“Tradition” is one of the more frequently used words in Anglican debates. It gets utilized constantly on blogs like this one. Due to its use and importance we have to look at it just a bit more carefully: “Tradition” is a cipher. That is, it is not a word with a stable meaning. When writers (including me) invoke “the Christian Tradition” or even “the Anglican Tradition,” they invoke an intellectual construct consisting of what they consider to be the chief teachings, practices, and devotions through the ages. We may both say “Tradition” but what I mean by it and what you mean are inevitably different. Too often this reality remains not only unstated but uncomprehended.
That’s not to say, however, that there’s no such thing as “Tradition” or even that there’s no such body of material as “Tradition”—and that’s where things get really tricky. We have to acknowledge and agree up-front that when we church people (and anyone else who uses the term, actually) throw out the word “Tradition” what we are appealing to is very rarely actual teachings written in actual texts by actual people at actual times. Instead, we are referring to a synthesis which has, in theory, amalgamated actual teachings from actual people into a more-or-less coherent body of teaching, practice, and devotion.
This synthesis then becomes “Tradition.”
When we fight over “Tradition,” we are far more often fighting over our syntheses that we call “Tradition.”
That’s far too easy, though—let’s complicate things a bit…
In fact, most of us—especially the more invested of us—don’t just bring a synthesis to the table, we bring a metasythesis which is composed of quite a mix of interlocking and sometimes contradictory syntheses all mashed together under the solitary label of “Tradition.”
Think of it this way. When I make an appeal to “Tradition”, I’m making an appeal to my understanding of Christian teaching, practice, and devotion as filtered through and privileging insights from the Church Fathers, early medieval monasticism, the English Reformation, the Caroline Divines, and Anglo-Catholicism with a side-order of the Lutheran Confessions.
Now—every single one of those labels represents a synthesis. How I mash them all together into something even vaguely coherent is my metasynthesis. We all do this. I’m lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to think and read a lot about this and to have an awareness that that’s what I’m up to.
Everybody has a synthesis, but most people both receive them and deploy them unconsciously or subconsciously. We acquire them from our rectors, our teachers, our liturgies, from conversations, from study, from blogs…the list goes on and on.
At this point I’ll stop working on this line and restate my central thesis to this point: When church-folk speak of “Tradition,” we refer to a usually subconscious synthesis of the Church’s past teachings, practices, and devotions.
Turning to the syntheses and metasyntheses themselves, some are better than others. To evaluate these, I would say that the three major criteria would be:
- how compelling a synthesis is
- how comprehensive a synthesis is
- how historically grounded a synthesis is
This is where we get into muddy territory. I believe that there are quite a lot of syntheses floating around out there that are quite compelling but which are severely limited in terms of their comprehensiveness and especially their historical grounding.
Ground Zero here is the Vincentian Canon: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” As Caelius noted in highly memorable and quotable fashion, this canon fails through irony; its original purpose was to discredit the writings of Augustine on grace, claiming that they were a novelty. In essence, this canon is a one-sentence synthesis stating that what the Roman Catholic Church teaches now is what it has always taught, no more, no less. Very compelling for its clarity and its simplicity. In terms of historicity and confirmability—it works far better as a rallying cry than an effective synthesis. Indeed, if one were to attempt to utilize this synthesis in practice, where would you begin?
I truly love Thomas Ken’s words but see in them a similar problem: “I am dying in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West; and, more particularly, in the Communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from both Papal and Protestant innovation, and adheres to the Doctrine of the Cross.” Again, a classic rallying cry—but historically speaking, what texts, what liturgies do we appeal to? If we ask the simple question, “How does one fast in Lent?” this Tradition can not and does not give us one clear answer; instead it gives us a range. If we’re looking for a single answer, this synthesis cannot give it to us. We must choose amongst the available options on the basis of other criteria, other syntheses. Furthermore, this construal of Tradition hacks off how many centuries (i.e., nothing after the “disunion”)? One must assume that it picks up again at the establishment of the mentioned “Church of England” but when and where—especially given Ken’s own rocky relationship with his church?
Without going into specifics, I think that it is fair to say that most of the current Anglican culture warriors are operating with syntheses that may well be compelling but that fail on the criteria of both comprehensiveness and historicity. Of these last two, I place a heavy emphasis on the second. A synthesis that cannot be verified by reference to particular documents from particular times falls more into the realm of politically malleable myth than authentic expression of the historic Christian faith.
So, to summarize and restate: A good synthesis must be compelling, comprehensive, and be built on fact. Statements about what Christians have believed in the past must be rooted in documents, liturgies, and actual evidence. We have to be honest about what’s there, what’s not, and the degree to which other considerations govern our choices.
Too, attention to actual fact reminds us of the importance of comprehensiveness. Specifically, I’ve read too much history and too much theology to say that the Tradition is truly univocal on many things. Because of comprehensiveness, I recognize that my synthesis cannot be hegemonic. That is, I recognize that I have sub-selected strands within the Tradition that I think best proclaim the Gospel to me and my people at this time. I recognize that there are other strands within the Tradition that are not only different from but that disagree with other strands—including mine. (I.e., some Reformation, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox strands simply do not play well with one another; some strands of monastic and Scholastic don’t play well; Gaulish monasticism and St Augustine; etc ad nauseum…)
At the end of the day, very few people will do the work of creating a synthesis or metasynthesis for how they understand and embody the Christian Tradition.
And that’s perfectly fine.
What’s crucial, though, for thinkers and leaders in the Church, is that we have an awareness of what syntheses are out there, how they collide and clash with one another, and how they rank in terms of being compelling, comprehensive, and historically-grounded. I believe that part of the task of Church historians is the creation of effective syntheses that start with historical fact and theological truth that are compelling for our clergy and congregations. I’d suggest that this is the real value and power of a work like Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality—not that it teaches everything anyone needs to know but that it presents a clear, compelling, and factually grounded synthesis of how the Church has taught and lived.
And we need more like it.