Proclaiming the Gospel in the Language of Today

A few days ago I retweeted a list of scripts for a platform I use from time to time in the course of my work as a web developer. The originator of the list (whom I had duly acknowledged in my own tweet) subsequently asked those who had responded whether they knew of any scripts he didn’t. Tellingly, he asked the question only of male respondents and ignored the women (including myself—ouch!) entirely. Unintentional sexism? Probably. It reminded me of what it was like to be working in finance back in the 70s, but with this difference. There are so many women working in various areas of technology these days that I was surprised. Who would even dream of making distinctions on the basis of sex?

Making distinctions on the basis of sex strikes me as being one of the major difficulties the Church faces when she tries to proclaim the Gospel in the West. Many people just don’t ‘get’ it. There are times when I don’t myself, especially when it seems theologically and practically unnecessary. (If you would like a concrete example, take the history of enclosure for women: a discipline with a rich theology behind it, but the practical details of which are subject to cultural and historical factors. Sometimes, however, the theology gets completely submerged in practical details which are no longer either practicable or desirable.) One of the things I have learned, however, is that many Catholics know less theology, history or canon law than they think they do and are often dogmatic in inverse proportion to their knowledge (a remark which will annoy, so don’t take it personally: you, dear Catholic reader, are, of course, the exception.) That complicates matters further.

I have no solutions to suggest. I am merely thinking aloud. But if Church membership is in decline in the West, could it be because the Church in her preaching no longer addresses the urgent concerns of her intended audience, or does so in a way that is out of step with the reality of people’s lives? The world needs to hear the Gospel; needs to hear that life is sacred from the moment of conception; needs to hear that selfishness is not the best way of being. But it is difficult to get the message across when so often we proclaim it in a language that no one seems to speak any more. Personally, I have no difficulty with the language of sign and symbol, with the categories of thought familiar to me through many years; but I know they are difficult for others. The teaching of the Church does not change, but those who do the teaching need to think about how they present it. Let us pray for them.


14 thoughts on “Proclaiming the Gospel in the Language of Today”

  1. Sister Catherine

    I always read your blog posts with great interest and sometimes with a little sadness that your vocation has called you to a small priory in Herefordshire and not to a place in the church were you can have influence over the communication of the Gospel through the media. I say this because, your words speak to me in a way that no one elses do.

    As a Catholic who is currently struggling with faith and some of the teachings of the Church and who has been try to seek out answers, through prayer, reading and discussion, I couldn’t agree more with your statement that often the most dogmatic are the least knowledgeable about the teaching of the church, its history and theology. Often it is a case that is the way it was always done, so we should do the same today!!! regardless of whether that is the correct thing to do.

  2. Thank you for your posting Sister Catherine, I hope that it is not presumptuous or impertinent of me as a member of the Anglican church to address you as such.

    I think that you have highlighted a challenge that Christians have faced in all the ages since 33AD, that is how do we tell people in a way that is meaningful to them of the birth, life & teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? And help them live their lives in the light, knowledge, and love of God?

    I don’t have any special answers personally but just try to carry on doing what I can when I can.

  3. Sister, another thought provoking post. I’ve no claim to deep knowledge of either theology or Canon Law, and my ignorance can show on occasion, when I write and press send without doing the appropriate research and context checking.

    One thing that I did when I became an Anglican was to search out the theology and Canon Law and in particular the 39 articles in the Book of Common Prayer (which also contains a Catechism of Anglican Faith). But realistically, I’ve just skimmed the surface. It would take me a lifetime to read and to digest Anglican Theology and Teaching. One thing that my Parish Priest said to me at the start when I admitted my ignorance was “Don’t underestimate what you do know – your Catholic heritage will have much in common with Anglican teaching”. He was quite right – I find much that we hold in common, although perhaps with a difference in emphasis.

    The good thing about most Anglican Preaching is that it’s based on scripture and with real efforts to use contemporary language and theological thought in the context of people’s lives. I’ve never yet not understood a sermon, while if I’m honest, I can’t bring to mind a memorable sermon from my Catholic days. Certainly not one that prompts me to go home, to write it up and to reflect on the content.

    One of the paths I’m seeking to discern if whether I’m called to an active ministry of Evangelism. Part of that will be public proclamation of the Gospel, and I pray that God (and the Church) will equip me for that role. Lots to learn, but my thoughts are that lively proclamation in contemporary language, drawn from our current context will be part of it. God willing.

    • I wasn’t thinking so much of sermons/homilies as of the way in which we communicate faith in general, although you may have a point about memorable preaching not being so obvious among us! For Catholics, there are a whole host of important teaching documents, e.g. papal encyclicals, which often contain language which suffers through translation. That is one of the challenges of being universal, and there is no easy solution.

      I pray that your discernment about ministry may be blessed.

    • All our homilies are based on the Gospel readings, some from the other readings where applicable, so obviously scripture based. Our priests speak of “breaking open the Word” in addition to “breaking the Bread”. Yes, we’ve had quite a range from outstanding and memorable to boring snooze-worthy. It depends on who is celebrating the Mass. Some of the best were given by the Carmelite Fathers in our last parish. Times change, the delivery varies, but the message remains constant.

  4. Looking at this from another angle – those churches and we see them around us, that fall over themselves trying to keep in step with modern values by adapting their teachings soon become spiritually and or morally lost. While we need to update our approach and linguistics in the proclaiming of the unchanging Gospel, we have to remember that as the ‘sign of contradiction’ and a ‘stumbling block’ the Church will at sad times appear out of tune and step. But it is at these times that the ‘Way, Truth and Life’ have to be more than ever proclaimed as Christ did with no dilution. Adapt the means of delivery, use social media, be available etc…. but these times call for us above all to be subtle and strong giving no quarter if we wish to be relevant with Christ – fitting into worldly values to be accepted is the greatest temptation of preachers today as society become more and more secular, full of self and empty of God. When a church simply tries to be ‘Nice’ to everyone it risks becoming out of touch with the Cross, the Way of Christ to resurrection. A balance is needed, all the while keeping ones eyes fixed on the authentic Christ.


    Btw – did the web developer you refer to use the phrase ‘guys’ in addressing his Tweet to you all ? If so this is one of those new changed words I don;t like that now seems to have moved from being a male tag to being a neutral one in modern slang – this started in the States but now seems to be of global usage.

    • … another thought – YES – one comes across so many people today with opinions on religion, philosophy, theology etc, who when you peel back the layers do not really know the subjects they choose to pontificate about. As Pope Francis said the other week, the inconsistency of the Gospel lived and proclaimed by His Church because of personal opinion or ignorance is a great scandal today. A lot more prayer and study seems to be called for.

    • I thought I had said very clearly that the content of Church teaching does not change? I am certainly not advocating any attempt to make it more ‘acceptable’, I am arguing for attempts to make it more understandable — quite a different matter!

      As to my tweeter, no, he directly addressed his question by twitter name to the men only. Happily, he is unaware of his little faux pas. 🙂

      • Good – I was not commenting on your words directly but rather building on them, saying something that also concerns me. I’m glad we agree. Yes making the Gospel understandable is a constant challenge – I find only prayer to the Holy Spirit to speak through us simply and directly my personal solution.

  5. Most advertising and almost all ‘entertainment’ seem to militate against teaching about the sacredness of life and the evil of selfishness.

  6. Far from being a stumbling block, it was the “language of sign and symbol” that led me to convert to Catholicism. I studied intensely for several years to form myself anew as a Catholic and some things were harder than others. Unlike many others, I was fortunate enough to have both time and teachers. Then I realised that conversion of life takes a lifetime- and possibly more…

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