Traditions and Visions

Some more thoughts following the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity:

The different branches of Christianity used to be called ‘persuasions’ – people stuck passionately to what they believed, what they had become ‘persuaded’ of, and tried to persuade others they were right. Then, with increasing tolerance, the term ‘denominations’ became more popular. We saw the churches as differing from each other in their names, with one not necessarily being any better than another. As the movement for Christian unity caught on, the term changed to ‘traditions’. Churches now tend to think about how they can share with each other the precious heritage, the treasure, that has been entrusted to each of them.

But are we laying too much stress on tradition? We all recognise the need to change in response to a changing world, but even as we do this we seem to want to look to the past for permission. For instance, when people question the reason why Roman Catholic priests have to be celibate, it is sometimes pointed out that this has only been the rule since the 11th century. That is certainly a very long time – half the history of Christianity! – but it does give people some kind of authority for saying that the rule could possibly be changed. Behind this there seems to be an assumption that if it had always been there it could not be changed.

When we discuss the status of women in the ministry of the Church we note the fact that although Paul seems to have forbidden women to preach (1 Cor 14:34-35) there were women in the very early Church who were active preachers. Paul himself (Romans 16:7) refers to someone who was ‘prominent among the apostles’. The name appears in the different manuscripts as ‘Junias’ (a masculine name) and ‘Junia’ (a feminine name), and sometimes even ‘Julia’ – this suggests an early attempt by some of the copyists to cover up the fact that she was a woman. If little bits of evidence like this were not there, it might be even harder for people to accept women priests and bishops than it already is.

This tendency to dig for evidence in the past is natural. The Christian faith, after all, is the product of centuries of tradition, and we have ancient Scriptures that we revere. However, this does not mean that we should be bound unconditionally to what is in Scripture or ancient tradition. Apparently Jesus himself told his disciples that there were truths they were not yet ready to hear, but the Holy Spirit would continue to teach them when he was no longer with them (John 16:12-13). 

What makes me uneasy about this whole ‘tradition’ business is that Christianity is an essentially forward-looking faith. We believe in the kingdom of God, we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth. Surely this means that our chief concern should be not how things were in the beginning but how they are meant to be in the end.  

We could have a more exciting and creative dialogue if, instead of just sharing our traditions, we started sharing our hopes and our visions. What kind of Church do we dream of as an expression of the promise of God’s kingdom today?

We could even be a bit more adventurous, and apply this approach to inter-faith dialogue. Here most of us start from a position of ignorance and need to find out more about each other’s beliefs and traditions. But why not take another step forward, and start talking about how all of us, as human beings living in the twenty-first century, can explore together the meaning of life and the mystery of God?  

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