labrador.