What is tradition?

In the reading this morning Jesus criticises his critics as being more interested in upholding tradition that worshipping God. Indeed, he deliberately uses the very scripture they profess to uphold to criticise them with. If we decided to prooftext- meaning take something out of it’s context and apply it as a generalisation it would be a licence to “chuck out the chintz”. But I think it is more complicated than that.


Believe it or not, I think tradition is important. Let me define what I mean by tradition. Tradition is those set of activities we do that help us understand who we are. By observing traditions, we are defining who we are. This is important because we all need to understand our place in the world.


Tradition has always played a huge part in religion. You only need to look at the Letters Paul wrote to churches to see that even at the beginning of the church there were people saying “this is the proper way” based on tradition. And so it goes on into modern times and now into postmodern times. Indeed, two of the most famous theological models from modern times were the Hookerian stool and the Wesleyan quadrilateral both incorporate the idea that tradition is important.


Richard Hooker an 17th Century Anglican understood that we experience our faith through three things. The first is scripture- the Old and New Testaments and how God is perceived through the eyes of the writer’s scribes, translators and editors of scripture through the ages. The second is reason. The idea that God gave us a brain to be able to discern and figure out things for ourselves.


This is important and one of the things that endlessly frustrates me is the idea the lurks in many of the conversations I have about theology that God is somehow going to smite people if they think something wrong.I think that is the opposite of what God wants us to do. God wants us to think, talk and argue about what we believe- taking on different viewpoints and working out how God is revealed to us.


Indeed, that is exactly what the originators of the Old Testament do with it- Jewish people use the technique of midrash- looking at the text, what is there, what isn’t there, the letters and the form to try to work out what it means to them.In many ways this is something that we should be doing as well-, but I think for almost all of us the original Hebrew is a bit beyond us. For me God is aware of what is in our hearts, and I find it impossible to believe that earnestly seeking God can ever be a bad thing.


And then finally we have tradition- the experiences and customs of good and wise people from the distant and recent past. It is sheer arrogance to think that God has not been working through the church for the two millennia so if we ignore everything from the past, we lose many of the riches of the church. And that would be a bad thing.



Talk 2: Reinterpreting Scripture


The Hookerian stool- is a good start in getting us to understand how we might use tradition, reason and scripture together. But one of the problems with the model looks backward- there is no place to update and change things. What has happened is the guiding principles of what should happen.


The problem is that it doesn’t account for where we are now. We live in an age that would have been unthinkable even 40 years ago- a world transformed by the internet and a sexual and social revolution that has left us gasping. As I said the other day- once people could married because being married allowed them intimacy otherwise disapproved of whereas now people mostly get married to have children. Once marriage was only for opposite gendered partners whereas now it isn’t and even the concept of gender is up for grabs- no wonder the people who look only at Scripture, Reason and Tradition are really struggling.


So we get to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral . Wesley added onto Hookers’ model- the vital thing that was missing- our own experience and the experience of others. For a rapidly evolving society and church this is essential because the people of the past have not experienced many of the changes that are now happening.



If we don’t add experience, the only thing, we can do is to resort to being some type of time capsule whose aim is to honour the past and preserve it- sort of becoming a type of theological national trust. The problem with is that we are not called to do this- we are called to make disciples- not museum visitors.


And this makes things are a bit complicated- how do we merge the traditions we have started to create over zoom such as funny film clips and worship band film clips to the things that worked with our previous traditions of peace candles, robed choirs and organ music? We can only do that by sitting down and working how things feel now as we experience the waning of restrictions and the hope of maskless services soon.


For us to really incorporate experience we need to listen to each other – with an open heart and an open mind. Instead of saying- we did it this way and anything else is simply not us- we need to listen all of our experiences and not discount how people feel- but also be aware that just because we feel one way- that doesn’t mean that everyone else feels that way or if they disagree they are wrong.


It also means trying to reinterpret things so that they have value today.


What is this? (slide)


It is a communion token. In the not-so-distant past in many non-conformist churches they had communion quarterly and after the service. And it wasn’t open to all. Members were visited quarterly and were given a moral audit to make sure that they were worthy- and if they were they were given a communion token that they had to hand in as they went up for Communion. No token meant no communion.


While I am horrified about the thinking behind this- it did mean that members were visited quarterly. I am sure that many of these audits were relatively cosy chats over a cuppa and served a useful purpose.


While I would never seek to bring back communion tokens, quarterly engagement with someone from the church seems like a good thing. A phone call or zoom call might replace the communion token visit but the principle is a good one that we’ll be chatting about as we pick up the threads of pastoral care post pandemic.


So what is my point? That there is a lot of listening, a lot of compromise, a lot of reimaging that we’ll be doing. And that’s exciting, we can take the treasures of the past, dust them off and make sure they are working with us….with a shiny future.


I am sure Jesus’s critics would be as horrified by this sermon as they were with the disciple’s unclean hands…. And that’s the point.


Churches are not museums. Churches and faith must evolve to be relevant. Things once important lose their importance. Seeking God and listening to the spirit’s urgings through community and church family allows us to renew ourselves.


We must focus on the example of Jesus and make sure we are the people tutted about rather than doing the tutting.