The Democracy of the Dead

“I handed on to you what I also received…”  Image by Trilok Rangan.


Hacking Christianity has posted a wonderful response to A Growing Church is a Dying Church.  I can’t find an author’s name, but whoever it is has done a fantastic job of thoughtfully analyzing and critiquing my words.  I’m honored that someone would care enough to craft such an in-depth response.  The whole article is worth reading.  Here’s the link:

RE: A Growing Church is a Dying Church?

Why We need Tradition in the Wesleyan Church

Here is my rejoinder to Hacking Christianity’s rebuttal:

It wasn’t my conscious intention to be an “iconoclast of tradition”, but I can definitely see how my original post might read that way.  In my own mind, I’m quite the traditionalist, especially when it comes to liturgy.  If I were going to push against “tradition” at all, it would be two particular kinds:

1.  Nostalgia masquerading as Tradition.  In many cases, “the way we’ve always done it” actually refers to practices that only became established during the 1950s-1970s.  In my experience, those who fight hardest for this variety tend to be baby boomers who want to reconstruct the church of their childhood during the postwar church-attendance explosion.  What they want is a return to cultural dominance, popularity, and (most of all) money.  When they talk about returning to “traditional hymnody”, they don’t want the time-tested theological depth of Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley.  They want Fanny Crosby and the Sunday School hymns of the late 19th and early 20th century.  Never mind the horrible theology found in “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through”, people want to sing it because it reminds them of days gone by, just like Bing Crosby at Christmas.

When my generation retires, I’m sure there will be plenty of cranky curmudgeons who will torture their pastors about singing “Shout to the Lord” and “Awesome God”.  Rich Mullins will roll over in his grave on that day.

2.  Habit masquerading as Tradition.  “The way we’ve always done it” carries much stronger argumentative weight when people can identify why they’ve always done it that way.

For example, my wife’s grandmother used to always slice the end off of her Christmas ham each year.  When my mother-in-law asked why she did that, Grandma said she didn’t know, it was just the way her mother taught her to do it.  When Grandma later asked her mother about the origin of that tradition, Great Grandma revealed, “Oh, I only did that because the cooking pan I had back then was too small and a whole ham wouldn’t fit!”  All along, they had continued this tradition without knowing why they did it.

Here’s a counter-example of a well-reasoned tradition: My current congregation closes the Sunday service by singing the Clare Benediction.  They began this tradition while they were between pastors several years ago.  There was a long interim period, followed by a tragically short pastorate, followed by another long vacancy.  All in all, it had been about 7 years since they really felt at home with a pastor.  That’s a long time for a church that wasn’t ready to transition to a lay-led model.  The face in the pulpit varied each week (when they could get anyone to come at all), but the one symbol that held them together during that time was the fact that they closed each service with that same sung benediction.  That’s a tradition that means something.  They know exactly why they do it.  Ironically, that same awareness of tradition has allowed them the freedom to let that practice go.  This year, for the first time, we’re not singing it.

G.K. Chesterton called tradition “The Democracy of the Dead”.  I love that.  I want to preserve a sense of continuity with the Church Catholic from all times and places.  If anything, I’d like to see more tradition, not just Amazing Grace but also Phos Hilaron.  I long for us to constantly reopen the wells of living water dug by our ancestors.  Some of my folks dismiss practices like Sharing the Peace and weekly Eucharist without realizing their power as ancient traditions of the Church.

Jaroslav Pelikan once remarked that tradition is not “the dead faith of the living” but “the living faith of the dead”.  That’s what I want for my congregation.




4 thoughts on “The Democracy of the Dead

  1. Hi there Barrett! Thanks for the link to my site.

    Similar to your Christmas Ham story, I read somewhere the story of a church with the goat. There was this church that always tied a goat to the front tree when it began service. They had a whole ritual crafted about it. Visitors were turned away by the seeming veneration of the goat. It was a sacred tradition, held up as “what made them unique.” But the tradition began when a clergyperson had nowhere to tie his goat on the way to church and so he tied it outside. The clergy is long since gone, and the church is now on its fifth goat!

    There is an incredible inertia to both nostalgia and habit, both of which are difficult and I agree with your treatment above. Both are obstacles to the death and resurrection that you articulated well in the original piece. However, when we articulate a theology of newness that does away with nostalgia and habit without a robust theology of continuity that holds tight to traditions that bring life from the dead.

    I primarily used your article as a launching point for a critique of my own tradition in that it articulates a theology of success (planting new churches, neglecting old smaller ones, etc) without a robust theology of failure (sifting through the good parts of established churches, neglecting mission fields, etc). That’ll be another blog post soon so hopefully you can offer your insight to that as well.

    Blessings and perseverance!

  2. Excellent conversation you started, Barrett. So many truths spoken, on both sides. Here is the ‘tradition’ story I heard at seminary.
    New minister, first celebration of Holy Communion. They get to the Apostles’ Creed, everyone stands and turns to face the back of the church. The new minister is appalled, (s)he reads theological implications into turning your back on the table, the bread, the wine, etc.
    After worship Session members are asked,”Why?” No one knows. Other members of the congregation are asked, still no one knows. Eventually someone says, try asking Mr. Oldest LIving Member of the congregation who is now in a care home. He should know.
    The minister goes to the care home, has a lovely visit with Mr. OLM and asks the question. “Oh, that” the kindly gentleman answers. “When I was a kid the words to the Apostles’ Creed were written on the back wall of the church. We all turned to read them. The wall has long since been painted, but we never stopped turning!”

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