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A tradition: always the same, and always new

03 May 2013

I first encountered Miranda Hart as the subversive char in the sitcom Not Going Out, and have been a fan ever since. But it came as a revelation to discover, in a broadcast tribute last month, that her greatest inspiration was a comic figure who could not have been more different from her, Eric Morecambe.

Once it was explained, you could see it. The trademark intimacy with the camera, the slapstick clowning, the apparent clumsiness, the wit, even the song-and-dance routine with which she ends her show - all reflect something of Morecambe's comic repertoire. His comic genius lives in her, but she is at the same time entirely and brilliantly herself.

Miranda differs from Eric in gender, class background, and range. Of the two, Miranda is the more versatile; she plays a serious part in Call the Midwife. Unlike Eric, she writes her own material. Indeed, one of the likeable things about her is her generosity with comic lines. She gives some of her best to other members of the cast.

Her generous tribute to Eric Morecambe made me think afresh about the way in which traditions are handed down in Christian experience. Catholic tradition is passed on from person to person. The past lives afresh in each of us, and Christ comes alive in us, as the original whom we imitate as we are baptised, confirmed, and perhaps ordained.

I cannot have been the only woman priest to model myself liturgically on the example of male priests who conveyed something of Christ to me. It never occurred to me that I could not imitate the way they preached and presided across the divide of gender.

Authenticity, whether as a priest or a clown, is not simply about personal uniqueness: it is also about bringing that uniqueness into dialogue with tradition. Through the Church, Christ hands on patterns, gestures, and symbols, which we repeat again and again; always the same, always new.

This is the meaning of the word anamnesis: the creative remembering that brings new life. If this is true, changes such as women bishops are not the problem. The problem is whether we still have the wit and imagination to remember what we have seen and heard, or whether we are simply parodying a kind of fearful correctness from which the life has drained away.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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