The control over the meaning of words is a little recognized bit of gamesmanship that goes on at all levels of our society. In religion, he who writes the definitions can use redefinition as a means of supporting a new innovation. This week, I witnessed a good example over at T19.
Canon Kendall Harmon posted an excellent response to a posting at the Episcopal Cafe entitled "Chastity, now" by Richard Helmer+ the rector of the Church of Our Saviour in Mill Valley California. Before you head to Kendall's blog, read a little sample of the Rev. Helmer's post:
"In starting discernment to become a member of a spiritual community of The Episcopal Church, I have been invited in recent months to study the three classic evangelical counsels as they have been articulated as vows beginning with the mendicant orders in the twelfth century: poverty, chastity, and obedience.
As a parish priest, husband, father, and ever aspiring pianist, the one counsel that has captivated me most recently has been the vow of chastity. It has spoken most deeply to my perfectionistic desire to control outcomes in every relationship in my life -- far beyond its often narrow interpretation regarding fidelity in sexual conduct.
Chastity means setting aside dominance and control and seeking instead a new way to relate to the world and to God."
Aren't there other terms to use to describe that? Now why would anyone try to redefine chastity?
You have to wade through the rest of the post before we see where he is headed,
"But there is good news. Chastity has been in evidence in the increasing number of voices of those who recognize our disagreements as a Communion, but yet insist that costly communion in Christ is far more valuable than agreement.
Chastity has long been in evidence by those courageous, oft-threatened 'firsts' of our faith who inhabit dangerous positions not for power or the quixotic pursuit of perfection, but simply by being who they are and following God's call as best they can. The consecrations in the Diocese of Los Angeles are some of the most recent examples of this form of chastity."
Consecrating a partnered lesbian as bishop is the antithesis of chastity even as Helmer defines it. That action is all about exercising control and power over us pewsitters by imposing a radical new thang totally unsupported by apostolic tradition and scripture.
Little did I know when I first responded to Kendall's post that The Rev. Helmer would stop by and contribute to the comments. I had an interesting exchange with him, but some of the best written comments came from others. For example, a certain commenter, Billy, was far better able to put down in words what many of us were trying to examine in our earlier comments,
"I appreciate Mr. Helmer's defense on this thread, but I have to say that what he is saying is really nothing more than, "I'm OK, You're OK," with all the concomitant easing and changing of standards of conduct and civilization that book helped to bring about in the 70s. His is the same redefining of a word, "chastity," because the traditional definition of that word carries a standard of behavior that does not fit into the current world of homosexual conduct (or much heterosexual conduct, for that matter).
A few years ago, a reappraising priest explained to me, when I asked him his definition of "fornication during a discussion of homosexual conduct," that it was sexual relations outside the order of life-long giving, sacrifice, and commitment. So for him, reservation of sexual relations for heterosexual marriage was irrelevant. He expanded the traditional definition of fornication to a much broader definition because the standard of conduct for the traditional definition did not fit into homosexual "committed" relationships. Mr. Helmer similarly expands and changes the definition of "chastity" to include Ms Glasspool's conduct. For otherwise, under traditional historic understood definitions, how could she remain a priest, much less be consecrated a bishop. Additionally, I would note that if chastity is giving up dominance and control, as he defines it, then it follows that sexual relations are maintaining dominance and control. In some instances that may be true, but as Kendall points out, that is only partial truth, which goes further to show that the definition is unworkable for the word attempting to be used. This partiality of truth, also, gives further evidence that the definition is being changed for a specific reason, that is to try to zero in on the claim that calling others, especially homosexuals, to chastity is just trying to dominate and control them - that is the how and why, as Kendall points out, but has nothing to do with the what, the sexual conduct, itself. But note, also, that Mr. Helmer admits in his new definition of chastity, that it requires one to adopt a new way to relate to the world and to God ... and when he specifically applies it to Ms Glasspool and her sexual relationship with her partner, he is specifically saying that acceptance of this requires a new way to relate to her AND TO GOD. Certainly it does require a new way to relate to her ... that is the I'm OK, You're OK acceptance of a different and, according to my traditional understanding, immoral standard of conduct. But to require a new way of relating to God, that's a lot to swallow and provides increased evidence that Mr. Helmer is changing the definition of this word for the specific purpose of requiring our church members to accept homosexual conduct as blessed and holy - which is, ironically, the exact opposite of his own made-up definition. For he is attempting, in his article, as an authority in the church - a priest - to "dominate and control" those of us who cling to the traditional definition of the word, in the same way any priest dominates and controls the laity by his/her interpretation of how we are to relate to God and to each other."
Now run on over to Kendall Harmon's response and don't miss the comments where you will find at least two alternative words that others proposed which might be a better fit for the Rev. Helmer's definition: love and humility.