Change and Tradition   4 comments

Above:  Light Bulbs

Labels interest me.  More to the point, the relative nature of many of them intrigues me.  Thus “conservative,” derived from “conserve,” indicates an opposition to change, at least according to the denotation.  Liberals favor change within the system, revolutionaries propose to create a new system, and reactionaries prefer a previous system.  Pundits and politicians confuse matters by using these terms inaccurately, but I proceed from the notion that words ought to mean what they mean, not what is convenient for us.  And one can hold a fairly consistent set of opinions over time and receive a variety of labels.  In pre-Revolutionary France, for example, support for a constitutional monarchy was a revolutionary idea.  It became conservative in 1789 and reactionary by 1792.  Some labels are so relative as to be of limited value.

Here is an old joke:

Q:  How many fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb?

A:  CHANGE????

One of the Episcopal Church variations on the

How many ____________s does it take to change a light bulb?

joke tells me that between 200 and 300 of us are necessary.  There must be service with a special liturgy and choir anthem.  And some traditionalists will march out in protest, found their own Anglican church, and join the Society for the Preservation of the Light Bulb.  That answer hits close to home in many Episcopal Church circles.

Just as change for its own sake is bad, so is opposing change reflexively.  An organism which does not change is dead.  And the trademark words of a dying church are

We’ve never done it that way before.

Change is part of life, so how we handle change matters greatly.

In church circles change pertains usually to theological/social and liturgical issues.  I recognize no clear distinction between theological and social matters.  So, if I say that I affirm the image of God in every person and am honest, I obligate myself to support a variety of causes.  In my mind, this list of causes comes down to civil rights and liberties, which extend properly to matters of race, ethnicity, gender, economics, and education.  Such a stance requires me to oppose discrimination against anyone.  So, in the love of Christ, I support homosexual rights.  Today such a statement proves controversial.  So be it.

In many ways I am a liberal or a revolutionary.  Parts of the Church used to justify slavery in the United States by quoting the Bible.  Then their heirs recycled those arguments and added new ones to justify racial segregation.  (This has been a field of extensive research on my part.  I still have all my notes.)  Two generations ago, when the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), the old Southern Presbyterian Church, began to affirm civil rights for African Americans, that denomination’s right wing protested vehemently.  One generation ago, part of that right wing founded the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) over that and other issues.  (This has been a field of extensive research on my part.  I still have all my notes.)  Now, of course, civil rights for African Americans prompt little or no negative reaction or response and the PCA has rejected the racism of many of its founders.  Much change is good.

Liturgically I am slightly left of center with a conservative streak, I suppose.  The Book of Common Prayer (1979) is a spectacular resource, but subsequent Prayer Books (notably New Zealand from 1979 and Ireland from 2004) have surpassed it.  I refuse to worship from the 1928 Prayer Book, an artifact for me and an idol to many others.  Liturgical renewal did occur; we ought to get with and/or remain with the program.  And many of the alleged innovations of the 1979 Prayer Book were actually returns to pre-Reformation patterns; they were reactionary.

I, as a student of liturgy, collect liturgical books.  Among my favorite volumes is Companion to The Book of Worship, a 1970 explanation of the 1965 Methodist (later United Methodist) Book of Worship.  Lance Webb, Chairman of the General Commission on Worship of The United Methodist Church in 1970, wrote,

Some persons think all liturgies considered valuable in the past should be disregarded today in favor of completely new creative or contemporary liturgies.–page 8

He disagreed.  Neither did he oppose all new liturgies.  Webb affirmed that new rites must emerge from an appreciation for older ones, the liturgical wealth of the Church.  And he was correct on all counts.

Old prayers used to be new.  Western Christians did not always say or sing the Agnus Dei.  Change can revitalize worship or impoverish it, reducing it to a lowest common denominator of excessive emotionalism and praise choruses with seven words one sings eleven times.  (I keep thinking of the youth pastor from Saved! (2004):

All right! All right! Who’s down with G-O-D?

Worship should not resemble cheerleading.)  A proper mix of tradition and change is necessary to maintain an equilibrium.  So “thee” becomes “you” and a litany from the 1500s looks in its modern form very much like its original shape while a new Eucharistic rite in the 1979 Prayer Book speaks of

…the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.–page 370

The English Language changes; why not pronouns in prayers?

Neither theology nor liturgy should become as museum pieces or fossilized insects frozen in amber.  No, they ought to be living traditions–rooted in the past and changing to meet the needs of the present day while retaining the best which the past has to offer.








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