Tag Archives: tradition

How would you like your church? Rare or well done

I wanted to pick up and expand a little on a point I made in last week’s post on the breaking of bread. In it, I said

This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way.

This may have been open to misinterpretation, so a little more clarity may be needed. When I say that things such as robes, procession, chanting, etc are unnecessary, I mean precisely that: unnecessary. I am not saying that they are inherently wrong. My point is that they are things which, though maybe originally intended to help, can end up getting in the way. Whether one includes or excludes these things is merely a matter of taste. My only disagreement is when people insist that to have them (or to not have them) is the “proper” way to do things. i.e. that to have them (or to exclude them) is a necessity.

Let’s pick up on the word ‘raw’ for a moment. It serves us quite well by way of analogy. Beef carpaccio is raw. I’ve had it a few times and quite like it. Others I know can’t stand it. They might prefer a steak that is well done, with a peppercorn sauce on top . We can both equally claim to like beef, but we just like it done differently. The problem arises when one or other makes a claim that ours is how beef should be done. i.e. to denigrate the authenticity of the other. To me, peppercorn sauce obscures and spoils the flavour of good beef; to others, it enhances the flavour.

We each can get entrenched in our ways, but it’s good to occasionally try things from another’s point of view. To use a different, but still culinary, analogy, I can’t stand tea. But once a year, I try a cup, to see if my tastes have changed. So far, they haven’t, but as it doesn’t make me physically ill, there’s no harm in trying something different once in a while.

Last year, I offered to take part in a tradition swap, where I would swap my nonconformism for a more traditionalist expression of christianity. There were no takers. I was rather disappointed by this, as it seemed that plenty were keen for me to temporarily give up my ways and see the virtue in theirs, but they were not willing to give up their ways and see the virtue in mine (seemingly, because of a kind of snobbery that looks down evangelicalism as a lesser form of christianity).

Christianity is a great and varied thing, with many different expressions. When we get used to one, there’s a risk we closet ourselves away and think of the paraphernalia that is built up in our expression as being somehow important. Then, when we see that others don’t do X or Y that we do, there’s a temptation to think that they are in some way lacking. I’m not suggesting we should all abandon our own churches and try a different one each week. Rather, just once in a while, maybe we should put down something we are holding on to in order to test if it necessary. Then, maybe, with a spare hand, pick up something else from another expression of christianity and see if it is helpful.

The parable of the fish and the penguin

There was once a fish and a penguin swimming close to one another in the Antarctic waters. The fish said to the penguin, “Everything we move in is water. It’s all around us; it’s what we breathe and is the medium which sustains us.”

The penguin replies, “It may be all around you all the time but I only come down here from time to time. I am mostly surrounded by air.”

“Nonsense!” replied the fish. “What you call air is just a type of water. Ask any fish around here and they’ll tell you that we spend our whole lives immersed in it.”

“I am not a fish,” replies the penguin. The fish eyes the penguin suspiciously.

“Maybe you’re not, but this is fish territory,”

“Fish do live here, but so do others. The sea is a diverse and rich place,” said the penguin.

“Yes. It’s a pity all you penguins are the same,” said the fish, rather tartly.

“Oh no. To the non-penguin, there may be a strong family resemblance, but there’s a fair variety amongst us too. An emperor is quite different from a rock-hopper. I’m sure if you left the water occasionally and came to live among us, you would see,” explained the penguin.

“I couldn’t possibly leave the water. It is what we live in. Why are you so opposed to water?” asked the fish.

“I’m not against water, per se,” says the penguin. “I just couldn’t stand the idea of being in it all the time. I like to dip in occasionally, get some sustenance from it and then go and live in my own environment.”

And with that, they go they separate ways. The fish dives down into the murky depths, while the penguin hops and takes a gulp of air.


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.