Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Have a Nice Church!” first appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of Touchstone.
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Have a Nice Church!
by Peter Toon
When I pick up my mail and when I buy some groceries each morning, I am told to “have a nice day.” Then all day I hear about “nice” things, people and events.
Apparently the word nice has been increasingly used since the eighteenth century (with an acceleration in the recent past) to mean “agreeable” and “acceptable” and “pleasant” and “kind” and “attractive” and much else. This is significant since its earlier meaning (from nescius, “ignorant”) was nothing like the modern meaning.
A Nice Religion
Not surprisingly, nice and niceness have become part of the mindset and vocabulary of religion. In fact, one could say that being nice affects much of what is called “conservatism” or “orthodoxy” in the Church. So those who, like John the Baptizer speak as “a voice crying in the wilderness. . . ,” and like Martin Luther cry out, “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God!” are perceived as not nice. They may be admired at a distance but they are regarded as disturbers of the peace. Likewise those who ask difficult questions that folks do not want to face and who challenge short-sighted activism are also not being nice, for they too disturb the peace.
Since much modern mainstream “orthodoxy” feels the need to be nice, this means that it only can be bold to make a stand and to speak out for the Lord when this action comes within (what most conservatives in the pews perceive as) the spectrum of being nice. So, for example, homosexual practice may be condemned but not the modern contraceptive culture in which both homosexual and much heterosexual sex thrive. Apparently, this is because many conservatives do not like the former and, in the main, exist within the latter.
Bishops, especially, seem to feel the need to be regarded by their flocks and peers as nice (i.e., pleasant, kind, agreeable and so on). So for them, to a large degree, orthodoxy is governed by niceness.
At the parochial level being nice is certainly seen as a major value. Since all are trying to be nice there is and cannot be any biblical discipline (see Matthew 18:15ff.) concerning who is in membership, who receives the Holy Sacrament, and who sits on vestries and goes to diocesan councils. Thus a stand can be taken in modern controversies only on issues where niceness can be preserved.Nice or Godly?
Thus, being nice is an important factor in defining what can be called and known as “orthodox.” To be nice means that one cannot in practice truly be “faithful” and “courageous” and “virtuous.” All one can be is “acceptable” to one’s peers (which, if they run the show and pay the bills, is, of course, socially and politically important in a worldly sense).
Maybe we should recover the original meaning of nice from the Latin via Old French and Middle English. Nescius means “ignorant”: and “nice” originally meant “silly” or “stupid” or “wanton.” So we could say that to be nice, when this means pleasing the world rather than pleasing the Lord, is to be silly and stupid and wanton.
Apparently we have gone too far, making being nice a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Perhaps we need to consider the possibility of its transfer to the list of works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19–21), or, at least, to dispel it from Christian vocabulary and pursue instead the biblical virtues.
The reason why being nice has become so important for Christians is obviously a complex story to tell. However, it is fairly clear that a major component in the story is first the general feminization of culture in the last two centuries (which one can judge to be both a good and bad thing) and then, secondly, the influence of the modern (post-1960s) feminist movement (which one can judge to be mostly a bad thing).
It may be said that Adam was being nice when he followed Eve who wanted the nice fruit at the suggestion of the nice serpent. Since God had created man in divine order in his own image and likeness (Gen. 1:27), and that order was “male and female made he them,” Adam had a hierarchical duty to do what was right before God, his Creator, and unto his wife, God’s creature. Instead he decided to be nice in preference to being godly!
Based on the value of “being nice” and rejecting the virtue of “being faithful and obedient,” leaders in the modern churches are gradually letting go of “God the Father Almighty” in order to embrace “Goddess Sophia” or the like. The new deity makes her entrance slowly but surely via the ordination of women, the use of “inclusive” (i.e., politically correct) language for man and for God, the relaxation of biblical norms for marriage and the family, and the general attitude that “we must be nice.” Practically speaking this entrance is via good things—the Bible (but badly translated), the Liturgy (but badly written), the ordained Ministry (but badly ordered), marriage (but badly preserved), and church life (but badly ordered).
Maybe all who claim to be conservative and orthodox ought to try not to use the word nice for a month and see whether or not this helps us to think and to act as faithful Christians in the modern troubled Church.
Contributing Editor Peter Toon is president of the Prayer Book Society and lives near Dallas, Texas.
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