Doing Tradition

“Our Mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation — and you and I are his children.”  Those words have has raised more than eyebrows in some quarters of the Anglican Communion. If you are trying to locate them they are from the mouth of Bishop Jefforts-Schori, the Presiding Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Church.

Just down the road from us, our own Metropolitan Archbishop on the radio programme “The Religion Report” has publicly said that because of those words, and not because she is a woman or an American, or anything else — because of those words, the Presiding Bishop-elect would not be welcome to visit the Diocese of Sydney.  He is but one of a number of vocal leaders, including bishops within the American church who feel for a whole variety of reasons that sharing in communion with her would mean severing themselves from the Christian tradition.

Those who have leapt to the Bishop’s support have reminded those who oppose her that the image which she used was actually lifted from a former Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm, to say nothing about the various other manifestations of its use over the centuries.

My great grandfather was a man who was keenly aware of the need to uphold tradition. He was a member of the Church of England, but his definition of what that meant would exclude almost all of us from ban. g in the Anglican Communion today. He was at the most extreme reformed end of our Church.  I never knew him, but there are wonderful (if disturbing) stories of him and others going to some of the more Anglo Catholic churches in Brighton, in the Diocese of Chichester, and removing from them all the furniture which they deemed to be out of place in a Church of England place of worship.

As the stories go my great grandmother was posted at the end of the street which housed the church which was the victim that week, whilst the men removed the candlesticks, thurible, frontals and anything else that they could lay their hands on. These items were then duly delivered on Saturday evening to the home of the Lord Bishop, who presumably then had to make hurried arrangements for them to be returned in time for Sunday morning worship.

I am reading the history of another church in England at the moment, St Saviour’s Hoxton, a church which was destroyed in the Second World War, but which at one stage in its short life had been one of the most extreme churches in the Anglo Catholic tradition in London.  I was surprised to find that in this place (which had looked more like a Roman Shrine) one of the most extreme of the activities which signalled that church out as Anglo-Catholic was their practice of celebrating Holy Communion from the 1662 prayer book every day of the week. And by the way, in doing this, the clergy wore black cassock, white surplus, and black preaching scarf.

All of this came into focus for me on Saturday afternoon this week when I was leading a visioning day in one of the parishes of the Diocese.  In one of the groups which were seeking to discern the desires and passions of the congregation a conversation arose about safeguarding the tradition of the church.  The conversation which followed seemed to confirm my basic hypothesis that what we mean we talk about “those traditions which cannot be broken” are things which we have done at least twice.  In other words, if we do something at least twice in our churches, they become a tradition for generations to come.

As we reflect on our gospel reading this evening we will do well to imagine ourselves responding to the question which is posed to Jesus by the religious leaders, “why do your disciples break the tradition?” because it is a question which we will each almost certainly encounter in the months ahead.

I have been very helped by Bishop Brian’s observation in a number of his sermons that tradition is a verb — we in the church are called to do tradition, to journey in tradition — rather than simply to look back at that segment of what has gone before us which we like, and to imagine that it is the whole story.  As leaders in the Church as well, we are called again and again to engage in a more complex process of double listening, which can hold together both what has gone before us, and what is going on around us — to hold both of those realities together so that something which conveys the heart of what has been understood to be true before, can be most effectively communicated now and into the future.

Another Archbishop of Canterbury, not Anselrn but Augustine, was advised by Pope Gregory the Great when he was charged with the mission field of what is now the British Isles, that he should not begin by destroying the pagan temples. And so instead Augustine sealed within the pagan altars the relics of the saints and began a process of Christianising the worship which was already taking place there.  That is, I think, a profound strategy for mission — but if we are to do something similar in this culture, as the next generation of leaders in the Church, it will require us to have the strength to risk engaging with our own understanding of the Anglican tradition in a deeper and more radical • way than we have done before.  The good news is that we have a profound model for doing this in the life of Jesus.

How will you respond, when you are asked the question which is asked of Jesus, “why do your disciples break the tradition?”