Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Rant, Because It's My Blog - The Proper Use of "Bishop"

...after all, what's the point of having a blog if you can't go on a rant every now and then.

Last Sunday I had the privilege of assisting our Emeritus Auxiliary Bishop with the celebration of Confirmation at a neighbouring parish and the experience got me pondering, of all things, the direction in which our English language is headed.  To be more specific, I began to ponder how we have started to use the word "bishop", and what that might mean.

I think most would agree that our English language has gone downhill over the past century.  If you read anything written by someone with even a mediocre education from the 19th century or even the early part of the 20th century, then read something written by a university graduate in the last couple of decades it's clear that there has been a marked decline in the quality of the English language, at least in how it is used.  As someone quipped recently on another blog, in a couple of generations we have gone from teaching Greek and Latin in high school, to teaching remedial English in university.

Now to the rant, let's take a look at the word "bishop", for those with some understanding of English grammar and syntax, this word functions as a common noun, but not a proper noun, but we have started to use it as a proper noun.  A small and trivial point you say, let's look at it in context, the word "bishop", is much like the word "priest".  Pass a priest you know on the street, and say to him "Hello priest", isn't that more of an insult, but yet we think nothing of saying, "Hello bishop".

In case you didn't know, the proper way to address a bishop is "Your Excellency".  Ah, but I hear the objections now, let's look at a few of the common ones.  First, "Your Excellency" is too formal, we want to make the bishop seem more approachable.  Well, if the bishop has to resort to simplifying his proper title to seem more approachable, maybe he needs to learn to smile more.  Second, calling the bishop "Your Excellency" is simply too difficult for the children in the confirmation class.  Really?  Thirteen-year-old children can't learn, remember, and say a four syllable word, has our education system failed that badly?  Third, formal titles like these just aren't a part of our culture any more, we function more casually.  Let me offer a story for this point.  Several years ago I was taking a summer course in Ottawa, during my downtime one day I went on a tour of Rideau Hall, the official residence of Canada's Governor General.  As the tour progressed we passed by the Ball Room (if you have ever seen an Order of Canada presentation, or the swearing in of a new government, you know the room of which I'm speaking), and in the Ball Room is a chair which is used only by the Governor General.  A small boy on the tour, perhaps only 7 or 8 asked the tour guide, "Is that where Adrienne sits?" (a reference to then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson).  The tour guide immediately corrected the child, "Yes, that is where Her Excellency sits."  (The title "Excellency" is also accorded by civil custom to the Governor General of Canada).  A tour guide working for a civil authority would not accept the familiarization or 'dumbing down' of the proper title of a government figure, even from an 8-year-old child, but we don't blink at the same thing when done to a bishop of the Church.

For centuries the Church has not only been the guardian of faith and moral teaching, but the de facto guardian of art and culture as well, but over the past several decades we have abdicated that responsibility and gone along with the debasement and banalization of culture that has gone on around us.  Maybe it's time we start to reclaim our role as guardians of culture, and perhaps we can begin with the language we use.  The next time you see a bishop flash him a smile, and give him a nice "Hello Your Excellency".

1 comment:

  1. Agree with everything.
    In Canada, following British convention, "His Lordship"/"My Lord" is also appropriate for a bishop, with "Your Grace" being appropriate for an archbishop.