As you’ll have noticed, we have this tool called the alphabet. As well as the whole expressing-and-preserving-our-thoughts thing, one useful aspect of this is that it allows us to group together words so that we can find what we are looking for in a long document. As a historian, when I started working on early modern printed books, I was alarmed to find that the earliest indices put together all words beginning with ‘A’ but didn’t bother with further alphabetical ordering within the ‘A’ list; still, it was better than nothing.
And then there’s another reason for putting together words starting with the same letter: the poetic device of alliteration. The world seems to be divided as to whether it counts as alliteration if the repeated initial letter (or sound) of the words is a vowel rather than a consonant, so I’m already into controversial territory with my title.
A personal opinion: I think Christians tend to take alliteration too far.
In a previous blog post, I mentioned as an example the title “Winsome Witness in a Warring World”. The argument, I assume, is that such titles are memorable. Maybe it’s me, but I find that they aren’t. The Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission are Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform and Treasure; I don’t find that helps me remember them, as I end up desperately searching my brain for another word starting with ‘T’, and the results can be … well, unhelpful.
Sometimes the use of alliteration is actually doing something rather sinister in suggesting a false link between items, as in a song from the 1983 musical Poppy, ‘The Blessed Trinity’, with its line ‘Civilisation, commerce and Christianity/All go together, and all begin with C’. This musical, on the topic of the Opium Wars, was performed as a pantomime encouraging the traditional participation from the (adult) audience. I’ve only found one review online, from the Imperial College Student Union’s Felix (p.7) but I’m pleased to see that the reviewer enjoyed it as much as I did. The lead story from that issue of Felix, by the way, is ‘Peaceful picket: porn party provokes prolific protest’. It’s not just in churches that we apparently like a bit of alliteration.
My current aversion to alliteration was stimulated by noting two forms of wording (even hashtags) on Twitter in comments on equal marriage: ‘Sodomising secularists’ and ‘Sacramentalising sodomy’. As a historian I know that the word ‘sodomy’ used to mean pretty well anything that wasn’t heterosexual PiV sex, but we’ve moved away from that and today it normally means simply anal sex. Here I’d like to leave aside the strange ideas that only gay people do this – even the Living in Love and Faith book would put people right on that, if they were to read it rather than just talk about it – and that they don’t do anything else that we could possibly count as ‘sex’. Instead, let’s just think about what the alliteration is doing here.
George Weigel, who holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote in the National Review at Obama’s re-election:
Those who booed God, celebrated an unfettered abortion license, canonized Sandra Fluke, and sacramentalized sodomy at the Democratic National Convention have been emboldened to advance the cause of lifestyle libertinism through coercive state power.
Ooh, ‘lifestyle libertinism’ too; a bonus.
Sacramentalising sodomy does seem to have originated as a phrase favoured by some Roman Catholics. Here’s another reference, from someone blogging as Damsel of the Faith, ‘Spiritual daughter of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Faithful to Eternal Rome, Fighting with the Spirit of St. Joan of Arc for the True Faith’ (wow), commenting in 2018 on one of Pope Francis’s advisors proposing liturgical blessing of same-sex unions as part of ‘closer pastoral care’ for lesbian and gay people. Or from the same year, on a discussion board called Mother of God, ‘DeGaulle’ commenting that ‘someone who attempts to sacramentalise sodomy is equivalent to performing a black mass’. The alliteration is clearly meant to increase the impact of the phrase, maybe drawing attention away from its utter irrelevance.
Yet the place where alliteration has long reigned is in the evangelical sermon. The Dedication, Dilemma and Decision of St Paul. The Age, Appetites and Apparel of John the Baptist. The Beatitudes as Blessed are the Poor/Pining/Pliant/Panting/Pitying/Pure/ Peacemakers/Persecuted. And so on. There are even alliterative guides to using alliteration in your sermon, such as this one from a Baptist minister, which does observe that “You can become more interested in alliterating than in why you are alliterating”. Or Jared C. Wilson’s 5 Cs of Preaching which suggests checking that your sermon is Contextual, Convictional, Clear, Compassionate and Cross-Centred.
A helpful guide to when, and when not, to use alliteration in your sermons could be useful for those who like to rant about sacramentalising sodomy. On one online guide, the first rule, ‘Know what it’s for’ – to add clarity; ‘it can be harmful or wasteful if it reduces clarity’. So don’t force it. Don’t stretch words beyond what they mean. I suspect that the ‘Beatitudes with the letter P’ sermon would do precisely that.
Those ‘SS’ labels use the word ‘sodomy’ with the intention of shocking. They don’t just misleadingly focus on this one sex act; even by focusing on sex, they ignore all the other aspects of marriage. ‘Sacramentalising committed relationships’ doesn’t have the same ring to it, though, does it? Nor does ‘Sacramentalising loading the dishwasher’.
Rather than coming up with snappy slogans (oops), how about concentrating on the fullness of people’s lives, the reality of what LGBTQI+ people and their allies are asking for: being able to marry in their churches, being able as married people to be priests in the wider church? Preaching.com has not only run an article on why alliterative sermons can be really, really bad, but also a 2016 piece by Karl Vaters on how “Alliteration is no longer cool”. Nobody any longer is trying to memorise the sermon; the time spent trying to start each point with the same letter is utterly wasted and a distraction from engaging with the text; people would rather go away with one practical idea for their lives, and real life isn’t alliterative or rhyming; it comes across not as authoritative, but phony. “Pastors think it’s clever. Listeners think it’s fake”.
And so are snappy alliterative slogans.
*A phrase apparently going back to 1989; https://www.macmillandictionary.com/buzzword/entries/see-what-I-did-there.html