Why allow ourselves to be buffeted about by the accepted meanings of words when language is under our collective control? If we all agree that, in our community, “defenestrate” means “smile,” and “moon rock” means “phonebooth,” what’s the big deal? Of course, outsiders might scratch their heads in befuddlement, but every religion employs its own unique parlance, and after a period of adjustment converts will be able to code switch with the best of them, using the terms one way in secular contexts in another way in religious contexts.
We’ve assigned new meanings to plenty of other terms–ordinance, sacrament, bishop, ward, endowment, God, hell–so why not preside?
In theory, I’m not opposed to making such a shift, but it will come as no surprise that I’m suspicious of the manner in which we’re undertaking this lexicographic coup. Below I’ll outline some of the reasons I believe this semantic shift is not being made entirely successfully.
For one thing, it interests me that all the other terms on the list are nouns. (One possible exception would be “endow.”) I’m not completely sure what to conclude from this, but I suspect it speaks to the fact that these terms are generally descriptive: we use them in constructing our unique vision of the eternities and of the way in which our particular services are conducted. They form part of the vocabulary of our doctrine. “Preside” occupies a more prescriptive space in our discourse, as we use it to refer to the role an individual is obligated to fill in particular circumstances. It seems to me that more tension over definition is bound to arise over the shift in a prescriptive term, since we use it to evaluate whether individuals are behaving in compliance with the community’s norms and values.
More significantly, most of the terms whose meanings we’ve revised are fundamentally religious terms. It’s only natural that every religion hold its own peculiar ideas about what God or heaven means. A term like “sacrament” or “bishop” is rarely if ever employed outside a religious context, so although our definitions clash slightly with those of the Catholics, it causes little confusion in intra-denominational discourse, as no individual belongs to both traditions simultaneously.
Terms like “ward” and “ordinance” are more interesting, since we’ve successfully hijacked their definitions to our own doctrinal and ecclesial ends although they continue to thrive in secular rhetoric, and few if any have difficulty understanding the switches in usage. It seems to me that the most significant reason we’ve been successful with these terms is that in neither case have we actually altered the term’s meaning; we’ve simply applied one definition to the near exclusion of others and allowed it to take on our own doctrinal sheen. “Ordinance” has a long history referring to rites or ceremonies, just as “ward” can refer to an administrative district even outside Church contexts (although we may inadvertantly be associating ourselves with mental institutions).
(Obviously, even in such cases as these, ambiguity sometimes inevitably results. When are “ordinances” in scripture rites, and when are they laws? A similar issue obtains with regard to the term “garment,” an archaic word for clothing to which we’ve assigned sacred significance. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to bear our own semantic idiosyncracies in mind when reading scripture, lest we assume “garment” necessarily meant to its authors what it means to us.)
Our shift in the term “preside,” however, is occurring on an entirely different scale and is bound to encounter a panoply of obstacles which, although not necessarily insuperable, are worth bearing in mind.
(A) The term is not exclusively religious, and continues to be employed outside Church contexts to indicate the exercise of authority. As a verb, its definitional waters are naturally murkier than those of a concrete term like “temple” or “garment” or even “ward,” and its “worldly” associations are susceptible to informing even its religious usages.
(B) This is doubly so because even in religious contexts, “preside” maintains its traditional definition in certain circumstances (ecclesial), whereas in other contexts (domestic) it is said to refer to something else entirely. Constant reiteration of the boundary between these usages will be necessary to prevent the two allegedly very different meanings from “contaminating” one another.
(C) “Presiding” in the home is sometimes said to mean the opposite of what “presiding” means in all other contexts. (In most situations it means to exercise authority; in the home it apparently means to not exercise authority.) In no other case have we yet successfully shifted a term to its opposite or near opposite meaning (such as using “heaven” to cover the semantic space occupied in most religious traditions by “hell,” for example).
(D) In the wake of recent endeavors to evacuate the term of its traditional associations and divorce it from the dictionary, the term has been left relatively empty with few positive semantic associations to take the place of its former meaning. We’re certain only that it doesn’t mean what it seems to mean; we’re left hunting for a logical possibility to fill the void. The Proclamation on the Family leads us to believe that presiding is (a) important and that it is (b) a male responsibility. A consensus is gradually emerging that “preside” means “call on someone to say the prayer,” although this hardly seems a weighty enough obligation to merit the phrase “by divine design.” It must be compatible with equal partnership, and yet cannot mean counsel together as equal partners, else a wife could just as easily be said to “preside.”
Confusion is the inevitable result. Of course, all religious systems “leak,” none offering a coherent airtight accounting for the cosmos, and it’s common to appeal to divine mysteries to explain the inexplicable. But this tack gets more purchase on philosophical problems and propositional truth statements; a prescriptive commandment can hardly constitute a divine mystery, or else how will God evaluate whether we’ve adequately fulfilled it?
The advantages to expending our energy to shift this term’s meaning (in one context exclusively), rather than abandoning it entirely, are obvious. Since second-wave feminism, statements once not uncommon in Church rhetoric that the husband is the head of the household and the wife obligated to submit to his will have become increasingly suspect and ideologically unpalatable, and a doctrinal displacement has occurred as a result. The Church, however, lacks any paradigm for processing change, and clinging to older terms while forcibly realigning their semantic associations is one way of masking that shift. In this way, earlier doctrine which now appears sexist can be reinterpreted in light of our semantic mutations, which, naturally, are applied retroactively.
But this approach comes at the price of clarity, and our usage of terms like “preside” only creates a further veil of fog around the issue. Reluctant to repudiate earlier doctrine such as that men have authority over their wives, it’s only natural that we’re left battling its ghosts in the terms we refuse to bury.
- 16 January 2007