A few years ago, before I moved here to London, I was invited to lead a weekend course for the newly ordained curates of a neighbouring Diocese. The subject I was asked to speak about was Anglican tradition – which was absolutely fine, and entirely appropriate, because that happens to be an area in which I have a very real interest and also a modicum of expertise. So I was very happy to oblige.
I arrived at the venue in good time on the Friday night and sat down to dinner with those with whom I would be working for the next forty eight hours, and we got talking. And I was utterly astonished to discover that, of the dozen or so new clergy who were sitting at my table, that not one of them – not a single one of them – had ever studied any Church History at any point in their training.
Up to that point I had naively assumed that I was going there charged with a fairly straightforward task. But I quickly discovered that nothing could have been further from the truth. Because the biggest problem of all was not that they knew absolutely no Church history – it was that they had no idea at all why it mattered. As far as most of them were concerned, tradition, even their own tradition, had nothing of any value at all to teach them. Because from their point of view they were in ministry to be trail-blazers, and cutting edge, and by implication dragging the hidebound old dinosaurs like myself into the modern era.
I normally really enjoy weekend courses like that, but that particular one really was the exception. The experience felt to me like wading through mud – because not only did those young clergy not get it – they were also utterly blind to the limitations and superficiality of their own attitudes and assumptions. In short, with one or two notable exceptions, the majority of them really didn’t know what they didn’t know – and were completely unaware of their level of ignorance and arrogance. Indeed, I was left wondering how many of them would actually survive in ministry long term – because as I know from experience, you need much deeper roots than that, much deeper wells of wisdom to draw from, in order to do so.
One of the really important things about Anglican tradition is that it looks to the authority of three things: scripture, reason and tradition. And all three are of immense importance. Scripture because it is the bedrock of our faith; reason because our intellects are God-given, and because religious belief of the deepest kind does not require us to leave our brains behind at the door of the church – indeed, we cannot interpret Scripture without reason in any case.
And tradition – because the weight and the wealth of human wisdom and insight over many centuries, guided and directed by the Holy Spirit, is what gives our faith its roots, and instils in us an appropriate kind of humility. One of the reasons why I love this service of Evensong is precisely because it captures all that is best about Anglican tradition. It is calm, and still, and prayerful; its music raises our hearts to heaven; its liturgy is informed by the wisdom and experience of former ages, and the poetry of its language transforms it into something that is of beauty in and of itself.
In our first reading this evening from Jeremiah, the people are warned of the consequences of their departure from what the prophet describes as ‘the old paths’ – the paths that will bring rest unto their souls. In other words, they have no respect for tradition. And it is that that will bring about their downfall.
I am not, of course, for one moment suggesting that we need to adhere slavishly to the things of the past just because they happen to be in the past. (You will have doubtless have heard the old joke about how many Anglicans it takes to change a light bulb – to which the answer is 43: one to change the light bulb and the other 42 to say how much they preferred the old one.) That kind of attitude is of no help to us at all. Rather, tradition works a bit like a horticultural frame or cage: used in the wrong way it can stunt growth and prevent flourishing. But used in the right way it can be the starting point from which new growth can develop in abundance. The answer is that we genuinely need tradition to help us to understand our faith, and to help us to understand ourselves. Get rid of the whole framework, and you may lose something of real and lasting value.
It is very easy to assume that (Covid restrictions apart) the level of freedom that so many of us enjoy today, particularly in the wealthy western world, in a whole range of areas of life, is all positive. I wonder sometimes if we recognize some of the things that we have lost along the way. It might seem an odd connection to make, but when I was musing on these matters, I found myself recalling a newspaper interview that I read some years ago, that I really wish I had cut out and kept. The woman interviewed was very elderly – well into her nineties – and she had been one of the early leading lights of the Marriage Guidance Council, now known as Relate, founded by a clergyman (as it happens) back in 1938. And she was asked by the interviewer what she thought about ‘young people these days’ – clearly the interviewer was expecting her to disapprove of their loose morals, now that there are relatively few legal or moral constraints on what young consenting adults can get up to. But instead, this remarkably wise and insightful elderly woman said: ‘Mostly I feel really sorry for them. Because they know nothing about the stages of intimacy.’
The poet Elizabeth Jennings expressed the same thought beautifully in her poem, ‘The Way they live now’:
You make love and you live together now
Where we were shy and made love by degrees.
By kiss and invitation we learnt how
Our love was growing. You know few of these
Tokens and little gifts, the gaze of eye
To eye, the hand shared with another hand.
You know of few frustrations, seldom cry
With passion’s stress, yet do you understand
The little gestures that would mean so much.
The surging hope to be asked to a dance?
You take the whole of love. We lived by touch
And doubt and by the purpose of chance
And yet I think our slow ways carried much
That you have missed – the guess, the wish, the glance.