Paul Griffin argues that the word ‘servant’ is vital to Christian faith and that changing fashions should not be allowed to affect its true meaning
Inevitably, the meanings of words change over the years. The classic example always referred to, gay’, can barely be used in its original meaning. It was a useful but not an essential word, and its loss is sad but not crucial.
Other words which can change their significance nevertheless simply must not be lost. ‘Servant’ is one such valuable word.
When the ideas of the Sixties were still the rage, I was annoyed by a preacher at an Ordination service I attended. For his main theme, he chose to recall overhearing one lady say to another in a train, ‘Isn’t it difficult now you can’t get servants?’
He proceeded to develop this into a bitter attack on the ladies’ attitude to life, and I realized that to him the Class Struggle was a theme too important to permit sensitivity to the ways of others.
Unsurprisingly, the preacher was youngish: an odd choice, I thought, to conduct the retreat and to preach on this great day, though not perhaps so odd in view of the curious teachings that abounded then, with whose results we live today.
An old lady alone
My mother had made the very remark he quoted not long before. She was an old lady, and wanted help to go on living alone in her country cottage, in the shape of the sort of person we now call a daily or a work lady or a home help, or even a carer, but no longer a char.
She used the word ‘servant’ as so many those others did then, because she always had, and because she knew that however they covered the matter up, people would always need domestic help; whether they were the Devonshires or distressed old ladies living alone.
‘Servant’ had acquired the implication of ‘domestic servant’, despite the rest of us who serve; reminding us that over the last few hundred years domestic service had become a last resort for the unskilled poor.
I imagined that young man going on to his next engagement, and preaching the stock sermon we all have in our repertoire, about how Jesus came to earth to be a servant, and wants us all to be the same. Would the preacher, I wonder, have noticed?
‘Servant’ is a word vital to our faith, however social and political factors mess it about. It is even vital to the workaday pagan world, where there is endless talk about Voluntary Service, and the Opportunity of Service, and so on.
We preach service these days more to urge our congregations into action than to convince, for they are among the many who have already accepted the principle, in however muddled away.
Our task with pagans is to ask them why they have accepted the principle. Many unbelievers are splendidly charitable, and are happy to use their own example or those of their friends to show that you do not have to be a Christian any longer, and that the Church is wasting its time, mostly in quarrelling.
That particular preacher, as he said politely enough when I wrote to him, was encouraging us to outlive the way of thought of past generations. Yes, but he needed to be charitable, and understand exactly what it was the ladies meant, not to assume that they were in fact just fuel for his sermon.
So much has happened since we older people were young that inevitably some of our terms will seem unsuitable to the new generation. ‘Servant’ simply must not be among them, nor should it be used as a term of contempt.
A generation later than that ordination, I like to think it is already changing back to its vital biblical sense.
In case you are worrying about my mother, now long at rest, I can assure you that her coal was carried for years by a very kind neighbour, who visited her daily, and did everything she needed. Now there is a true servant.
He was an honourable member of one of the dissenting churches, and I just hope I can get to heaven as certainly as he.