George Austin on the role of the history of words and their meanings in past and present conflicts in the Church

Words contain pictures, emotions, ideas, yes; but words also carry history. In York, for instance, the history is of Viking settlement and occupation. Streets like Micklegate, Swinegate and Skeldersgate are not the gates to the city but relics of the Viking age, for streets in Scandinavia are gatan while Mickle is simply a corruption of their word for ‘much’ or ‘great’ – thus ‘Main Street’. Go into the countryside and walk over the hills, that is, the fells, and perhaps visit Malham Tarn, fiell and tjarn being corruptions of Viking words.

A Swedish bishop was attending a reception at Bishopthorpe Palace and I mentioned that on a visit to Sweden I saw a road sign to Biskoptorp. ‘Ah yes’, he replied, ‘it means ‘bishop’s humble dwelling’.’ I let my eyes wander round the palatial drawing room and I think I saw the connection.

Lost meanings

The many words ending in ‘-ight’ are a reminder that, since spelling once related to pronunciation, such words have an Anglo-Saxon origin and now have been

softened. Though not at least for my old Lancashire grandmother, who used to say (of me), ‘Yon lad’s a reight paysegg’, which meant I was a ‘right nuisance’. But pace egging is an old Lancashire custom whereby eggs were hard-boiled and decorated at Eastertide, and sometimes rolled down hills in a race to see which could go furthest without cracking. Why ‘pace-egg’? The origin of words is often lost when other meanings replace those sources.

This was a problem for the creators of the first Book of Common Prayer, when over a weekend in 1549, the Latin liturgy common to churchgoers for centuries was suddenly replaced by a service in English, most of it unrelated to the familiar words they were accustomed to hearing. But there was one exception to this, and perhaps deliberate. The words referring to theology remained in their Latin basis – communion, resurrection, sanctification, sacrifice, oblation, passion, benediction. Remission of sins was there too, sometimes now anglicized into ‘forgiveness’. But because the meaning of words sometimes suffers the slightest of changes, forgiveness has come to mean a little less than the total wiping away offered in the Christian doctrine.


Obviously, there is the Christian connection with paschal and Easter, but it goes much further into history, with the link between that and the Jewish festival of Pesach, or Passover, which was taking place at the time of the death of Jesus.

Indeed we cannot (or at least should not) read Scripture without being aware of the historical significance in our beliefs. The Eucharistic presence has long been a source of division in the interpretation of how Christ is present in the bread and wine. Yet the requirement in Judaism that the blood must be drained from the meat before eating is because the blood is the life of the animal – as it slowly leaves the body the animal gradually dies, ergo that which is life’ is in blood.

Since what we eat becomes what we are, so that ‘unclean’ animals are forbidden as food, so as we partake of the bread and wine – the body and blood of Christ – so we take his very life into ourselves. By so looking at history within those words, the disputes about transubstantiation, consubstantiation and the rest become irrelevant.

In our present conflicts too, we are inevitably affected by the history within the words employed. The discussions about women bishops centre now on how those who cannot accept this change from tradition may be accommodated within the Church of England. As promises are made about honouring these views, not discriminating against those who hold them, respecting a code of practice and the rest, when the history of the past decade shows that such words were used before and then ignored, it is inevitable that such history will eat into and undermine the trust we should be able to have within the family of God.