Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Alities: lamenting the loss of grammar

It is my first semester at the University of Maryland, College Park, and as a budding English major, I am attending a class entitled Structural Grammar. It is a challenging concept for one steeped in more traditional notions of English grammar taught with prep school precision, not to mention six years of Latin grammar under my belt. A noun is no longer "the name of a person, place or thing." In fact a noun is no longer a noun -- it is a "nominal". Nominals are words which function in the grammatical place of a traditional noun, i.e., words which occupy the place of a subject. "Objectives" are words which occupy the place of a traditional noun when used as predicates or objects of prepositions, etc. Most importantly, verbs are no longer action words, nor are they verbs. In lieu of verbs we are introduced to "verbals", words which occupy the place of traditional verbs and which express actions. With verbals, for example, one can "engine" a car, i.e., drive a car. Next we are taught about "modifiers". No longer do adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, nor do adverbs modify verbs. Modifiers, the instructor insists, are any words which occupy the place of, or perform the function of, a traditional adjective or adverb. The stated purpose of this new system of grammar is to bring to language the distinctions well known between lexicons which prescribe the usage of words, and those which describe the usage of words. We are taught to look at the patterns of speech and writing and ask if "meaning is conveyed", if one can understand what is being said or written, and if so, then to analyze the same and describe the patterns. All forms of speech and writing are considered to be correct as long as the goal of transferring meaning is met.

Although I think the course is a bit silly, it is highly recommended for English majors by my academic advisor, one Dr. Esther Birdsall, and I take my lessons seriously. I do understand the underlying cultural context of the system -- to suggest that all forms of communication are equal and that no one should fail to advance in society just because she or he has not enjoyed the benefits of a more formal, classical education. In order to get an honor grade at least one extra-class meeting is required with the instructor who is, as I recall, a very nice if not particularly profound man. When he places his hand on my leg while examining a particular sentence to be sure I understand how properly to parse same, I begin to realize that there is something more to structural grammar than meets the eye, but that is another story. I largely ignore the principles of structural grammar after achieving my desired honor grade. In fact, I do not think about it much until recently when finally my ears can no longer tolerate the "alities" of life, let alone the apparent success of the principles of structural grammar in our society, to wit, the demise of classical English grammar. The "alities" you say. What "alities"? Since I am by profession a clergyman, I submit the following paragraph written from the prospective of one interested in theology. It amply demonstrates my point.

My speciality is pondering the directionality of our commonality. The reality is that the casuality of spirituality feeds the mission criticality which drives the physicality of mentality. If performed with intentionality, the phenomenality of educationality will result in a partiality for the functionality of culturality.

Now, I am the first to admit that I am less than perfect in my speaking and writing. I am certain that my eighth grade English teacher, Miss Dibert, still shakes her head in utter disbelief when I write. Additionally, I am interested in the societal ramifications of how we use language and how best to eliminate culturally based discrimination of all kinds. Nonetheless, I am reminded of the words of the immortal Henry Higgins who sings, as I recall, “how an Englishman speaks absolutely classifies him.”

Does “specialty” have more power when described as “speciality”? Does athleticism take on more meaning when described as “physicality”? When did intentionality replace purpose? Is there something about the word, “function” which is enhanced by using “functionality” in its stead? How long have we been “dehungarizing” with Snickers? Why are critical missions now “mission critical”? What on earth is a workload optimized server? (Please do not write with an answer to that rhetorical question – I do know what is a powerful computer.)

Perhaps I am just getting too old-ality.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion

The Anglican Communion is a voluntary coalition of autonomous provinces linked primarily by a similar expression of worship, the desire to be "in Communion with" one another, and a large dose of good will. In the eyes of some, the Articles of the Lambeth Conference of 1888 helped to shape minimal criteria for participation in this voluntary coalition. Historically each province has been free to proclaim adherence to the Articles without proof of compliance. Of late some of the provinces have passed judgment on the actions of other provinces, calling into question compliance with the minimal criteria, and in some cases severing the ties Communion. It is not the first time that the Church of England, spiritual home of the Anglican Communion, has faced distress. The wisdom of Elizabeth in the mid-sixteenth century required Catholic and Reformed to worship together at the same altar using the same liturgy, in essence enforcing good will. The Book of Common Prayer was the symbol of unity regardless of what worshipers might have felt in their hearts or believed with their minds.

The provinces of the Anglican Communion today stretch literally across the world and exist within a multiplicity of cultures. It strains the obvious to observe that each province will reflect the culture and traditions in which it is located. As but one example, the one with which I am most familiar, The Episcopal Church has a deeply democratic polity, no surprise for a church located primarily in the USA. In TEC, all major policies are fashioned by vote during the meetings of the General Convention, and bishops are elected rather than appointed. The policy of TEC is so deeply embedded in democratic principles that decisions at the diocesan level often require separate majority (in some cases super majority) votes of both clergy and laity. Bishops in TEC have considerably less authority and power than in many provinces. That said, TEC conforms in all respects even to a strict reading of the Articles of the Lambeth Conference of 1888. In TEC, every ordinand proclaims that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation; the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds are a part of every major service of worship; Baptism and the Supper of the Lord are administered “with the unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution”; and, we maintain the Historic Episcopate as “adapted ... to the needs of [this] nation.”

What the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot instill in the various provinces is the missing element of good will. It is not within his power so to do. What the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot do is enforce kindness on the part of each province to extend to all of the other provinces acceptance at face value of compliance with the historic minimum standards. He cannot stop judgmental behavior. It is not within his power so to do. While TEC has made decisions over the last forty years to open the process of ordination to all people who express a Call by God and whose Call is tested and affirmed by the community of faith, TEC has never varied even an iota from the stated desire to be a constituent province of the Anglican Communion. TEC has not declared itself out of Communion with any other province. TEC will not walk away from the Anglican Communion, but very much like the Archbishop of Canterbury TEC is powerless to control the hearts and minds of the constituent provinces, and must beg upon the good will of all for the maintenance of unity within the provinces of the Anglican Communion .