If you are feeling anything like the way I am lately, the rate and scale at which everything is changing is so disorienting and destabilizing that it sometimes feels nearly impossible to figure out which end is up. The upheaval can feel like being sucked up into a storm. There is nothing but a roar of noise. Everything is being ripped up and thrown around by violent, unpredictable forces. And there is no time to consider your next move because of the constant need to react, react, react.
For people like you, charged with making governance decisions, this is a tough place to find yourselves. Identifying orientation points becomes an even more urgent matter than it is normally, since it is difficult (to say the least) to consider options before you’ve even been able to figure out where you are. What is there to do about this?
Because the House of Deputies is a deliberative body that is charged with a task that is simultaneously legislative and theological, it can and should avail itself of the tools of discernment that inform any inquiry with a theological character.
Theologians, and particularly Anglican theologians like us, have long understood scripture, reason, and tradition to be our primary tools in that regard. These are the best ways of grounding and guiding theological decision-making.
Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the last of these three: tradition. Before considering how it can help us think more clearly about making good decisions in an environment in massive flux, it’s important to get clear on what the term “tradition” means. What exactly is tradition? And how is it best used?
In general, everyday use, “tradition” refers to items, actions, and processes that are intended or simply come to be repeated over time and, in so doing, provide a group with a common identity. The size of the group can vary. Nations have traditions, but so do families. Even a single person can speak of a personal tradition, having a particular meal for lunch on their birthday each year, say. The group defined by a collection of traditional objects and performances can actually be called a tradition itself — in our case, we have the Christian tradition, and within that, the Anglican tradition, and within that, the Episcopal Church tradition. So, we need to be clear about which tradition we have in view when we call something traditional.
Tradition is important because it can be an anchor in a rough sea of change. Traditions carry our identities and transmit them to those who come after us. They remind us who we are and what we are about. By looking to the traditions that form us, we obtain useful aids in making decisions about the sort of future we want to have. This is an important good that attention to tradition provides.
The temptation, however, can be to allow “what has (always?) been” to do much more than keep our corporate identity at the forefront of our collective mind. We sometimes let tradition dictate with various degrees of precision and exactitude how we can and should perform that identity. Tradition then becomes a kind of traditionalism, an attempt to weather the storm of change by fiercely refusing to be moved by its winds much at all.
There is, though, a “middle way” (a good, old via media!) between throwing out tradition and traditions as irrelevant, on the one hand, and of seeking to preserve them more or less unchanged, on the other. And that’s what I’ve been mulling over recently, trying to think of useful approaches to avoiding those extremes, to make sure that we as the Episcopal Church avail ourselves of the wisdom of our tradition without unduly limiting ourselves to a small range of possibilities for living that wisdom out within our church and our world.
One concept I’m testing is the idea of making a theological distinction between “tradition” and “custom.” I’ve been thinking of tradition as that without which we would not and could not be who we are, and of custom as the things we do because we’ve done so for ages and find them congenial, pleasant, and meaningful, but that, upon reflection, we can see do not actually constitute our core identity, even though they enrich our lives of faiths. I wonder if this distinction can help us when making decisions about the kind of church we want to be. It becomes clearer that navigating change effectively is going to mean staying fiercely true to the core tradition that makes us who we are while holding the particular customs by which we’ve lived out that identity up to this point with a lighter hand.
Of course, this raises an obvious question: which are the things that we should see as tradition and which are best thought of as custom? I am not sure. But if the attempt to make the distinction between the two as a means of coming to greater clarity on navigating the changes we are living through is worth undertaking, having an honest theological conversation about that will be crucially important for us.
In the meantime, as legislators for our church, thinking about what you and the people you represent consider to be our tradition versus our various sets of customs might help you with the theological discernment ahead of you as members of the House.