There are many things that we see in our lives to which the word “traditional” may be attached. It can refer to a style of dress or an understanding of relationships. In Church it may refer to the use of certain kinds of music or a sytle of worship. Many years ago, pastoring my first parish as an Episcopal priest, I had a young couple who were Roman Catholics, who had come to the Church as inquirers. One of their first statements and complaints to me was that the service in my parish was not “traditional” enough. I was slightly puzzled. My eleven o’clock service was a choral Eucharist, about as traditionally “high church” as Anglicans get. I was also aware that the surrounding Catholic Churches were all pretty contemporary in their worship. I should add that the couple was in their early twenties.
They explained away my confusion. By “traditional” they meant: “where are the guitars?” “In the eye of the beholder,” is all I could think.
The same can be said of the contemporary use of the word “traditional” or other phrases such as “ancient,” etc. I know there are experiments out there to bring a more “traditional” style of worship into Evangelicalism (and here “traditional” means, I believe, “liturgical”). In many places an increased emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary service of worship on Sundays is also part of the package.
On the one hand, these efforts can hardly be faulted from an Orthodox point of view. The more people explore the “tradition,” the more likely they are to confront the faith – which was, after all, “once and for all ‘traditioned’ to the saints,” for that is the meaning of Jude 1:3. But on the other hand, there is a danger in confusing the outward trappings of “tradition” with “Tradition” itself. For what was once and for all delivered to the saints, was not so much questions of liturgy and incense (although all of these ritual and liturgical elements of Orthodoxy do carry with them the content of Tradition – they are not electives), rather the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints was and is indeed the content of the faith – the living union between the true and living God and man. That faith truly reveals to us and makes accessible to us the true and living God, and it also reveals to us and makes accessible what it is to be a truly living human being. The content of the Christian faith, the living Tradition, is the truth of both God and man, and the truth of our salvation through union with God in Christ.
The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas – but a reality – God with us.
And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.
Invariably, the great stumbling block faced by various attempts to “recreate” or “rediscover” the “early Church,” is that the “early Church,” is not an historical reality. It is a present reality – not simply as the “early Church” (this is not a Biblical phrase anyway). The present reality is the same as the “early Church”: it is the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the true and living Way. It never ceased nor was overcome by the gates of Hell. It has lived and thrived in enough places to have picked up many languages, many customs, but always the same faith.
This always comes as a stumbling block, I believe, because the existence of the Orthodox Church stands as a stark witness to the True and Living God – not the idea of a God – but God. In my own conversion, I was utterly shocked by this fact. I had read about Orthodoxy for years. I agreed with it for years. I would have even readily agreed for years to everything the Orthodox Church said of itself, and yet I remained outside. When, at last, my family and I were actually received into the Church, I was staggered by the reality of God. I know that sounds strange (since I had been an ordained Anglican priest for 18 years prior to that) but such was the case. There was no longer any question about discussing God, or refining the tradition, or even debating how all of it was to be applied. I was now in the thick of things and God was reigning down in canon, text, Bishop, sacrament, penance, sight, sound, rubrics (which I could not begin to fathom at first) – everything!
Thus, I surprised friends constantly in my first year or so of Orthodoxy when they asked me what was the most important thing about my conversion. My constant reply (to this day) was: the existence of God.
This, somehow, is the content that sets the Tradition apart from all discussions of appropriating tradition, etc. You do not appropriate something whose content is God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on a spoon. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s to small to appropriate God.
Thus many in our time stand at the edge of Tradition. I have written that it is all really about Being – and it is. Thus it is worth going over the edge, to cross from thinking about God, to being plunged into the heart of it all. Frighteningly, it will come complete with Bishops whom you like and whom you despise – with stories of contemporary saints – and encounters with contemporary sinners. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. What else can a man do?