“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet” Shakespeare writes. And while that is true insofar as it goes (it would smell as sweet), it nevertheless would not be a rose. By name, it would be something else. Names and naming matter.
Names matter for churches, as well. I have been fascinated with this for some time, actually since I was appointed to Saint Francis UMC, a fairly new church start at the time with a fairly atypical name for a UMC. I became curious about the history of that choice: how did this congregation choose to be identified with this particular saint? My next congregation had a name that closely identified it with a specific place in its community, a place that carried negative connotation and the question became “how did that name shape the congregation’s self-identity and self-perception?” That question became so central in helping us name a new future that it become the subject of my doctoral project.
I am fascinated by our name. We were not always known as First UMC, Cary, you know. For a long season, we were simply Cary Methodist Church. I assume a change was required when White Plains was chartered, but I don’t know (I’ve been meaning to check with our historians). At some point, though, we made a choice to be First UMC. Why that name? A nod to our place in the chronological organizing of Methodist churches in the community? Some sense of priority and privilege? Why not Academy Street UMC or remain Cary UMC or Asbury or Wesley or….?
Naming matters. The nouns and adjectives we use to describe a church say something about how we understand it, what we understand it to be, and what we believe its mission and vision are. Calling a congregation friendly or family or community tells us something both about ourselves and the congregation.
We are in a season as a congregation and a denomination in which we are wrestling with questions of identity and future. How shall we name ourselves? The Nicene Creed suggests an answer. In it we affirm that the church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Those are bold and suggestive claims. Beginning Sunday, we will launch a new sermon series looking at each of these four in succession and consider what they say to us about who we are and who are called to be.
This Sunday, we will reflect on the church as “One” by sitting with Ephesians 4:1-6 and by listening to Jesus’ prayer for the church in John 17:6-11. How can we be one when we are many? How can we be united when we are far from unanimous? What does being “one” look like? How are we the answer to Jesus’ prayer?
I look forward to seeing you tomorrow as we with one voice make a claim about who we are and who God calls us to be.
Grace and peace.