Refrain or Restraint?

June 22, 2006

Episcopalian delegates spent a lot of time debating the wording of a response to the worldwide Anglican Communion concerning the issue of ordaining homosexual bishops. A lot of time was spent debating what word to use or not to use. The debate shows the importance of being careful with what words we use.

Reverend Ian Douglas, a member of the legislative committee developing Resolution A165 and other key resolutions, explained "We are people of the word -- both the Holy Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer -- so we are a community of faith that is very deliberate in our language and the words we use to express our love for God and for one another."

In case you do not think words really matter, consider that the delegates failed to approve the use of the word "refrain" but did vote for the use of "exercise restraint." At first glance the difference may seem odd since the two words seem quite similar.

However, consider the slight differences between the two. "Refrain" suggests a complete stop. "Restraint" could be a complete stop but also carries the nuance of simply limiting. The failed wording seems to slam the door shut, while the approved wording suggests that the door could be slightly cracked or at least not locked.

Additionally, the action in the first wording was on the word "refrain," thus making the focus on that stoppage. In the approved wording the action is not the limiting word but actually "exercise." The inclusion of this word offers a couple of nuances. First, it suggests that it is a positive and healthy action that should be done. Second, it also uses a word that most people say they want to do but do not, which again allows the possibility that the door is not completely shut and locked.

Thus, it is an important difference that "exercise restraint" passed and "refrain" did not. The question now is whether the actions of the body will be affected by the wording that was chosen. As Jim Naughton explains over at the Daily Episcopalian, "the resolution the Convention passed yesterday urges but does not compel the rejection of gay candidates to the episcopacy." The use of "refrain," however, would have sent a different message.

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