|Posted by thethousandmarch on December 20, 2011 at 1:55 AM|
In an article in the Washington Post entitled Christianity 2.0, the church consultant and Episcopal priest Tim Erich answers the question – “What will a fresh Christianity look like in America?” Now, I don’t disagree with all that he says – I in fact would welcome many of the changes he envisions. I do however take exception with a series of statements Erich makes. He not only identifies, but praises a trend that has been sweeping through the Church for years; that is the abandonment of the Church’s shared history – commonly called tradition – and the neglecting of the communion of the saints. I figured that this time of Advent was an ideal time to discuss tradition.
Yes, we will see Sunday worship, with people sitting in pews facing a preacher and singing hymns. But that Sunday paradigm will cease to draw the big numbers . . . . Traditional resources like prayer books and hymnals will give way to local idioms and creative resources. . . . Leaders will be locals . . . . not beholden to the traditions of national denominations. . . . There will be less focus on uniformity and consistency, and more freedom to see what emerges from the stewpot. . . . Look for less focus on familiar forms of authority like the Bible and ecclesiastical tradition. . . . Such a fresh Christianity will be far more rewarding than the fear-driven, change-resistant, inward-looking institutions we have now. . . . In other words, I think we are nearing the end of a bleak and self-destructive period that we will wonder why we endured for so long.
(I’ve culled a number of statements from throughout the article to focus upon a particular issue. I don’t feel I’ve misrepresented Erich on this point, but please read the article.)
Erich wants us to dismiss tradition, especially the structures and institutions which have carried these traditions through hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. He even accuses these institutions of putting us into a “bleak and self-destructive period”. He says that we must reject tradition and embrace our own “local idioms and creative resources” in order to escape this dark period, allowing a new church to emerge. I share a desire to see some of the same things emerge which Erich desires. I however do not agree with his remedy. Many of the things he feels will be solutions I think are actually some of the reasons the church in the U.S. is sick. I in fact believe a return to our traditions and learning from the institutions which have faithfully passed down these traditions will actually help a more healthy church emerge.
What is tradition? It is the culmination of that which those before us thought most important. No one says it better than G.K. Chesterton:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. (Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Image, New York, edition published 1990, 47-48)
It seems Erich would not only have us “submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about”, but the even more narrowly those who merely happen to be walking about in our local community. For at least the last 100 years the church in the U.S. has become less and less interested in the historical confessional denominations. We’ve abandoned traditional resources and traditional corporate worship; instead making our worship services more and more idiosyncratic and individualistic. We’ve shunned “experts”, “intellectuals” and trained leaders, instead preferring “assertive and visionary leaders”, “gifted in personal suasion”. We’ve rebelled against the long established institutions. What has been the result?
What Erich and so many other church leaders who want to lead us into a brave new world seem to not realize is that the place they are leading us is not new. The North American church has long been a church which is anti-tradition, anti-intellectual, and anti-institutional. As a result we have only built a more divided, individualistic, shallow, human-centric, fractured and lonely church, which worships celebrity pastors who build their own institutions and hand out jobs to their often unqualified “local” buddies. But, dang do we have some kickin’ worship bands.
How do we actually get to where Erich and others want to lead us? This destructive period. By mining the riches of our shared history, our tradition which will bring us into a fuller communion with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, including those who no longer happen to be walking around right now.
We must firmly root ourselves in the Bible – which tells us about our leader and his first followers the early church – so that whatever “emerges from the stewpot” may actually be Christian. Our tradition, specifically our creeds and confessions can help us identify those things which are essential to our vitality – the foundation upon which we must continue to build (I would refer anyone interested to my master’s thesis “I Believe, The Apostles’ Creed for the Emerging Church” for a further development of this idea).
In addition, does anyone actually think that what Americans need is anyone encouraging us to do something that will makes us even more self-focused? That’s what Erich is doing when he basically says we should throw off tradition and its influence and instead pursue our own idiosyncratic methods of doing ‘church’. In this post-modern era with its multitude of ‘tribes’ we need to help break down the walls between the members of our ever-splintering society, not build them up. “For [we] are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Church in the U.S., in these last few decades at least, has pursued a policy of segregating its members into ever increasing factions. We need to reverse this trend. Getting in touch with our forbearers through the traditions which have been passed down to us will help us in this process for the very reason that we must first acknowledge that other people other than ourselves have something valuable to say. Embracing our shared history will not divide us, but will unite us in truly meaningful ecumenical cooperation.
To illustrate the value of tradition let’s take a look at Advent. I grew up being a part of a very good church community. I am very grateful for my experience. However, though we were in touch with at least a bit of tradition, there was much we lacked. One thing I think we lacked was the observance of Advent. Of course we sang traditional Christmas carols in preparation for Christmas, and we had a candle light Christmas Eve service, but Advent was never mentioned.
In the last couple of years as I’ve gotten in touch with a liturgical form of worship and have begun to follow the traditional church calendar I have learned about Advent – which is a time where we look back at the first coming and look forward to the second coming of our King Jesus. This has made my Christmas season so much richer and more meaningful. So many Christians have to try and enjoy the holy-days, trying not to become overwhelmed by the secular commercialism of the season, without hardly any understanding of what it is we are actually celebrating. Possibly because our ‘Christianity’ has become so much about our own personal moral transformation and/or physical health and prosperity that it’s hard for us to get excited about our dear savior’s birth. For me it was the simple act of engaging my Church’s shared history that enabled me to discover this incredible treasure of Advent and helped me gain a fuller communion with my God and my eternal family.
Now, do I think all traditions are good? No. Nor are all traditions of equal weight and value. We should give precedence to those traditions which are most the commonly held, and the least idiosyncratic. I’m not saying nothing can progress or change. We alive today have our part to contribute and in the end no tradition has a final authority over us. Yet, we must respect and we must listen to our elders. We may find that we have much to learn.