Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On Wordsmithing and Clarity

In all the reaction to the statement from the meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops in New Orleans, I was struck particularly by this quote in the Boston Globe’s report:

"What we were looking for was clarity, and what we got is an exercise in wordsmithing," said Robert Lundy, spokesman for the American Anglican Council, an alliance of conservatives. "Overall, we feel disappointment."
On any day, and especially on this feast of Lancelot Andrewes, it seems odd and a bit sad to criticize “wordsmithing.”

I appreciate that Mr. Lundy and many who agree with him are disappointed; although I hardly imagine they are surprised. They did not hear stated what they wanted to hear – what they wanted to hear in blunt and unambiguous terms.

However, the contrast here is not really between “clarity” and “wordsmithing.” In fact clarity in this case, as in many cases, requires wordsmithing. Certainly, accuracy does. The bishops are not of identical minds, even if they are largely in agreement. They recognize that the parishioners they serve are not of identical minds. They also recognize that those who are listening are not of identical minds, and so wish to hear not the simplest statement from the bishops, but the statement that describes with most precision the minds of the bishops and the dynamics of the Episcopal Church; and precision requires careful, thoughtful choices of terms – wordsmithing.

Indeed, the most important positions taken through the history of the Church have been exercises in wordsmithing. I referred to blessed Lancelot Andrewes, he whose talents with poetry and prose so enriched our Biblical heritage and our homiletical treasure. But he was only one in a long line. The final statements of the Ecumenical Councils were all careful exercises in wordsmithing. The struggles over an iota, between homoousios and homoiousios, could legitimately be described as wordsmithing – wordsmithing that was necessary for us to state accurately our understanding of the Incarnation.

Each generation of the Book of Common Prayer from 1549 forward has been an exercise in wordsmithing. Our prayers and praises were carefully worded to express clearly, but not over-simply, how we saw God working in the Church, and how God expected us to respond. We continue as heirs of that tradition, even as we engage in wordsmithing in our own times to express our praises well in the dialect of each new generation.

And certainly we expect wordsmithing of our preachers. We appreciate that careful choice of words, that turn of phrase, that enlightens us to the Gospel and sets the Word anew in our memories. That’s not a matter of piling word on word most of the time. Preaching that is simple can be elegant. But we know those sermons that come out as a muddle, with poor preparation and poorer presentation. We know that they need careful work, careful wordsmithing.

In the case in point, in fact the statement from the House of Bishops appears to me to be wordsmithing to bring clarity, rather than to hide it. They worked to say precisely what they intended: they did not make promises they did not feel they could keep, and they affirmed all that they felt they needed to affirm. It was a statement that left many unsatisfied at both poles of the argument; but it was hardly unclear. Indeed, the details provide precision, while providing a statement on which almost all could agree.

So, yes, it was wordsmithing; but wordsmithing for the sake of clarity and precision and unity, and not of obfuscation. You see, not all differences are simple; certainly, this one isn’t. And when simple answers are provided to complex questions, they are almost certainly wrong.


aaronorear said...

I think Mr. Lundy is tapping into, by affinity or for political leverage, a deep distrust of intellectualism a la George "give it to me plain" Bush. Rather than address what is said, address how it is said and reframe the debate as a struggle between simple truth and crooked words. No matter that knotty problems require intricate and careful untangling, and that wordsmithing is necessary to discuss anything of complexity. Far easier to write it all off as more confusticating.

Marshall said...

I certainly agree.

Now, if they would apply the same concerns to the statement likely to come from the meeting of Common Cause Partners....