What’s in a name?

The young woman approached me after Mass and asked about baptism. We made arrangements to meet and, as you do, I asked the name of the child. ‘How delightful,’ I said in response. ’I am sure she has brought joy to you, and I hope she will be a source of joy to others.’ The mother looked blank, but smiled nevertheless.

It was only when, after the rite, I came to make up the baptism register that I realized how wrong I had been. ‘Laetitia’, I wrote confidently. ‘Oh no’, said the proud parent, that’s not how we are spelling it – it’s LATISHA.’ I made the alteration without comment and passed on.

Names, as any parish priest will tell you, have changed. Not only do fashions in first names change with increasing rapidity (only by accident of parental preference are they now Christian names), but the very function of names has altered.

The patronymic, for example, with the family itself, is passing away. Children are now increasingly double-barrelled. ‘What happens,’ I innocently asked one single parent who was insisting that her child be entered in the book as Darren Brown-Wilkinson, ‘when Darren Brown-Wilkinson contracts a casual but fruitful relationship with Sharon Wilkinson-Brown?’

And then there is the first name as a form of child abuse. I have not, as yet, been presented with a Brooklyn or a Fifi Trixibelle for baptism, but the day cannot be far off. Parents seem no longer capable of imagining their children as the adults they will one day become, and increasingly give them names which the child will ultimately repudiate, or of which they will be ashamed. It is hard to know what damage this does to the parental relationship, but it cannot be neutral.

All these and other changes in names and naming, I suspect, reflect profound changes in our society.

Names once expressed specific relationships, general patterns of belonging and moral aspirations. We called our Dads and Mums ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’, never ‘Mary’ and ‘John’, simply because the name of the natural relationship was deeper and more intimate than any given name. We called our children after their antecedents because we wanted them to grow up in a family tradition. We gave them the names of heroes or of saints in the hope that they would emulate them in lives of courage and virtue. Now all this has been taken over by rampant individualism and mere whimsy.

Naming, of course, can never be insignificant. God brought all the animals to Adam, says Genesis, to see what he would call them. Naming is part of the dominion that he is given over them. (And, much to the ire of the feminists, it extends to the woman also: ‘She shall be called Woman because she was taken out of Man’.) Naming is part of the ordering of the known universe. It is the prerequisite of that rational discourse which makes man the sovereign Lord of Creation, able to subdue it.

But the significance of proper names extends beyond that of mere nouns. To be privileged to employ a proper name is share identity with someone, to have a claim on their attention and their care, and to stand in a special relationship with them. You need a proper name to make love… or to cast a spell. That is why the use of God’s proper name, YHWH, came to be forbidden even to faithful Jews – and why, until recently, it was the custom in English to prefer the use of the patronymic for acquaintances whom one could not yet count as friends.

That sense of both intimacy and reserve has now, of course, largely gone. The telephone is responsible for much of this. ‘Sandra speaking, how can I help you?’ says the girl from the Gas Company. And a spirit of false mateyness has done the rest. ‘Dear Geoffrey’, writes the minor diocesan official, whom I have never met but whose status has been enhanced by his imagined closeness to Bishops Tom, Dick and Harry.

This thoughtless and sentimental democratization cannot, I think, have other than lasting effects on the way in which we view relationships, and the way in which we view God. It limits and cripples both intimacy and hierarchy because it inhibits the expression of both. The wilful misunderstanding of the use of the second person singular for God (‘thou’ and not ‘you’), which along with other examples of linguistic ignorance was the stock in trade of the liturgical reformers of the sixties, is now being extended in popular usage to every sphere and circumstance.

In John’s gospel the use of the proper name of God is the trope on which the whole action turns. Jesus repeatedly uses the name YHWH applied to himself, in a pattern of events by which John seeks to show the reader who He is (a pun in itself!) and why his crucifixion is inevitable and saving. Time and again the Name (which, of course, is also a verbal form) is used with differing predicates – ‘I am the true vine’; ‘I am the door of the sheepfold’; ‘I am the resurrection’; ‘I am the way the truth and the life’. Sparingly, but crucially, it is used unpredicated. ‘Before Abraham was, I am’; ‘I who am speaking to you; I am he’; ‘Whom do you seek?’ ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ ‘I am’.

It matters that this name is on the lips of Jesus, but is forbidden to all others, because his identity with the Father is that which gives us the hope of salvation (‘My Father works and I work’). Only the High Priest on the Day of Atonement dare speak the divine name ‘in its proper vocalization’ (see Mishnah, Yoma 6.2). On the lips of Jesus it is the familiar Name of the One to whom he brings us so close that he bequeaths to us his own exclusive appellation: ‘Our Father’.

So what’s in a name? Everything and nothing, it seems. Paradoxically but predictably, in this whimsical world of Fifi Tixibelle, ‘Father’ has ceased to be a name and been reclassified as a generic term. Father, the feminists inform us, can as well be Mother. And so, in a climate of increasingly suffocating intimacy, the God whose Name was holy and jealously guarded, has lost his name. There is nothing his sons (or daughters) can call him.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.