July 15, 2015

Tradition versus Traditionalism, Fresh Expressions for Real

Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

― Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities"

Today, many of us in the church take the term for granted, but “fresh expressions” only came into our lexicon as late as 2004. That was the year when the Church of England published their report, Mission-shaped Church, that said, among other things, “A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.” Mission-shaped Church called for a “mixed economy” of traditional and new forms of church, realizing that it is no longer sufficient to rely on the established parochial system to receive new converts, raise them into the faith of Jesus, and send them out into the world to be missionaries of Christ’s love.

That was then. Or was it? Since “fresh expressions” is now a common term among church geeks, and since we’re so excited, nowadays, about church planting and getting out of our established inheritances and into our neighborhoods, it’s nice to look back and see how things have changed. Or have they? Really, have things changed all that much?

The reality is that things have begun to change, and there are exciting changes on the margins of our church. There are projects and really creative projects, at that, as leaders and communities begin to devise fresh expressions of our ancient, apostolic tradition. In certain, quite particular contexts The Episcopal Church has a new look that’s brimming with deep faith and artistic energy. And yet dioceses, as such, and that old parochial system aren’t changing much whatsoever, and the promise of a “mixed economy” in the church, today, is no more present than it was when we first started talking, now more than a decade ago.

But as I write there is a change, and a very real change for the church. In fact, it was passed with notable success in that most established of inheritances: General Convention. I’m not talking about all the money for church planting (though that’s great), nor all the resources for revitalizing established congregations (again, wonderful news), nor about digital evangelism. I’m talking about the most basic, most fundamental thing: freeing up our communities so when we gather for worship we are less beholden to the limitations of traditionalism (that is, the worship of the thing; not the purpose for which it exists) and more engaged with the process of carrying forward our ancient Christian faith in new, fresh expressions.

Titled “Authorize ‘An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist’ as a Principal Service, General Convention Resolution D050"  passed both Houses at General Convention and is now the policy and can be, if folks are ready to be bold, the practice of the church. Sometimes called “Rite III,” an Order for Celebrating Holy Eucharist is found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 400. It’s not really a rite, in itself, but a generous and orthodox ordo, the order or pattern of worship. The only caution expressed in this resolution is that “the Eucharistic Prayer [shall be] written and submitted in advance of its use to the Bishop.”

When D050 came to the floor in the House of Deputies, some, admittedly younger Deputies spoke against it, although two voices in protest among 844 voting Deputies – many of whom were also young, themselves – is hardly a generational divide or referendum of future trends in the church. Sadly, those who spoke against D050 gave voice to the common misconception that people come to our churches for the words we use and the texts we follow, and that which holds The Episcopal Church together is the uniformity of the words we use in worship. That ship sailed away long ago, way back in the mid-20th century, that is, when we started to experiment with different words and texts. Uniformity is no longer a goal in worship, just as it’s hardly a goal in the life of Christian discipleship. Union with God in Christ through the rootedness of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, however, and the freedom to express that unitedness in whatever words and texts and images and postures come to you through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is the paragon and, indeed, gift of catholic Christianity.

What D050 does is allow us, all of us, even on Sunday mornings, even in our very established, seemingly predictable parish churches, the freedom to trust that we have been sufficiently rooted in the Common Prayer tradition and, as such, we are more ready than we believe to go forth and talk about Jesus in life-giving ways. We won’t abandon the tradition of Anglican Common Prayer; not at all. We will, however, and we are freely and willingly walking away from that most dangerous religion: traditionalism, which as Pelikan said, is actually the only thing that’s been giving our ancient voice such a bad name.

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