Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Barclay on Titles, Compiments and Language

Barclay claims that it is not lawful for Christians to give or receive titles such as “Your Holiness,” “Your Majesty,” “Your Excellency” and so on. He gives six reasons for this. (The man really loves lists.) The reasons are:

  1. The titles are not part of the obedience that is required of us. Obedience lies in the obeying of just and lawful commands.

  2. Titles like this are not used in Scripture.

  3. It requires Christians to lie if the person referred to as “Your Excellency” is not excellent, or if “Your Grace” appears to ge the enemy of grace or if “Your Honor” is not honorable.

  4. The terms “Your Holiness” or “Your Grace” should not apply only the pope and to bishops but should refer to all Christians.

  5. In the Bible, Majesty is only ascribed to God. The only king in the Bible who took such a title was Nebuchadnezzar and he was punished for it.

  6. We are to seek the honor which comes from above and not that which comes from below.

Likewise he felt that using flattering terms such as “Your humble servant.” when one was neither the servant of the other, nor humble, was lying. He found this supported by the words of Elihu in Job 32:21-22.

He also rejects using the plural forms of address (you, your) to address an individual. The individual should be addressed with singular forms (thou, thine). The English language has resolved this issue by converting the plural forms into singular as well. Barclay's arguments are mostly grammatical but he does notice an unintended consequence of this usage. If ones betters are referred to as you and ones lessors are referred to in the singular, you end up using the same singular forms to refer to God and your servants.

Finally he rejects all sorts of bowing and scraping and prostrating oneself before another person. We are called to bow and kneel before God. If we use this same respect for other men, what respect do we have to show God? Peter refused to let Cornelius bow or worship him. Are the current popes better than Peter? The angels in Revelation refused to let John bow down and worship them saying, “We are but fellow servants.”

Barclay and the early Friends opposed these customs because they were rooted in pride and vanity. As I have thought about this it has become clear to me that these customs also reinforced the idea that financial or social station reflect our value as people. Friends were witnessing to the equality of everyone before God. (It should be noted that this means that, without the work of the Spirit in us, that we are all equally unworthy before God.) Social rank or economic standing are accidents of birth or circumstance. What is important is our relationship to God. Do we live lives that reflect that relationship? Are we faithful in followings the promptings of the Spirit.

It appears to be a longstanding human failing to conflate material and social status with spiritual status. Or at least it is a failing of those who are doing well. Reinforcing this view, of course, helps to establish and maintain the legitimacy of the existing social and economic order. Today in the United States this myth is still alive and well in the “American Dream” and the myth of the self-made man. People are prosperous because they worked hard and deserve it. This not only justifies the position of the rich but it implies that if you aren't rich, it is somehow your fault. And since anyone can become rich, any move to reduce inequality can be seen as a move against our own self-interest because, of course, someday we will all be rich. At least that is what the prophets of the “Name it and Claim it” Gospel of Prosperity would have you believe. But Jesus did not come to be with the well-off. His ministry was to the poor, the powerless and the outcast. Refusing hat honor and using plain language spoke to Jesus's reality, that all people, even the “expendable” ones, are equally important before God. What might an equivalent practice look like today?


Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I was heartened by your final paragraph. It seems very right to be asking ourselves how we can best practice the Quaker witness against vanity in modern circumstances.

Bowing and scraping to our social superiors continues to be expected of us. I can bear personal testimony to this, as a $10/hour retail sales worker in a department store. Since I don't care to be unemployed, I have to find ways to affirm equality without destroying relationships; the effort to do so keeps me on my toes.

In circumstances like mine, the people most likely to be offended by any witness to equality are the petty managers at the store (who frequently have a pathological need to exercise power over their underlings) and the lower-middle-class customers (who are often desperate to be treated as superiors). My ultra-rich customers, on the other hand, aren't bothered at all; when they're out shopping at a mall, they know they are far safer being mistaken for ordinary people than being singled out as ultra-rich people wandering around without bodyguards.

All of which is to say that there are some forms of social inequality that egalitarian behavior can undermine, but there is at least one other form that egalitarian behavior actually helps facilitate.

October 01, 2006 8:10 AM  
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October 22, 2006 7:06 PM  

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