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.