Tradition

I’m attempting this as another post from my phone, written over the weekend and edited in my lunchbreaks. Hopefully, that means it will be short. We’ll see.

Tradition is one issue about which I am quite passionate. On the few occasions I choose not to bite my tongue, I invariably get a torrent of abuse for doing so. This usually happens on Twitter which, due to the character limitations, is rarely the best platform for nuanced discussion. Taking shortcuts in the thinking or using alternative, shorter, words can lead to misunderstanding, which, in my view, is probably the leading cause of disagreements and arguments. It is therefore my hope that I may avoid such unnecessary unpleasantness here.

This should not be seen as any sort of attack or dig at particular groups or individuals. That’s not the sort of thing I would do. Instead, the motivation for speaking out is the hope that it will prompt others to think and have a reevaluation. Though as the post will hopefully go on to show, this may be a bigger obstacle for some given the subject matter.

What do I mean by tradition? Roughly speaking, it’s the practice of doing something on the basis that it has been done before, repeatedly, and for an extensive period of time. This might be done by an individual for a number of years or it could be done by an identifiable group over centuries.

Most traditions are, I believe, benign. Some are helpful, some are unhelpful though some may be positively damaging. I would hope that that statement is relatively uncontroversial. Where we might all differ is on which traditions fall into which categories. Part of the difficulty is that many traditions are ingrained within various cultures to the extent that the traditions help to form a significant chunk of that cultural identity. To question the tradition may be seen to call in question that cultural identity, or even to attack it. If an individual feels strongly identified with that culture then in order to defend it against a perceived attack, the individual will feel compelled to defend the tradition. Please bear this in mind when considering critiques of those traditions which you have a vested interest in. It is not a wholesale attack on on a person’s identity; though if considered rationally it might to lead to some reconsideration of the use of tradition within a given community.

To give an example of a tradition that I would consider benign, having the family and friends of a wedding party sit on a particular side; bride’s family & friends on the left, groom’s family & friends on the right. There’s no functional purpose to this and though it may a cause a little consternation for those who are friends of both, there is neither any great reason to stick to it, nor is there any pressing need to depart from it.

Though I may write about tradition in general, I will often have in mind tradition within the church. As a nonconformist, I do have the luxury of not being tied into any one tradition. Though I have qualms about those who identify themselves through their tradition (or else use the term ‘christian’ as a synonym for their particular tradition), that is not to say that any and all traditions are inherently wrong, misleading or unhelpful. Part of the reason they develop is because of their helpfulness to a particular community in a particular society at a particular time.

Yet that specificity is the seed of why I don’t wholly embrace one tradition or another. The very nature of tradition carries with it a normative overtone that may not translate across cultures and centuries, resulting in a community that can be anachronistic or simply ill-fitted to the society in which it finds itself.

It often strikes me as odd that those who are most passionate about quite radical reform within our present western culture are often those who most strongly defend their own brand of traditionalism. If the church is to be at the heart of God’s plan to renew creation, surely the church has to be the first to change. There is a strange irony here, though. Of the many -isms and -ists that pervade our lexicon, christianity seems to have its fair share. One I recently came across is one that could be used a fair description of me: restorationist (though if you click the link you’ll see it’s quite a jumble). Broadly speaking, though, I hold to the idea that the modern church should have the same aims as the early church. So in some respects, I could be seen as an ultra-traditionalist. Though I would contend that that’s not quite the right way to look at it, as I would not advocate replicating the praxis of the church as it existed then, but rather advocating that a modern praxis should have recognisable echoes of the early church.

The advantage the non-conformist has over the traditionalist is that of picking and choosing what lessons from the past we can best learn from. One need not, say, accept and bind ourselves to everything that is recognisably  anabaptist, yet that does not mean we cannot look at their beliefs and practices, adapting the most helpful of these to our present circumstances. In other words, tradition is not something to be adhered to and defended in the face of prevailing circumstances and evidence; and it should certainly not be used as a substitute for scripture. Yet it can be regarded as a useful resource which may be used to help us understand where we have come from and how others have understood scripture, without having to adhere to the lessons of the past unquestioningly.

I’ve tried to talk in generalities here, though if you want more specifics, see other posts I’ve written on liturgical chanting, priests and saints. I hope that clarifies my position, though please do let me know if anything was unclear if there are any points you think I’ve overlooked.

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4 responses to “Tradition

  1. “As a nonconformist, I do have the luxury of not being tied into any one tradition.”

    I think this does depend on what kind of nonconformist you are. I know a few people are are ‘capital-B’ Baptists, if you see what I mean. The Baptist church has a few traditions of its own.

    There are a couple of things i’d like to mention. Firstly, I’m an Anglican, so I guess you’d call me a traditionalist. Anglicanism isn’t that easy to pin down though, in the sense of tradition: sure, we have the Book of Common Prayer – but we also have Fresh Expressions. We have ancient church buildings and churches meeting in school halls. I’d say Anglicanism at its best can and indeed *should* always adapt to be appropriate to the people of the day – part of what I believe Cranmer intended.

    And, of course, many people like the Anglican BCP tradition – which I’d say was a good enough reason for the moment to hold onto it (apart from theological reasons, but that’s another discussion).

    Secondly, while it is clearly wrong to set aside the word of God in favour of the traditions of men (i.e. Mark 7:8), I’d say that there was plenty of good about holding on to traditions which are not unbiblical and helpful. This is part of what Richard Hooker argues in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (had to slog through part of that for a course at college… it’s a toughie).

    I think tradition helps us to get away from some of the cultural idolatry of our age, i.e. to believe that everything new is good – that the latest fad is the “best way” of doing things, so much better than those idiots of the past who didn’t know anything.

    I do agree with you that you can’t hold on to tradition for tradition’s sake, but I think there is value in clinging on to it unless good reason and sense dictate otherwise. In particular within areas of, as Hooker called it, ‘adiaphora’ – areas where Scripture is silent on the matter (such as, perhaps, which instruments you choose to have with your music – if any).

    All this said, I think it’s difficult to have a conversation in the abstract about tradition. Traditions can be good or bad. Depends which specific traditions you’re talking about as to how worthwhile it is to hold on to them.

    • In general, I use the term nonconformist to mean anyone who doesn’t conform to a particular established denomination. Though I am aware some use it to mean ‘Protestant but not Anglican’. So I would regard ‘big B Baptists’ to be conformist, as well as Methodists & URCers.

      I do have issues with the book of common prayer, as I’ve come across quite a few anglicans for whom it usurped the bible. It also illustrates my point quite well, as it is adhered to strictly today by some, even though it was written for a community several hundred years ago. When I’ve suggested that someone gives up its usage for a while, that’s when I get the negative reactions alluded to. To me, it demonstrates a rejection of the freedom we are afforded in Christ in favour of religious legalism.

      That said, from what I have seen of Fresh Expressions, it is greatly encouraging. One of the most sensible comments on women bishops I heard came from a Fresh Expressions advocate. They pointed out that the issue wasn’t the CofE’s attitude to women that is the problem; it’s the CofE’s attitude to bishops. But I don’t think it’ll be long before anglicans catch up with the rest of the church.

  2. “Though I am aware some use it to mean ‘Protestant but not Anglican’.”

    According to the online dictionary both definitions are valid. Although ‘Nonconformist’ to mean someone protestant but not an Anglican is usually spelled with a capital ‘N’, so apologies for the confusion.

    “When I’ve suggested that someone gives up its usage for a while, that’s when I get the negative reactions alluded to. To me, it demonstrates a rejection of the freedom we are afforded in Christ in favour of religious legalism.”

    I do agree that you can’t replace the Bible with the BCP. Of course you can’t. But I do think the BCP is Biblical as well. It’s a lot more Biblical than many ‘free’ / non-liturgical services where the leader can say whatever comes into their heads (I grew up in a free evangelical church so I have a little experience of this).

    Now, if someone refuses to budge from the BCP simply by virtue of the fact that they’re used to it, that is of course putting the traditions of men above God. But, I do think there are contexts today where there are good reasons to use the BCP.

    Really I think I’m in agreement with you over tradition; it’s never worth hanging onto something “Just because”. But, just because something is tradition, doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons for holding onto it.

    “But I don’t think it’ll be long before anglicans catch up with the rest of the church.”

    I know this is a tangent, but I don’t think the church having women bishops is a matter of “catching up”. It’s not a matter of tradition, it’s a matter of theology. It needs to be done rightly.

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