Traditional and Contemporary Revisited

Donald Schell has a piece up at the Cafe that sounds a whole lot like what I posted a bit back. These were written completely independently of one another and I’m amazed at the similarity of themes that run through them. Especially when one considers the very real difference that exist between Donald and myself.

I actually believe that we have similar philosophies here but there are very real differences in how we put them into practice and would wager that the central difference is what we here the Spirit calling us to do.

But where do you go from there? Do you argue that one is hearing the Spirit right and not the other? Or do we suggest that the same Spirit is calling us in different directions based on our different social/spiritual locations? Certainly I prefer the latter to the former but–let’s face it–that raises as many questions as it solves…

However it continues, I think that the whole relation of “tradition” and what we do with it to our liturgy/public worship is an essential discussion and will have implications on our future shape.

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11 Responses to Traditional and Contemporary Revisited

  1. Christopher says:

    The late Catherine Bell noted that tradition, in terms of her approach to ritual theory, is a particular confluence of ritual strategies, meaning that tradition is itself something always being done, not simply that is. One example is many of the royal rituals in England that seem quite ancient and yet are from the Victorian Era. The somberness, the slowness, the very proper, indeed antiquated, English gives a semblance of tradition and traditional. Another example is the late love of 1549/1662 particularly in language and tone coupled with various trappings, yet in its day, West country rebels saw it as radical innovation.

    What makes a liturgy traditional, then requires more than simply reliance on those strategies that make something “time-honored”. It requires engagement with the Gospel, and those things that have been understood to best communicate the Gospel, within the context(s) of our time. I think what has happened is that folks have been too quick to assume, therefore, that anything we once used or even now use is capable of doing this. I think them wrong.

    So, I do think that context plays a role, but so does what others within our tradition have done for centuries. Why is it, for example, that we would rather have anything as our starting point than the native rites of England as starting points, i.e., Sarum, Hereford, etc.?

    What root vision of God is to be drawn from our praying? This, a theological question. I would say that it can be summed in The Prayer of Humble Access. And the root of that prayer is “God is love” and “we cannot earn God’s love”. It is justification, we perhaps might say in a Julian key. And our great poetry and novels get that!

    There are many interesting things that happen in my parish within the framework of what we might characterize as Anglo-Orthodox trappings. Some of those interesting things are wonderful, like the stunning chant composition of the Surge illuminare that we use in place of the Gloria during Advent. Others, like last Sundays little sermonette on Obama and MLK following the Sursum Corda are to my mind an abuse of liturgical freedom that context cannot justify.

    One person recently noted what I have long been saying, “We no longer have THE liturgy.” Meaning that too often in our parishes, not only the shape but the wording changes Sunday to Sunday. No time to get deep into the bones. And hence, formation in key praising, that is, key theologizing is stunted. At the least, we need an ordinary for each season. And then, as Anglicans, I would say that regular use of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei are vital. These are theology in its best sense.

    Anglican worship is pliable, but how pliable? Anglican worship requires contextualization, but what and what is not done well and with care?

  2. John-Julian, OJN says:

    Yes, Christopher (And Derek).

    But it is a very big order to “sort” the Tradition without “shorting” it.

    You know, we go back as far as we can and discover [A1] (which is no little or easy task in itself — especially as we discover new antiquities). Then we take the next step forward and discover that historically [A1] had been somewhat changed to [A2], and we have to ask and understand as far as possible why that change was made, what new theological insight is represented, etc., etc. And then on to the next change to [A3] and on and on.

    At each point we need to ask “why?” –because, presumably those who made the changes had some good reason to do so — a reason which MAY be “of the Spirit”. And in each case we have to ask if the change would make the same sense in today’s culture and with today’s theological understandings. And on that basis we will embrace the change or reject it.

    A simple, unqualified flight to the earliest antiquities (as some would like) doesn’t solve the problem. We do have to take those antiquities very seriously, but we also have to take seriously the historical changes/developments which may ALSO be “of the Spirit”.

    And this goes on and on: a never-ending check on the meanings of words and symbolic acts and a discovery of meaning/relevance for today.

    As a 76-year-old, I am old enough now to look back on several significant changes, and to reflect on the effectiveness (and validity) of those changes. I can begin to see (in my own life) what were positive developments and what were merely cheap and shoddy, “pop” fads.

    The real problem is that most on-the-ground decisions are made by untrained and uneducated liturgists for whom “tradition” means whatever-prevailed-in-1948 and who have no liturgical/theological sense of the difference between “core” and “common”.

    And we are faced with (a) an ever-growing individualism which has less and less respect for the communal and (b) a sensation-oriented culture which asks only, “What feels good?”.

    Frankly, I think that the Holy Spirit has not given up on us, because consistently trickling through the weir of individual sensationism we find the essentials still there (at least still there on the page) and things like the incredible movement of the Eucharist to the center in the last 50 years can only give hope that in spite of the stupid fripperies we see around us, the Tradition refuses to be killed.

  3. The real problem is that most on-the-ground decisions are made by untrained and uneducated liturgists for whom “tradition” means whatever-prevailed-in-1948 and who have no liturgical/theological sense of the difference between “core” and “common”

    I think you nailed it right there, Fr. John-Julian.

    The process you describe of assessing the spiritual weight of the various layers of tradition is critical and complicated and therefore often neglected—because it’s hard work and it takes time to do it well.

  4. Christopher says:

    That process is also conversational by which I meant that liturgical scholars cannot afford temptation to the egoism of the academy for “aha discoveries” and liturgical archaeology over and against theological thinking, the community, and conversation with other scholars and theologians.

    And those who are on-the-ground need to take seriously that what is proposed as our common praying has been doen so within a framework of such conversations and should not be tossed about or out lightly. That doesn’t mean don’t try out, say the Surge illuminare in Advent, but be aware that to replace the Gloria altogether and always is problematic in terms of what we have received and its strong theology-in-praising.

    The good news is that, as Derek mentioned in his History Rant, we make mistakes (or what was once powerful now fails to speak) and the Holy Spirit catches these precisely through the sifting of time, often by pointing us to something of which we have long lost sight.

  5. Very true, Christopher.

    But the fruits of liturgical archeology and theological thinking about liturgy have—IMO—not been transmitted well or clearly to the major stakeholders.

    The only liturgical training and resources that most clergy or interested laypeople will ever see is Hatchett’s commentary on the prayer book and possible a survey like Jim Whites. Furthermore these will more often be invoked than read and understood.

    Personally I think we need a new synthesis…

    [Study of the Liturgy should be in there too—again, more invoked than read…]

  6. Christopher says:

    What do you propose?

  7. Um…a new synthesis…

    I’m thinking of something maybe along the lines of Study of liturgy that, rooted in and with copious references to original sources, looks at the main streams of our liturgical traditions that can be used to suggest authentic, historically grounded, options for liturgical renewal.

    It would have to be accessible for both busy clergy and interested laity but be solid enough satisfy academics and liturgy geeks.

    You should get started on it right away… :-D

  8. Christopher says:

    Yeah, just as soon as I finish a dissertation. I think a compilation of well-written accessible exercises and essays by several Episcopalians would be a better approach, that way our various biases are brought up against one another in a way that shows more richness and diversity historically grounded than we sometimes think.

  9. Actually, I think you’re right; that would be a fascinating exercise. I can think of some folks I’d like to see working on that…

  10. Mike says:

    Thank you for this discussion. It seems tradition often becomes superficial and hollow, simply protecting the externals rather than recognizing that there is a deeper reality being revealed. I do not remember who said this – one of the Eastern Orthodox, I think – tradition is the living faith of the dead and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

    One of the things that concerns me in discussions of planning liturgy is that it begins to center on what “I” want – what makes me feel good, gives me meaning, provides me entertainment, feeds me. While we are participants in the liturgy it is ultimately about God. We try to market the liturgy to make it relevant and attractive to our lives. What if we came with the intention of making our lives relevant and meaningful to the liturgy?

  11. I think that’s the key, Mike.

    The liturgy has a discipline of its own. The only way to learn what it has to teach is to submit yourself to that discipline. And that’s precisely what’s so hard about it!! I know it’s hard enough for me to put into practice even when I’m intellectually fully committed to it.

    But I’ve never heard of anyone who accepted the discipline of the liturgy fully and faithfully who found it wanting…

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