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Tradition and innovation: following the example of the Early Church

by
05 April 2013

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From the Revd Professor David R. Law
Sir, - In his article ( Comment, 28 March), the Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard exhorts us to "have the nerve to follow the early Christians" and urges the Churches to be "truly innovative". It seems that Christians today are merely "curators, not creators", and, "as inheritors of tradition, we lack the habits that would help us to innovate." Innovation, it would appear, is something good in itself, and the early Christians provide us with examples of innovatory practice which we should follow.

Clarification is needed, however, concerning the identity of the early Christians whom Dr Rayment-Pickard has in mind. The Christians responsible for the New Testament clearly respected the tradition that they had received, and were concerned to preserve it and pass it on to subsequent generations (1 Corinthians 11.23, 15.3; 2 Thessalonians 2.15; 1 Timothy 6.20; 2 Timothy 1.13-14, 2.2; Jude 3).

Far from being innovators, the early Christians of the post-apostolic period were concerned to demonstrate the antiquity of the Christian faith, since, in contrast to the situation in 21st-century Britain, novelty was generally viewed with suspicion in the ancient world. To refute the charge of novelty and to demonstrate Christianity's antiquity, Justin Martyr argued that the pre-incarnate Logos had been responsible for the inspiration of the Old Testament prophets and the Greek philosophers. The Fathers after Justin repeatedly emphasised the importance of tradition.

To take just two of many examples that could be cited, Clement of Alexandria warned that "he, who has spurned the ecclesiastical tradition, and darted off to the opinions of heretical men, has ceased to be a man of God and to remain faithful to the Lord" (Stromateis, 7.16), while Vincent of Lérins famously stated that "in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all" (Commonitorium 2.6).

The truly innovative groups in the Early Church were the various Gnostic sects with their elaborate cosmologies, and, perhaps most innovative of all, the Montanists, who wished to supplement the scriptures with the new revelations supposedly imparted by the Holy Spirit to Montanus and his followers. Having the nerve to follow such groups today would certainly be innovative, but it would mean a radical departure from the historic faith.

Another issue with Dr Rayment-Pickard's critique of tradition is its implicit assumption that past generations of Christians have nothing worth while to teach us, and that we cannot draw on their insights as a resource for our own attempts to live out the gospel today. We might also ask what Dr Rayment-Pickard's criteria are for identifying what he considers to be "authentic religion". What is the source of these criteria? Do they have a history - or tradition - behind them, do they stem from a modern secular world-view (which is, of course, itself a "tradition" that can be traced back to the Enlightenment), or are they based purely on the individual's personal likes and dislikes? In short, what is the authority on which Dr Rayment-Pickard's notion of authentic religion is based?

Once we raise questions concerning authority, we are confronted with questions concerning the origins of that authority, and thus are inevitably led back to some sort of notion of a tradition that has mediated that authority from its past origins into the present.

The theological task is not to abandon tradition, but to sift it, and to preserve what is good and valuable, while discarding what obscures or stifles the gospel. To achieve this, it is helpful to distinguish between the traditum, the core doctrines and practices of the Church essential to the Church's identity and ministry, and the actus tradendi, the means by which these doctrines and practices are handed down and formulated in new ways to communicate the gospel to each new generation.

Distinguishing between these two dimensions of tradition is, of course, a complex theological task, but it is one that is not addressed by the wholesale rejection of the Church's inheritance.

DAVID R. LAW
School of Arts, Languages and
Cultures
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL

From the Dean of St Edmundsbury
Sir, - In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke differentiated between innovation and change, very usefully, to my mind.

Following Hooker, he thought that change, when it was necessary, was a very good thing to enable human society in its necessary institutional forms to develop and grow in response to perceived failings and the impulse to make things better.

The spirit of innovation (the desire to begin again from scratch, to implement a utopian blueprint) he distrusted, believing that it "is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views". Innovation - the motivation behind the French Revolution as it cut free from the wisdom handed on from one generation to another - led too often to the exercise of arbitrary power.

Yes, he underestimated the abuses of the ancien regime, but his distinction is a powerful one, I think. At the door of "innovation", it could be argued, can be laid many of the utopian disasters of the 20th century; and today the innovation-fatigue that exerts such a negative pressure on institutions like the NHS and education today, with wave upon wave of ill-thought-through new systems.

One of the strengths of the Church of England is its respect for tradition, and its nerve, when it has it, to hold on to what has been received and handed on to us, weighing up carefully any change to ensure that it is for the better. Having confidence in what the Church of England does well, in its liturgy and social action, always seeking to do things better, to the glory of God, is not about perpetuating "an old religious paradigm of blind rule-followers".

Almost everything we see around us on a Sunday, including the entire church building and its contents, is the result not of Christian in-novation, as the Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard argues, but, I would say, of Christian tradition. And it is the living traditions of a lively body of Christ which we should be commending to the unchurched and de-churched.

The Easter collect prays that we may be dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ, and states that it is God who makes all things new in Christ. I am sufficiently distrustful of human innovation to leave the new to God.

FRANCES WARD
The Deanery
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk IP33 1RS

From Canon R. H. W. Arguile
Sir, - The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard and I clearly visit very different churches. I cannot remember any systematic teaching at any church that I have attended over many years. The handing on of the tradition of Augustine, Aquinas, Hooker, Newman, and co., let alone "telling people what to think and feel and do", is unknown to me.

As for liturgies, the problem is ever the same: the need to do liturgy well, as if one means the words and is aware of the awesomeness of the occasion. The problem of badly conducted liturgy is not solved by replacing it with anecdotes and songs. I would not wish to go in the direction of the joke that the Quakers tell against themselves: that they sing hymns very slowly in order to check whether they agree with the next line. "In order to recover our freshness of vision", on the contrary, we need to rediscover the riches of the tradition that we have so carelessly abandoned.

It is true that there is a need to engage with the culture, though, frankly, the candyfloss character of much of it does not invite engagement. What can one do with the cult of celebrity? And how can one engage with people who refuse to talk because they are "offended" by opposing views?

Yes; of course there should be much more debate, but I am always glad for it to be informed by someone who knows what he or she is talking about. The problem is that, unlike professionals in every other sphere, the clergy can serve a ministry of 30 years without ever having to undertake in-service training.

Meanwhile, Alasdair McIntyre's lament about our lack of any common grammar of ethical thinking is more than 30 years new. Whether recent developments have been positive or not, Dr Rayment-Pickard and I may agree. That he had made the case for the direction that he would take I would deny.

R. H. W. ARGUILE,
10 Marsh Lane
Wells next the Sea
Norfolk NR23 1EG

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