This past year, 2020, has felt like one enormous Lenten season. I know that is not technically accurate, but it seems Easter came and went with hardly a ripple. We have all been slogging through month after month of lockdowns and restrictions.
It has also been a time of reflection for me. What am I doing with my life? How is my family? How is my spiritual life? Is God pleased with where I am heading?
All of these questions are characteristic of Lent. It seems like even in 2020’s Ordinary time and Easter season, God was trying to pull us all back to deeper meditation on what it is we are doing individually, communally, and even globally.
But yesterday was different for me, maybe for the first time in months. In the Catholic calendar, January 1st is the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.
Over Christmas, I could not be at Mass. My wife had tested positive for Covid the week before (no symptoms, she’s just fine, thankfully). So we all quarantined over Christmas Eve, Christmas, and any other Masses we might have been able to go to. But our quarantine ended Wednesday this last week.
So I sat outdoors with my parish at Friday’s Mass, seeing some faces I haven’t seen for weeks, others months. I was cantoring, and legally speaking, I am supposed to be singing alone. But we have a rebellious parish, and everyone joined in anyway, probably because they were Christmas songs. How can you not join in singing a Christmas song?
January 1st fell on Friday this year. And just like Lent has it’s own set of weeks, Fridays are set aside in the Catholic calendar as days of sorrow. We are meant to think on that Good Friday and fast from something – maybe meat or coffee, whatever is a sacrifice for us. Lent is a special time to do this, but really, Catholics are encouraged to make every Friday a little Lent.
But Feast Days trump these sad Fridays. Despite it typically being a day of sorrow and mourning, the church, in the providence of God, called us to celebrate instead. Mary is our mother which means Jesus, the Son of God, is our brother.
I am no prophet, but I think that’s a fantastic omen for the coming year. We’ve all gone through an extended season of Lent. I’m not ready to call 2021 an “Easter Year”. But on the Feast Day of a mother and child who brought light to a very dark world, I refuse to call 2021 another year of Lent.
“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 …
Quiavideruntoculi has concluded that I have no respect for ‘Tradition’. As one who was once Orthodox and High Anglican, that would be an odd thing; an odder one for someone who joined the Church under John Paul II. I usually find this accusation boils down to the fact that I am not of the view that the Latin Church as it existed in the sixteenth century is the whole of what is meant by ‘tradition’. To say that is not to disparage Trent, it is simply to place it in the two thousand year history of the Church, and to remind us all that the Catholic Church has, and has always had, a global reach; much as we in the West may admire the Latin heritage, we should never confuse it with the fullness of Tradition, which goes right back to that night in the upper room when Jesus supped with his disciples.
That supper is the oldest of our traditions. We have it in the Didache and in Tertullian and Justin Martyr. In a letter to Trajan in about A.D. 111, Pliny the Younger, who had been concerned enough to arrest some of these Christians wrote:
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
We might note there that the earliest Christians had deaconesses, something which the Latin Church seems to have discontinued at some time. So, when some say that it is against tradition to have deaconesses, which tradition do they mean? One might say the same thing about married priests. It is clear that the early Church, like the Orthodox Churches to this day, had a married priesthood. We know that the Latin Church discouraged this practice and, from the eleventh century, made it a discipline that priests should be celibate; does the tradition of the last millennium in one part of the Church trump the tradition of the first millennium, and of the last two in some of the Eastern Rite Churches?
The same thing can be observed of the custom of receiving in one kind and on the tongue. The early Church, like the Orthodox Church, received in both kinds, and, as the first Catechetical manual we have tells us:
In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof ; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?
22. Then after you have partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth your hands, but bending , and saying with an air of worship and reverence, Amen , hallow yourself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ. And while the moisture is still upon your lips, touch it with your hands, and hallow your eyes and brow and the other organs of sense. Then wait for the prayer, and give thanks unto God, who has accounted you worthy of so great mysteries.
It was the tradition to receive in both kinds, and to receive the bread in the hand. Yes, I know there are good arguments for the later, Latin custom, but the argument that it is ‘tradition’ is not one of them. At one point receiving in one kind and on the tongue was a novelty, and those who like to cite ‘tradition’ as though it is one, unchanging thing, need to be more aware of the first fourteen hundred years of the history of the Church – and to see that neither Trent nor Vatican II was the end of tradition; there will be no end until He comes again in Glory.