Noel Heather (2004) 'A UK Sociolinguistic Perspective: Gene, Jeffrey and Evangelical 'Broad Inclusion' Intersubjectivity'

Sociological Research Online, vol. 9, no. 1, <>
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Received: 27/10/2003 Accepted: 19/2/200Published: 28/2/2004


Critical sociolinguistics (conceived as Critical Discourse Analysis: CDA), which has a focus on inclusive and exclusive language within social practice, can be used to shed light on underlying aspects of recent debates about the appointment of homosexual bishops in the UK and USA. One strand of the CDA approach is to examine the social cognitions implicit in the behaviours of communities. In the case of the religious communities involved here, a basic feature of their differences lies in their use of contrasting socio-theological, mentally-encoded schemata: the Evangelical, group-focused, strong commitment frame (SCF) contrasts sharply with the more liberally-inclined, more 'individual-respecting', social normalcy frame (SNF). One of the consequences of this is that Evangelicals appear to enjoy a particularly strong sense of 'mental bonding of outlook', intersubjectivity, in which a high focus on group objectives and social outlooks is closely allied to their traditional beliefs. And although Evangelical, 'group- thought' intersubjectivity may aid mental resistance to change on some social issues (eg homosexual bishops), it may however also help maintain 'broad inclusion' in terms of social marginalisation of normally more common, but perhaps less 'culturally visible' kinds (eg the single and elderly).

Keywords: Critical Discourse Analysis; Critical Postliberalism; Intersubjectivity; Religion; Sexuality; Social Cognition; Sociolinguistics; The Church

Evangelicals as Exclusive?

1.1 Returning a few years ago to the parish church opposite the house in which I was born, I was not surprised but still somewhat amused at the vicar's response to my admitting my Evangelical status. 'There's room for everybody', was his quick reply. Implicitly a classic expression of the urban myth, as popular as the one that Arctic dwellers have 50 words for snow, that Evangelicals are ipso facto excluding.

Background Perspectives

2.1 As an English/British Evangelical with a research interest in Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA)/sociolinguistics of religion, I try to take an insider-outsider view of recent events surrounding the appointment of openly homosexual bishops in the UK (Jeffrey John: attempted) and USA (Gene Robinson: successful). (Though a free-church person by background, Anglicanism is also the church world in which I am currently domiciled.) There are apparently significant factors in the recent situations in the UK and USA of which only perhaps an insider — naturally in so far as this is a possible position in such a vast field — may be aware. These factors can be formalised and articulated in critical sociolinguistic — CDA — terms. My central point in this article revolves around the issue of differences in (religious) social cognition — the 'public mind' structure implicit in the language used by groups in religious contexts. The deep structure differences in religious social cognition between the two sides in the recent debate on homosexuality seems quite significant. To begin with, however, a few words about, firstly, the general religious landscape and the associated 'in-house' languages ('sociolects') involved, especially in the UK, and, secondly, the nature of the critical sociolinguistic method employed.

The Religious Hinterland and Associated 'In-House' Languages

3.1 There is of course a basic division between Evangelicals, who tend to hold to more traditional views, and liberals, who generally speaking espouse an outlook more consonant with modernity (or perhaps, as I shall suggest later, postmodernity). Evangelicals of most kinds tend to take a fairly traditional line on most matters of belief and morals, including an emphasis on personal faith and salvation, and the high status of the Bible in matters of judgment. However in extremely broad terms — and from a sociolinguistic angle — there is a not insignificant division between at least what one might call UK Mainstream Evangelicals (MEs) in the free churches, and Evangelical Anglicans (EAs). MEs tend to stress the local church as a meeting of local believers ('the gathered model'), whilst for the Anglicans (with their so- called 'catholic model') this is more of a grey area: they see themselves as being 'there for everybody' in some sense within a nation-wide parish system.

3.2 From my research, Evangelical Anglicans (as we shall see), although they rightly see themselves doctrinally at odds with the liberal Anglicans, nevertheless seem to speak a slightly hybrid version of the 'sociolect' of Evangelicalism — Evangelicalese — because they are embedded in the Anglican church with its 'wider' social perspectives. Church groups always have their own 'sociolect' — their 'in-house' language, with its specialised vocabulary and, in particular, underlying assumptions (especially their social cognition). Through the community's language usage (which drives a constant language-identity loop), people in the kind of religious groups we are addressing here are of course constructed in terms of a specific religious sociolect which helps to both reflect and affirm community identity (Heather, 2000 and 2002b; for discussion of, for example, the Methodist sociolect see van Noppen, 1999, for Adventese, Kapitzke, 1995).

3.3 Classic sociolectal examples at the level of vocabulary are the fact that the Charismatics (a major, 'lively' sector of mainly 'doctrinally tighter' MEs) talk typically about 'being on fire' for God, and 'having a heart for' his glory. Somewhat in contrast, the more pluralist, 'doctrinally looser' liberals (a major force in the Anglican church) may see themselves as 'not Christianly imperialistic'. I'll return to the issue of sociolect understood — more deeply — in terms of social cognition below (for an introduction to religious social cognition in terms of 'frame theory', see Heather, 1998b, and Schroeder, Heather and Lee, 1998). I have little direct experience of US Anglicanism/Episcopalianism per se but regularly worship (in a UK Evangelical Anglican milieu) with American Evangelicals in both large and small-group contexts. In so far as it is possible to make any generalisations about US religious groups, my American Evangelical friends typically have a very strong grasp of their faith, though they may have slightly different emphases at a social level (of which more below).

The Critical Sociolinguistic Background

4.1 As when it is used to analyse sociolects, sociolinguistics works mainly in descriptive mode to identify links between language and the group (including gender group) or geographical area to which speakers belong. Taking the sociolinguistic approach a step further in (crudely speaking) a Foucauldian-cum-Marxist perspective, critical sociolinguistics — Critical Discourse Analysis or CDA — adopts a more prescriptive eye. CDA seeks to identify how language may include or exclude individuals or groups (often in relation to covert agenda and hegemonic forces), with the aim of challenging social inequality, and encouraging social change (Fairclough, 1989 and 1992; Caldas-Coulthard and Coulthard, 1996; van Dijk, 1998).[1] Best known of course is the 'terrorist-or-freedom fighter?' perspective, which in recent years has been developed in quite an interesting manner through formalisation of the identification of the many ways social actors may be represented (van Leeuwen, 1996; also see discussion of 'isolated'/lonely' below). Also reasonably well appreciated is the power relations perspective (Fairclough, 1989; Bourdieu, 1991; for the church realm, see Percy, 1998, Heather, 1998a and 2000). Less generally appreciated perhaps — particularly in relation to religious discourse — are issues surrounding social cognition, the main focus of this article.

CDA Research and General Perspectives on Inclusion/Exclusion

5.1 After visiting many churches in the UK (especially S.England and Central Scotland) researching discourse from CDA viewpoints,[2] I've come to a number of conclusions which I submit have reasonable explanatory power. I don't — contrary perhaps to popular myth — overall see Evangelicals as particularly excluding. Indeed rather the opposite — if you happen to be single or elderly, for example. And part of recent discussion in the Anglican Church seems to me problematic because of its tendency to focus on one or at most two types of exclusion (of homosexuals and women). Following what I have observed during my research, I would prefer to see issues of social exclusion and allied insensitivities considered much more together; be it in regard to the unmarried (40% of UK church worshippers are unattached), the homosexual, or indeed a person such as myself, not feeling particularly included by the celebratory ethos of Mothering Sunday following the slow death a few months before of my mother-in-law, whom I had come to regard with great affection.

Evangelical Intersubjectivity and 'Broad Inclusion'

6.1 Classic Evangelicals in fact tend to be quite sensitive in this kind of area because they are bound together by their shared mental landscape, constituting their intersubjectivity. This tends to lead to a hinterland of 'broad inclusion', which in fact excludes insensitivities of the Mothering Sunday kind. This intersubjectivity,which supports 'broad inclusion' rather than excluding attitudes, may however make it difficult for new ideas to break into the loop. It is based on a mentally-encoded schema or discourse frame which controls both attitudes and behaviour, often quite precisely. In popular contexts I tend to illustrate the socially-including power of the Evangelical community-focused schema by attempting to address the question: why won't an Evangelical bachelor tell you he's going out tonight? (of which more below).

Evangelical Intersubjectivity and the Strong Commitment Frame

7.1 In their social cognition UK Evangelicals are mentally bound together by intersubjectivity based on a schema called the Strong Commitment Frame (SCF). The shared mental encoding of this frame is induced by the language-identity loop to which worshippers are continually exposed within the discourse in question. The SCF, with its linked social and theological components, may have local variations, but essentially has a structure such as: