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Coming back from the church this morning (Christmas tree festival, since you ask), I was confronted on Twitter by a large parachurch organization informing me that “local church” was really important at this time of year.  If you’re in contact with Christian organizations in Britain at the moment, you’ve probably come across this phrase, and you may (like me) find it a bit baffling.  I’m not suggesting that the group tweeting about it are especially misguided, more that I’ve seen and heard this phrase a lot in the last couple of years, and I think it could do with a bit of examination.

“Local church” is one of those phrases that makes me roll my eyes rather.  Particularly in this case, as it was being used by an organization which spends a lot of its time engaged in centralised planning, arranging conferences and promoting a very particular sense of what a local church should do and be in order to count as “local church”.  To be pedantic, the grammar of the phrase seems to give it away a bit.  “Local church” lacks an article, whether definite or indefinite.

It reminds me of Charles Paris, the grumpy actor in the novels by Simon Brett, who complained of young directors and playwrights who talked about having a strong sense of “theatre” and a preoccupation with “audience”, whilst leaving “a” or “the” off the front of those words.  For Paris, this was symptomatic of the way these directors and artists approached the subject of theatres and audiences: as if they were abstractions to be finessed and conceptualized, rather than draught buildings with narrow staircases or collections of people on a Thursday night shuffling their feet and unwrapping their sweets.

This is rather the feeling I get when I see the phrase “local church” being used repeatedly.  (And even pronounced slightly rolled into one, as “local-church”.)  The lack of an article insulates the discussion from actually addressing whether this is “the local church” being considered, or “a local church”, or which churches might be the subject of the discussion.  (Or if “churchiness”, “ecclesiology” or “the Church” are the topic under consideration.)  This isn’t deliberate, surely, but it does potentially contribute to the chance of obscurity.  As Mike Higton has suggested, clarity (especially in theological writing) is difficult and virtuous: it requires effort and produces a certain vulnerability.  Sloppy phrasing and lack of precision can insulate an idea from being expressed well enough to be understood, and then critiqued on the basis of that understanding.  He says, in his Theology of Higher Education:

After all, if I am woolly enough and cut corners enough in this book, I may be able to render it all but invulnerable to critique…. And all I need to do to promote such sponginess and elasticity is to settle back and not try very hard to think

Higton goes on to coin two brilliant slogans on the subject: “Knowledge is what enables one to be wrong”, and “Only pedants can be truly open-minded”.  What I often find frustrating in articles, tweets or speeches which use the term “local church” is the kind of wooliness I think he’s getting at here.  It assumes that “local church” is a good thing, and that we all agree this, and then aligns the phrase with various positive aspects of faith and life, themselves a bit free-floating: “authentic”, “relational”, “relevant”, and so on.

This is not an argument about jargon, I should stress.  I think complex topics often need us to use difficult and intricate vocabularies in order to do them justice.  I have my own favourite words which I suspect my colleagues and students might feel I overuse (I’d guess at “dialectic”, “tension” and “performative”, but you’d have to ask them.)  But the purpose of these words is to do quite specialized work, and if I use them in a woolly way then I’m failing.  I should be able to stop at any given point, if asked, and explain what “dialectic” means in this context, and perhaps a little of its heritage: where that word came from, how it has been used in earlier thinking, and which intellectual positions it tends to be associated with.

There’s nothing wrong with a specialized vocabulary, especially in a field like Christianity which has centuries of tradition in a number of languages.  What might feel like “local church” to someone else would probably strike me as more like “synaxis” or “Eucharistic assembly”.  That’s no more comprehensible at first hearing, but I think it’s more explicable, because it’s capable of explication and it names a very particular aspect of what’s being discussed.  I’m not sure the way “local church” is used always fulfils those criteria.

Though I’m not criticising the use of jargon in itself, I’m probably grumping about a particular brand of jargon, which I’m all too familiar with from my academic life: English phrases which deliberately sound as if they’ve been slightly awkwardly translated from Continental languages.  These make frequent appearances in my academic fields, sometimes as nouns with the articles left off, sometimes as adjectives with articles attached.  “deriving a problematic”, “it is a both/and”, “the spatial”, etc.  All of these have their potential meanings, but they do get flung about as if their verbal clunkiness confers an intellectual virtue, producing a vague nimbus of meaning in the sentence without quite being explicable in terms of the grammar of the sentence around them.

I have the same feeling when I hear someone declare “I believe so strongly in local church” as when I hear the terms I just mentioned.  The grammatical dislocation seems to defy specific meaning in favour of a general sense of rightness.  It would seem naïve to ask, “but which church?” or “local to where?”, and would sound like a tedious misunderstanding of the positive concept of “local church”, though those are the sort of questions which might clarify the concept.

The particular irony in this case, of course, is that there may not be any such thing as “local church”.  There certainly are local churches (if you can specify where you are), there is the concept of the local church as opposed to the general or universal church (and their relationship is controversial), and there are other specific concepts which might be indicated by the phrase “local church”.  But speaking generally about the topic, without defining articles, surely comes close to defeating the purpose of speaking about it at all.  Like Paris’ conceptually bold young theatre practitioners, it evades the concrete details of where the church in question is, what it’s built of, how long the toddler group has been running, how much the heating bill has gone up in the last five years, etc.

I may be simply grumping about a phrase I find inelegant, but I don’t think so.  I suspect that the grammatical paradox of “local church” may point to a comfortable blurring of thinking about what local churches are, and how large organizations should relate to them.  Developing a pseudo-critical and pseudo-theological category of “local church”, which can be approved of and passed round in Christian discussions without too much scrutiny, may allow a lot of glossing over the actual situations of individual churches.  Including their differences from each other, the conditions of ministry and their embeddedness in local communities, as well as the way they don’t fit into the vision of large national and international organizations.  “Local church”, as an abstract quality, fits a particular ecclesiological agenda better than the churches themselves do, I suspect.

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