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

Sociological Research Online, vol. 9, no. 1, <>

Received: 27 Oct 2003     Accepted: 19 Feb 2004    Published: 28 Feb 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 ëmental bonding of outlookí, 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).

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

Evangelicals as Exclusive?

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

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

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.

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, 2000and 2002b; for discussion of, for example, the Methodist sociolect see van Noppen, 1999, for Adventese, Kapitzke, 1995).

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

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, 1989and 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 though 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

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'

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

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:

Notes: overt references (discouraged by the discourse) to 'keenies' (the 'keen ones' in the church) would imply that not being keen is OK; 'walk' is more prescriptive than the potentially more exploratory 'journey'; 'work' ('the children's work') implies the speaker has the correct 'many as part of the one perspective', like an employee's vision ('Betty in Accounts') of the many departments of a secular business being unified. (This use of 'work' implicitly highlights the SCF 'self as resource for the church' view, contrasting – pace Foucault -- with the opposing 'church as resource for the self' perspective.)

Discussion of Evangelicalism can focus too much on the issue of the individual's personal salvation. Also significant is their group status encoded by the social cognition of the SCF. Hence the very subtle but telling aspects of the SCF-based Evangelical sociolect which tends to encourage community members to continually 'explore who we are' by constant (modal) group affinity messages. Classic is the isolated/lonely dialectic, as highlighted in the above illustration of the SCF. As a very general rule, most UK Evangelicals tend in public/community prayer situations to pray for the isolated, not the lonely. Praying euphemistically for social actors (van Leeuwen, 1996) represented as the (in-groupish) 'isolated', rather than as the (out-groupish) 'lonely', is a subtle but major symptomatic indication of the 'spiritual family' ethos of most UK 'gathered model' Evangelicals at least. Strictly speaking, Evangelicals Anglicans (who seem to speak a slightly distinct, Anglicanised variant of Evangelicalese) are the major exception to this, largely because of their 'catholic model' hinterland.

The same situation of Evangelical Anglicans tending to be an exception applies with what appears to be the main distinguishing discursive practice of UK Mainstream Evangelicalism: the exclusion of the pattern 'special/especially' + social category. This is extremely common elsewhere. So except in politically correct contexts ('appreciated by all adults, but especially the elderly'), the SCF-based Mainstream Evangelicals never use phrases such as 'especially the young' or 'especially young families' which are quite a normal part of the discourse these days in 'catholic model' contexts.

It is the intersubjectivity based centrally on the SCF which provides an explanation as to why an Evangelical bachelor won't tell you he's going out tonight. He doesn't map onto you the idea you think he's got a sad life because he's not married. The SCF, which you and he mentally share as you talk together, has no slot for singleness: it's all about us – whether you're married, unmarried, 5 or 95. (Theologically speaking the background is that there is 'no male or female in Christ'.) A cognate issue is that children are never cute in a Mainstream Evangelical church, where the culture, rather like that in a secular business setting (recall the 'work' issue), tends to discourage seeing children in naturally appealing ways. (So, no nativity plays please, we're Evangelicals, and – sensitively handled -- Mothering Sundays still only just appearing on the horizon.)

The power of such discourses is of course well established. In fact, as a 'native' of this culture deeply imbued with the power of the SCF, when I go into a church on a visit, if I see a child and think, 'that child's cute', I know I'm not in an Evangelical Church. For similar reasons, as a rule of thumb, the more Evangelical the church, the further from the church door will be the child protection documents. The issues involved, strongly foregrounded by the state as well as UK society in general at the present time, tend to be much more foregrounded in non-SCF than in SCF ecclesial cultures. The SCF's failure to highlight these child-centred issues against current trends to the contrary, seems to resonate with the SCF's culture of tending to downgrade the individual/domestic-self vis-à-vis the group-self.

It is very striking that against this kind of background Evangelicals tend not to make social Freudian slips (excluded by the group-focused SCF).[3] These occur with rather startling frequency elsewhere. ('One of the wisemen is fairly black', 'the beggar outside could work but chooses not to', 'at the beginning of another work-school week', 'how terrible not to like children', 'the busy lives we all seem to have these days', and of course the more subtle 'Family Service [creche facilities]' (why not '[transport facilities]' for the elderly?).) This 'secular type' political incorrectness is alien to classic Evangelical thought, though you may observe it beginning to appear as you pass through Evangelical/Middle Anglican land as you travel into the catholic model sphere which abuts liberal country.

* But what about US Evangelicals?

In my years in France I frequently found that French Protestants, living in a culture where they were not over- represented, were pleased to meet somebody like myself from a national culture where their outlook was more prominent. Now, in my turn, I often experience cognately pleasant emotions when meeting US Evangelicals, whose enthusiasm for the faith is often infectious. There are, however, apparent minor UK-US differences – notably relative to attitudes towards the family. The fact is that UK Evangelicals are preoccupied with the individual and the ecclesial community, but not really the family. This is not because the family is not important on the UK Evangelical scene, rather the opposite. Like the existence of God, family values are so hardwired as a basic value that focusing on them would be regarded as almost odd – even 'redneck' perhaps. Like an English person talking about tea drinking all the time, or a French person constantly bringing up the topic of red wine. (A further major factor for UK Evangelicals -- for whom scripture is always the guide, whatever the topic -- is that Christ is hardly a family-focused person, of which more later.)

One prominent classic explanation for UK-US differences in this matter is that US Evangelicals have engaged much more with modernity than have their UK coreligionists. This seems fair for as far as it goes, and, although the situation is now changing among the UK people, it has mostly been true that the latter have generally been less publicly vocal than have their US counterparts on moral questions. However I think the issues also go rather deeper than this. In UK perspective, the apparently typical US approach to the family might be seen as a cultural variation. Elsewhere (Heather, forthcoming a), I attempt to explain this situation in terms of a US 'creole' constituted by their socio-theological grammar which is particularly rich in local elements. In this case presumably reflecting a society with a hinterland in frontier and immigrant family politics. Cognate cultural features affecting socio-theological grammar at local level would be, say, an emphasis on singing Gospel in some Evangelical groups, and singing Psalms unaccompanied in others – as on the Scottish islands. The socio-theological grammar of Evangelicalism – like the parser of a computer compiler – is flexible enough to cope with variations such as these at 'creole' level. Beyond this level, however, when travelling across the spectrum away from classic Evangelicalism, the mentally encoded schema begins to change.

* From the Strong Commitment Frame to the Social Normalcy Frame

US Evangelicals may have slight variations at 'creole' level, but the other type of variation, evidenced by UK Evangelical Anglicans, seems slightly more significant from a UK Mainstream Evangelical viewpoint. UK Evangelical Anglicans, who seem less sharply group-focused than other Evangelicals in terms of social cognition, appear to have their foot slightly-in-two-camps at a socio-theological level. They appear to present a kind of transitional form in terms of social cognition. For example, on the one hand their discourse may well include key SCF terms like 'work' (with, as we have seen, its subtle one-as-part-of-the-unified-many connotations). But at the same time it may also allow the SNF term 'journey', rather than sticking to the 'more engaged' SCF term 'walk'. At a sociolectal level (especially in terms of the religious 'public mind'), beyond the transitional Evangelical Anglicans along the spectrum is the full liberal forum. Partly reflecting liberalism (at a theological level), and, I suspect, partly mirroring a tendency towards the catholic model (at more or less a social level), comes the world of the Social Normalcy Frame:

Notes: among UK classic Evangelicals, gender differences – even the status of motherhood – tend not to be emphasised in their community culture strongly focused on 'spiritual siblinghood'. (Extracts from accounts of SCF and SNF (are about to/) appear in journals as far apart on the theological spectrum as the theologically conservative Evangelicals Now [] (Heather, 2003a), and the prominently liberal Modern Believing [ htm] (Heather, forthcoming b).)

SNF inhabits a rather different world from that of SCF. SNF seems much closer to secular society in the attitudes it promotes and tends to map from individual to individual (even in terms of body language). In the UK, the rule-of-thumb question which will generally indicate which schema you are witnessing is: 'I'm not coming to church this evening, the family's coming round'. If the discourse disallows you to overtly articulate this, you are in SCF, otherwise in SNF. The discriminatory power of this 'family's coming round' utterance is striking particularly because not only does SNF permit this statement to be made openly, but, typically, in SNF people are mystified that anybody could conceivably problematise it. (Though in a slightly messy complication, UK Evangelical Anglicans may show signs of having both the SCF and the SNF because of their state church embedding – and perhaps therefore show some signs of being 'contradictorily constructed', in the CDA terminology (Fairclough, 1992).)

* Gene, Jeffrey etc?

Against this background focused on social cognition, recent events in the Anglican Church can be seen in a fresh light. As a hard-nosed level, Evangelicalism seems to fit rather well with the fact that the SCF maps conveniently onto a central aspect of Christianity: looking from a social perspective it clearly tends to be more a collectivist that an individualist religion. UK Chief Rabbi Sachs points out that Christianity is intrinsically much more group orientated than Judaism which, despite its obvious community focus, is underlyingly in fact more family-centred. Even if a US Evangelical for cultural reasons might not dwell on this observation, it is quite natural for UK Evangelicals to take in their stride the fact that Christ's first and last recorded adult social acts are to separate his mother from her (in the final case at least seven) biological offspring. Christ's final act on the cross of transferring his mother to the care – recalling the social and theological components of the SCF -- of his group- and ideological-sibling (John, 'the beloved disciple') sits well with UK Evangelical perspectives.

The Gene Robinson and Jeffrey John affairs, despite the massive emotional and cultural baggage they carry, seem capable of being interpreted in objective and logical terms. The more individualistically-orientated SNF (with its interrelational mantra 'are you like me socially or domestically?' with which SNF folk typically appear to be unconsciously familiar), can find it possible to include a slot for all sorts of individually-qualified alternatives and lifestyles. Not so the SCF ('are you a 'spiritual sibling' or 'spiritual colleague'?') with its group- focused intersubjectivity. In more popular contexts I would be tempted to explore (whimsically) an analogy between the ant-like, deeply-shared identity of Evangelicals at group level, and that of Star Trek's Borg. (The latter are part-human, part-robot, and share a central, technologically unified consciousness.) The minds of classic Evangelicals are interconnected through the slots of the SCF, which is in powerful and subtle ways centred on the group. As in an actual family, the group will support social inclusivity for the old, unmarried, non-parent etc. – what I'm calling 'broad inclusion'. (In contrast, I have very recently spoken to elderly female informants in both England and Scotland silently angry at the prevalence of the 'especially the young' motif in their SNF-influenced, 'official' ecclesial environments.)

So the innovations foregrounded by recent events involving Gene Robinson and Jeffrey John don't really fit with some very powerful mechanisms centred on SCF intersubjectivity / social cognition. The postmodernist 'moving on' character of the SNF may make place for this new material. This is much more difficult for the SCF, firstly, in terms of what the SCF's slots can permit ideologically (compare the SCF's 'Theological component': doctrine – 'tighter'). And, closely linked to this, secondly, also in terms of the mental, community-focused, intersubjective binding which may tend to make change much harder. 'Resistance' (to adopt the famous catchphrase of the cosmically imperialist Borg) 'may be futile'. SNF's social cognition appears to be much looser in all sorts of ways: compare how SNF's lower emphasis on the community-self gels with its 'Theological component': doctrine – 'looser'. (A classic correlation of the 'people with blonde hair usually have blue eyes' kind.)

In colloquial terms, Gene and Jeffrey are at odds with the social cognition of the 'Evangelical ant- hill' (which at the same time however, we may recall, will disallow me from mapping social normalcy onto an Evangelical bachelor). Extending from this perspective, I tend to take an Evangelical Postliberal viewpoint. This sees religions such as Christianity at least in part as a faith-based socio-theological grammar which (a) produces 'sentences' of belief and practice now (paradigmatically) for the church community, as well as (b) seeking to replicate the community's faith-based grammar/cultural DNA for the future (syntagmatically). Gene and Jeffrey in particular threaten this syntagmatic axis – the more important one of the two with 'strongly grammatical' ideologies like communism and traditional Christianity.

Further to this, I suspect that, with such a 'grammatical' religion as traditional Christianity, once you say that, as it were, 'the Gods don't really live on Mount Olympus', it's gone. In stage 2 the network of metaphors which you may then develop under liberalism to articulate your spirituality may be useful for you, but your children may find a different set closer to how they are.[4] Postliberalism, with its focus (in the version I espouse at least) on paradigmatic and syntagmatic processes can provide a more realistic rubric under which traditional religion can still be both understood and perpetuated. Cognate with this is the view that religions like Christianity seem to be a bit like water (so back to the Arctic snow, perhaps) – they can only exist over time in certain states. If the survival of 2,000 years is to be continued we may have to stay close, in a final new metaphor, to something like a traditional conception of what the original recipe is.[5]

* The Strong Commitment Frame -- in Cyberspace

Finally, further evidence for the usefulness of the schema-based perspective comes from cyberspace. In the joint research carried out with two colleagues (Schroeder, Heather and Lee, 1998), it was clear to me that religious services carried out in Multi-user Virtual Reality (MUVR []) via the Internet leant themselves, with interesting adjustments, quite naturally to the (Evangelical) Charismatic form of worship at global (in reality, mainly UK and US) level. Participants in one real-time MUVR service we studied ranged from a young boy slightly lost in the medium, to – across a generational gap if ever there was one -- two older men troubled by thoughts of divorce. These socially disparate participants were bound together however, to some extent at least, even in cyberspace, by their shared socio-theological, community-focused social cognition: ultimately, the strong commitment frame.

* Notes

1 So far much of the work that has been undertaken on religious language using CDA seems to have been carried out within my own project (esp. Heather, 2000). Pioneering – and excellent -- critical work in an allied though slightly wider perspective has also been published in relation to the religious literacy of an Australian Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Kapitzke, 1995). A student registered at the University of Lancaster (the British 'home' of CDA) has also recently begun a doctorate on the application of CDA to church language in Canada. In broader terms, most of the main work on religious discourse in general (outside the theological sphere) seems to have been undertaken by anthropologists (for a good point of departure for this strand see Keane, 1997).

2 I have in addition also in the past been a member of churches in Wales, Northern Ireland and several parts of France.

3 Analogously, at a (natural) family gathering, if your social cognition makes you constantly aware that granny is sitting in the corner, you are unlikely to make a social Freudian slip about the elderly.

4 Another interesting cognate situation is the way that Marxism -- as we know, quite parallel to Christianity in some aspects -- could not really survive Gorbachev. At a kind of 'cultural physics' level – consonant with a Postliberal approach -- both communism and Christianity appear to have a dynamic which cannot cope with too much strategic change. (For attempts to explore church 'linguistic physics' in terms of frames and a discoursal dialectic, and also in terms of an ecumenical model based on concordia discors and complex systems, see Heather, 2002b, 2003b and 2004.)

5 Note: Postliberalism is associated with the so- called Yale School of Theology, centring on theologians such as Lindbeck and Frei of Yale University Divinity School. By combining critical sociolinguistic and Postliberal perspectives, part of my project has been to develop Critical Postliberalism (CP), a new sub-branch of theology. Critical Postliberalism combines Lindbeck's (1984) Postliberal notion of religion as a cultural-linguistic system, with CDA. CP perceives religion as being not just an intrasystemically-coherent, Wittgensteinian-type language-game, but as being extrasystemic in terms of social cognition, as key terms used can be linked to one or other poles of the SCF-SNF dialectic. (I have also developed (Heather, 2000, 2002a etc) more general accounts of the two discourses which accompany these two frames, R1 and R2, of which 'isolated' (R1/SCF), and 'lonely' (R2/SNF), discussed above, are basic examples.)


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