The Pull and Power of Tradition

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Yesterday in worship we sang the “Gloria”.  As the familiar intro was played, I anticipated the opening line, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.”  I began singing these ancient words, which are commonly attributed to Hillary of Poitiers of the 4th Century.  I realized that I’d been singing this very ancient hymn most all my life.  Not only that, I realized that for close to 2 millennia this hymn, in various forms and languages, had been sung in churches around the world.   As we made our way through the hymn I was caught up in the sense of both history and home.  The hymn is the church’s to be sure, but it is also mine.  It is part of me and has grown into the fabric of my worshiping life these 40 plus years.

There is power and pull in sacred tradition.  The power is in the rejection of “my” generation (whatever generation you happen to be a part of) being the most important, enlightened and informed.  There is power in the realization that you and I stand on the shoulders of 500 years of Anglicanism and another 1000 years of the Church prior to that.  Faith is always inherited, and with that inheritance comes a tradition alongside it.  The power of sacred tradition is that it not only removes me from the center of the cosmos, but it also draws me into a deeper reality by connecting me to generations of Christians who have come before- the great cloud of witnesses referred to in Hebrews 12.  But the maintaining of tradition is not simply based on the whim of the current generation, it is rooted in the Scriptures themselves.  St. Paul praises the Corinthian church, “Because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.” (1 Cor. 11:22).  In 2 Timothy he calls upon the young church leader to take, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2)  And we see this as an even more ancient value when we look at Deuteronomy 4:9, “Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your sons and your grandsons.” (Deut 4:9)  These admonitions were not just to the words of the Church, but to the ways of the Church.

When Jesus condemns the Pharisees in Matthew for their tradition he says, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3 and companion verses in Mark 7:9-13) He is not condemning the idea of tradition.  He is condemning the fact that they are using a tradition to actually circumvent the keeping of the commandments!  I am advocating for the opposite –for those traditions that have stood the test of time and that draw us to deeper worship and faithfulness to the Gospel itself.

And this leads us to the “pull” of tradition.  Good, solid tradition, such as singing the “Gloria”, making the sign of the cross, kneeling, or reverencing the cross in procession serve to pull us deeper into worship.  They involve our souls, minds and bodies.  In the modern church movement you see this same need expressed in raising arms, closing eyes, or bouncing.  It’s as if the innate need to worship physically is still felt and many are looking for ways to express it. The good news is that there are ways to express it -ancient and well thought out ways!  Mark Batterson, who is a prolific writer on prayer from a much more contemporary vein of the church has expressed this well:

“Physical posture is an important part of prayer.  It’s like a prayer within a prayer.  Posture is to prayer what tone is to communication.  When we practice these proscribed postures, we are doing what has been done for thousands of years, and part of thinking long is appreciating the timeless traditions that connect us to our spiritual ancestors.” (1)

So solid, proven, Biblically consistent traditions provide both a power and a pull.  We don’t have to invent them or chase the latest fads in Church culture that are actually trying to achieve what our predecessors have already accomplished.  We need to rediscover, and re-appreciate the inheritance of the saints which we have been given.  I fear we are letting it drift away from modern Anglicanism.  Actually, I really feel that many are jettisoning it with wild abandon in order to chase the idol of relevance and pragmatism.  In many places I fear there is only a shell of traditional Anglicanism, and a gaping crater where there was once a robust understanding of sacramental theology.

Allow our spiritual ancestors a voice.  Rediscover the power and pull (and I might add) the beauty of traditional Anglican worship.  It is a unique gift and tool of the Church for the proclamation of the Gospel.  Perhaps in another 40 years, when I’m in my mid 80’s, I’ll be singing the “Gloria” with new generations of Christ-followers who just may find that this crazy old man has given them roots to ground them and wings to help them soar.

Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth…


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