A stone sarcophagus front from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, circa A.D. 430, at the Instanbul Archaeological Museum, showing a male and a female figure standing on either side of the altar. (Courtesy of Ally Kateusz/Wijngaards Institute of Catholic Research)

“Time present and time past /Are both perhaps present in time future”

Thus T.S. Eliot in my favourite poem, Little Gidding and thus, I think, tradition in the Church. If we hold the same faith as our ancestors, that has to be the case, but we know that the Spirit moves in the Church, he did not stop moving at some point in the past, and so, as Newman among others pointed out, we also have change, or if you like, development occurs. If we are the same Church, then what the Apostles said in Acts remains true: “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” In short, tradition cannot be just conserving what was done in the past. If that were so there would be twelve bishops, all Jewish and all men – when there are more than twelve bishops, few of them Jewish and, at least in some traditions such as my own, not all of them men. It’s easy (which is why it happens so often) to attribute this to reckless modernists wanting to change because society has changed. It may be the case that some people fit that bill, but what about those of us who in many senses consider ourselves on the conservative and sacramental wing of our tradition? This is what I want to examine here, and that involves trying to say something about tradition first.

My own Church, and I think all others I know, agree on a starting point, which is that Scripture comes first, nothing which on the other parts of the tripod rest, that is tradition and reason, can stand if it contradicts Scripture, but we have to be careful that tradition does not become an excuse for giving our own reason extra weight. As anyone who has engaged in discussions in this area knows, there is an awful lot of what passes for tradition that gets quoted out of context. We must always be careful both to give tradition its place, but to beware the temptation to take the existing church in our time and its teachings as the whole of tradition. As Hans Kung put it:

At Trent tradition ousted Scripture, at vatican I real historical tradition was in turn ousted by the present magisterium of the church. Trent said that tradition shows what Scripture teaches; Vatican I said that the Church teaches what tradition is. The ‘teaching of the Church’, understood in this way, and hence the Church itself was made identical with the tradition of Christ. [Kung, The Church, 1967]

This view has not been accepted by any other Christian tradition because to them it seems to give too much weight to the Church. Anglicans take a more measured view. “We cannot separate the the Bible from the Church which recognised it and preserved it. The Divine Book and the Divine Society are the two factors of the one Revelation – each checking the other.” [H.P. Liddon, quoted in H.R MacAdoo, Anglicans and Tradition, 1997] The Church has the right to change things as long as nothing is done that contradicts Scripture. According to Article XXXIV

IT is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.

As Archbishop Laud, who is more usually remembered for his matryrdom than for his theological contributions, put it: “the ancient Fathers relied upon the Scriptures” and made the Creed “the rule of faith” and the Church of England is happy with that position. Scripture is central.

But Scripture does not exist in a vacuum outside the context of the Church and tradition. With the rare exception of a person who chooses not to ask questions, we will all use the light of our reason to interpret Scripture, and as the current reality of most of our churches is that there is a great deal of contestation (in some cases even about whether a Pope is a Pope), the witness of the ancient undivided Church via the Fathers is critical. For Anglicans this gives us a certain economy in terms of doctrine, and as Article XXXIV sgows, a liberality in non-essentials. In Laud’s words:

Catholicity is not a narrow conclave … but lays open those wider gates of the Catholic Church, confined to no age, time, or place; not knowing any bounds but the faith which was once (and but once for all) delivered to the saints. [McAdoo, pp. 13-14].

For Anglicans the teachings of the Fathers and the witness of an ancient church matter a great deal. In the words of the great Bishop Andrewes: “On canon … two testaments, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundaries of our faith.”

It can be seen from this brief, and naturally rather simplified summary, that for Anglicans the appeal to antiquity is in terms of doctrine, and not other aspects of tradition. There are some things, the Creed for example, which must be believed, but there are other, non-doctrinal traditions, which are received from our ancestors which may, at the determination of the Holy Spirit, change within the life of the Church as it is lived down the ages. No one has ever suggested that all the successors to the Apostles should be Jews, even though all the first Apostles were Jews. Paul himself challenged Peter when he resiled over the dietary rules which the first Christians followed as Jews always had. Tradition in this, non-doctrinal sense, has always been subject to change.

All of which is by way of an introduction to what I had hoped to deal with in three posts, but which will take more, and that is how a high Anglican such as myself, with a high doctrine of the sacraments, can accept that women can be ordained. More soon …