I have seen some very interesting conversation going on across social media about tradition and the Church – this has especially been intense as the Baptismal rite has undergone some renovation in the Church of England.
Some Facebook acquaintances of mine have also been passing about a meme about tradition and the Church. Pictured is a cleric in a lovely, heavily embroidered chasuble administering Communion to a middle aged woman sporting a mantilla (a lace trimmed hair cover). The meme consists of various quotes about tradition in the Church. An example is a quote from Saint Vincent of Lerins that reads, “Nothing new is to be accepted, except what has been handed down by tradition.” Another is from Saint Cyprian which reads, “Change nothing; be content with tradition.” And Pope Saint Leo the Great offers that “I have neither permitted, nor shall I permit, the things which have been settled by the holy fathers to be violated by any innovation.”
Of course, this is a charming vision of the Church. It is a place preserved in the amber of holiness and immune to the variation and shadow of change. Yet, I immediately wondered what medieval accretions to the Mass the fellows posting this were willing to tolerate? What innovations, movements of the Spirit, are tolerable so long as they represent the Church at a certain pristine moment in her history?
Holy Tradition must be more than the atavistic desire for perceived stability.
The Church is a Body in movement – she is meant to run, to thrive, to change, and to grow. There are essentials to our life that will be expressed in new and vibrant ways. His Holiness, Pope Francis, in his interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, stated
There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong. After all, in every age of history, humans try to understand and express themselves better. So human beings in time change the way they perceive themselves. It’s one thing for a man who expresses himself by carving the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace,’ yet another for Caravaggio, Chagall and yet another still for Dalí. Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.
There are essentials to our life of faith that we must preserve and guard with zeal and determination. Yet, there will be those things which will appear to us, with the movement of the Spirit, to be ready for review and revision. There is a wonderful line in Scripture, in the letter to the Gentile believers, as the Council of Jerusalem was deciding whether Gentile converts should keep the Law, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” The Church is always in the moment asking itself, does it seem good to the Holy Spirit? Are we being led to this place by a voice of holiness and grace?
Our work is work of discernment using the tools of Anglican identity we have been handed – Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Tradition finds its proper situation between Scripture and Reason. It is always to be held in the light of Scriptural interpretation and examined with an eye toward its appropriate relationship to Reason. Of course, there will be factions within the Church that will find Scripture to be the primary determination for all decisions and there will be factions equally wedded to modernity and reason as the chief lens for theological innovation. Yet between them stands Tradition – subservient to neither and mediating between them.
Tradition is not the benchmark but the agent of meaning and mediation. Somewhere between the words of the page and the vicissitudes of modernity we dwell as a people of tradition. Tradition finds its role not as the arbiter of right or wrong but as the code, the algorithm, by which we utilize scripture and reason to answer our deepest questions.
It is in the Holy Word that we first know the story of Christ and it is in the stories of the world around us, perceived with all the tools of reason, that we find Christ living and breathing. It is tradition that gives us the means by which we are able to find meaning in either experience. Our tradition gives shape and voice to the Word we read – we come to know the story not just because we run across in on a dusty shelf but because it comes alive in the course of a liturgy or is given interpretation by the work of those who came before us. Our tradition gives shape and voice to the Christ we know in the world around us as we are formed by a Baptismal Covenant, a Eucharistic sharing, and a Christian ethic that provide a framework that stretches beyond the boundaries of time and space that opens us to the Body all about us.
Tradition mediates rather than dictates our engagement with the living Christ. I believe in Tradition – I find in it a shape and form for our Christian journey that both comforts and challenges. Yet we cannot elevate it above either the living experience of the Body nor above the revealed word of Scripture. God is still speaking, still forming the tradition, and we are called not to curate our inheritance alone but to invest in its growth and hold fast to the deepest and most powerful meaning of tradition – living memory.
The memory we dwell in together is a living one that has, at its core, the absolute vibrancy of the Holy Spirit. It is living memory. It is alive and shaping us. It is alive and changing. It is giving us breath and life as the Body as it shapes our very nature and being. It is evolving and maddening in its indeterminacy. It is fixed only insofar as we limit its capacity to shape us anew. Living memory is necessarily the place of encounter with the Living Christ who is always straining and striving to meet us and welcome us into new life.
The encounter we are called to is with the Christ who is in the creche, on the cross, out of the tomb, breaking the bonds of Hell, and reigning in glory all at once in living memory. Each new believer is called to freshly live the Gospel story and know its shape as our own even as we tell it anew to the world around us.
He is calling us too to know ourselves as a Body both within and yet unbeholden to any one time – to know ourselves unbound by conceptions of time and place as we dwell deeper in the mystery he is revealing to us by water, cross, crown, and bread. That revelation is mediated by tradition but never captive to it. Death to old life means necessarily a death to even our most cherished imaginings of how Christ is reaching us, forming us, and calling us so that he might speak in fresh ways. It may mean a death to tradition so that we can embrace new life – so that living water might flow.
When the rich young ruler is called to give up all that he has to follow Christ – the choice is too painful to contemplate. We are being called, perhaps, to give up all that we think gives meaning and depth to a form of ecclesiastical martyrdom by which we know that all that stands as tradition, for us, may be in the way of deeper union – it may be undoing our fuller understanding. We are always being called to the place and person of Christ – to mirror his own self-gift and obedience. Once we allow tradition to be unquestioned and unquestionable then we are giving up an essential quality of Christ’s own mission – the undoing of human conceptions of what it means to relate to the Divine. As heirs of the promise, as the living Body, we are given the ability and the mandate to do even greater things.
Tradition itself is a transient concept – one person’s inviolable tradition is another person’s radical rebellion. There are essentials to our faith that must be defended without reservation. Our tradition is replete with the means for drawing men and women anew to Gospel life. I firmly believe that there are elements of our tradition that are calling to the deepest spiritual longings of the lost and hurting. Yet tradition is not meant to be the shibboleth of an inwardly-focused, pure community – it is a living thing making room for new voices to claim and proclaim it.
My deepest longing for the Catholic movement is that we will so order our life and work that the immediate connection that comes to mind when someone hears the term Anglo-Catholic is not about baroque liturgical preferences but about a deep, abiding, and prayerfully held belief in the Presence of Christ. The Altar must form the ground of the world we serve and not be a retreat from it.
There is a difference between Tradition and tradition. The essential quality and nature of the Church and her ministry is formed by Tradition. It is that which binds us to the early Church and to the Church which existed even before Christ walked the Earth. Tradition is that which finds itself unfolding over the centuries as the Holy Spirit continues to move. Almost every aspect of our tradition was once an innovation to some degree or another. Just look at the manifold ways liturgy has changed and expanded and contracted. We firmly believe that the Holy Spirit moves in our liturgical life and yet we perceive this movement differently and invite its presence among us in strikingly different ways from generation to generation. We read scripture differently from generation to generation and the canon itself was set by the movement of the Holy Spirit as tradition unfolded and reason was employed.
There is a world aching for Good News that needs us to reach back before Acts. It needs us to go back further than the nineteenth or the thirteenth or even the first century, to go back to the beginning of it all – to know what it is to have the Word who is with God (and Present with us) speaking anew. This is Tradition – the living embrace and encounter with all that has come before by the movement of the Holy Spirit that those who come after us might know something of the living Christ. Every set of hands that holds an inherited and cherished family possession leaves a mark of some sort. This is not tarnish – it is the mark of a loved and well-used treasure that we pass on with joy.