(written prior to the General Synod elections in 2021; updated 2 March 2023)
You know how a word passes entirely under your radar for years, and then suddenly you see it everywhere? Well, I’ve become alert to “winsome” recently. I’ve seen it in job adverts for Christian institutions (one here, another here), as well as applied to various Christian leaders like John Stott and John V. Taylor, Bishop of Winchester from 1974-84, and I feel sure I’ve also seen it applied to Tim Dakin, the outgoing Bishop of Winchester. It even turns up in a puff for a book on the theology of sport (“in winsome fashion it advances a conversation that is much needed”). And now it has turned up on a document posted on Twitter by Fr Steve Hilton, something which appears to come from a handy 2021 guide for General Synod election candidates issued by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS), offering “examples of winsome election statements”.
What does it mean? It’s not a word I have ever used, and after doing a little research I am not sure I ever shall. It’s one of those words which seems to have acquired its own meaning in some evangelical Christian circles.
Starting before all this Christian winsomeness, the Oxford English Dictionary takes it back to Old English wynsum and Saxon wunsam, meaning “Pleasant, delightful, agreeable. Obsolete.” The win part means “joy” or “a source of joy”. The modern sense of the word is given as “Pleasing or attractive in appearance, handsome, comely; of attractive nature or disposition, of winning character or manners”. Other dictionaries go for “sweetly or innocently charming”. But I wonder: is this charm for its own sake, or is it the idea that the charm, or the attractive appearance, somehow wins somebody over to your point of view?
Turning now to Christian uses, it’s not an entirely new word in church circles. In the November 1951 edition of The Venerabile, a publication put together by those involved with the Venerable English College in Rome, there’s a poem by their archivist Henry E.G. Rope, entitled Ostia Antica, in which children “request/Some picture of a saint with winsome mien”. And nor is it as girly as I had assumed from all that sweet innocent charm: The Witness for 10 December 1921 includes a reference to Roman Catholic priests in the USA with Irish names and a “commanding presence” which “tends to make them winsome to men in their congregations”.
Here, being winsome does seem to suggest “winning some” to Christ. There is a 2020 book entitled Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without dividing the Church by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer. It’s a follow-up to their Winsome Persuasion: Christian influence in a post-Christian world (2017). Persuasion… interesting word. Indian Hills Community Church website has a 2018 article on “Winsome Evangelism”. The author, Ed Daly, notes that you’re not going to find the word in your concordance, but the absence of any equivalent in Hebrew or Greek doesn’t stop him arguing that it encapsulates James 3:17-18. He defines it as “the idea of gracious speech and a loving demeanor characterized by joy, wisdom, faith (total trust), a sure and steadfast hope without compromising on the truth and our convictions, and above all compassion”. The Church Mission Society magazine The Call for Autumn 2020 includes a church planter in Valparaiso asking for prayer that “the church missionary communities … continue to be active, fervent and winsome”. Ed Stetzer gave a talk to Saddleback Church in November 2020 on “Winsome Witness in a Warring World” (maybe going too far on the alliteration front?). Being winsome, he says, is having “an attractive personality”.
Some winsome fans are more explicit about how this quality is effective in mission and witness. An article from 2015 tells readers that “The Bible calls us to be winsome for the gospel”, using 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23 about becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some”. So, Paul suggests, you change your approach according to those to whom you are talking – be a Jew to Jews, be under the law to those under the law, be weak to the weak and so on. Of course, he really was all those things: he wasn’t faking it! And another article is explicit that being winsome is “to be persuasive, to win people to your side”. Maybe not so “innocent” after all?
Also from 2020 is the article “Should Christians be winsome?” by Jim and Amy Spiegel. This helpfully points out that plenty of Jesus’ behaviour was “not exactly the stuff of winsomeness”: overturning the tables in the Temple is just one example. They also challenge the frequent claim that being winsome is obeying Jesus’ “unless you change and become like little children…”, pointing out that this is about humility rather than “charming naivety”, and that “there are no biblical commands to be winsome”.
And then in March 2023 a very strange piece was published by The Gospel Coalition: Sex won’t save you (but it points to the one who will). This took the idea that male/female marriage represents Christ and the Church and pushed it rather further than I’ve seen it taken before; for example, “back in the wedding suite, the bride embraces her most intimate guest on the threshold of her dwelling place and welcomes him into the sanctuary of her very self. She gladly receives the warmth of his presence and accepts the sacrificial offering he bestows upon the altar within her Most Holy Place.” There’s more of it if you can stand the strain. One of the many comments on this was “This feels super yucky and like something a groomer would have you read in youth group”. Someone else noted that this “article about how sex is like the relationship between God and the church is more than enough evidence that just because you can make something into a metaphor doesn’t mean you should.”
If you look at the Twitter feed for The Gospel Coalition, it states that it “supports the church by providing resources that are trusted and timely, winsome and wise, and centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ.” There we are again. Winsome? What is pleasant, or delightful, or agreeable, or innocently charming, about these bizarre images of sex?
What worries me in this call for winsomeness is that it is not entirely honest. Certainly, we all need to find ways to talk to those with whom we disagree in a respectful way. But being sweet and charming and doing it with a smile doesn’t negate the basic disagreement, nor does it acknowledge it as such. In so many ways, I would like a more honest church, not a more winsome one.
I’ve seen it cropping up here and there, and I find it very off-putting! For me, it has associations with self-conscious pretty-prettiness: sweet and charming, perhaps, but very much aware of its effect.
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I always associate the word with simpering Austen heroines trying to catch the eye of suitable men. Otherwise it’s an odd word to use in the contexts you quote. Perhaps it’s about camouflage for unacceptable misogyny or homophobia, eg ” I hate gays and women but if I smile sweetly while I say nasty things, perhaps I’ll get away with it”.
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I had always read it primarily as being more like sensitive and being able to engage with people well, so I was rather surprised when I saw what the dictionary definition is. I don’t know if more people read it and mean it like I do, and that the dictionary definition merely hasn’t kept up with the changing meaning, or if I had simply misunderstood what people meant by it. Either way, if it’s meant as the dictionary definition, then I’d agree it’s probs not the best word to use or the best way to think about how we should have discussions and engage with people as a church.