What’s in a name?

W.F. Bellais II

Have you ever noticed the names of various commercial enterprises?

What I notice more and more these days are the names of “beauty parlors.” Even calling them beauty parlors seems strange to me. If you’re not beautiful before you engage one of these places, it’s likely you will not be when you come out. I suppose we can think of them as “enhancing parlors.” Beauty is enhanced by a hair style and if the patron is not actually beautiful, the stylist makes the patron at least stylish. The least that happens in these places are that the patron may be better groomed or something of that sort.  

Some of the places are called “salons”. Actually, the word salon is French and is a place for receiving guests and simply means room. Using a French word, like salon, gives style and class to a place. If I build a grand house on a hill, let’s say, I could call it my château. Until the summer of 2009 I had never been in a château, but if I built a house, I think I would like to call it the Château Bellais. That makes it sound cosmopolitan and very “classy”.  

The names of these salons or parlors where I live are interesting. For example, there is one called Hairlooms; a play on words, of course. Then there is The Hair Port, The Clipper, The Cut Above, and Attitudes. The one that troubles me some it is a salon called “Curl Up and Dye.” It seems to me that worms and caterpillars do that. Of course, that’s a play on words too. It is intended to look and sound clever—and it is. All those names are clever.

When we call a church a cathedral the images of Gothic architecture are evoked. Cathedrals are grand buildings with lofty vaults and flying buttresses. A Gothic building must have large stained glass windows coming to a point. Some churches in large metropolitan areas call themselves “cathedrals,” but they can’t be. Words matter. Simply having a large auditorium does not make a church a cathedral. A cathedral has in it a cathedra; the chair or throne, from which a bishop pontificates. So, if you come across a church that calls itself a cathedral and there’s no cathedra, it is not a cathedral no matter what the sign out front may say.

Names of Christian church denominations are often confusing, if not irrelevant. For example, when I go about talking about churches, I tell people I belong to an “Episcopal” church, to which I get a blank stare. Most people have no idea what episcopal means. That’s true with the words Presbyterian, Methodist, and dare I say catholic, or even Anglican. What about Quakers? Why are they called by that strange name?

For everyone’s benefit let me define the words. Presbyterian refers to a theology in which the people of the church are its priesthood—the priesthood of all believers. Presbyterian comes from a Greek word, presbyter, which means priest. Methodist refers to a form of Christian study developed from the teachings and work of the Wesley brothers and others in the early 18th century who practiced methodical study and worship in their “Holy Club” at Oxford University. Catholic is not a single church over which the Bishop of Rome pontificates. Catholic means “universal” or “complete”. There are all sorts of churches calling themselves catholic. What is a Quaker and what does the word refer to? Quakers emerged from the same religious restlessness of the 17th century that spawned dissenters in England and Europe. Quakers belong to the Society of Friends and called Quakers because they were admonished by their leaders to “quake” or “tremble” at the word of the Lord.

Episcopal refers to a polity of a church in which the bishop is the chief pastor of an area called a diocese.  What do we mean when we refer to Anglican? First, it refers to England. A related word is Anglo. In New Mexico, where I lived and studied for many years, regardless of the fact your ancestors may have come from Sweden, those who are not of Mexican or Hispanic descent are Anglo. Anglican in the terminology of the Church refers to Christians who trace their heritage to the Church of England.

Do all these names have any bearing on our Christians today? To be completely ambiguous I say, “Yes and no.” The only way I see it making a bearing is in the way people understand and authority given to Scripture and to liturgy. They are “brand” names of a time in the past, nevertheless, they have a current relevancy.

More and more people seem to be looking for something deeper in their worship and Christian experiences. Brand names will help those people seeking something different from the noisy and hectic world we live in today. If people knew more about the origins of denominations and the meanings of the words that describe them, it would be easier for the seeker, the inquirer, to know where to go for the answers to questions of faith.

Finally, you might want to consider the importance of naming things. Make certain that the names you invent truly convey the intended message.

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