Thursday, September 3, 2009

In Defense of Tradition

Every now and then I run across something said so well that I wish I'd said it. This piece by Virginia Bennett in The Anglican Digest is one of those.

G. K. Chesterton once said that being a "traditionalist" means a determination not to automatically dismiss any man's opinion outright just because he happens to be your father.

The buzz these days in the church is whether you attend a church that has "traditional" or "contemporary" worship.

William Willimon, former chaplain at Duke University and newly elected Methodist Bishop of Alabama, (not known to be a curmudgeon) writes this: "I was recently at a church of my own denomination, and I came away frightened, thinking, have I seen the future of the church? The hymns (songs really), anthems, everything had jettisoned the tradition, our language, our metaphors, and our stuff in favor of something called contemporary Christian music. And in my humble opinion, what I heard that day, I just don't think will lift the luggage in the future. As people were singing, praising some vague thing called 'God' who, as far as I could tell, had never done anything in particular, as we were bouncing along praising, I wanted to say, 'you know there are people out there today who just found out that their cancer is not responding to treatment, or who found out their kids won't do right, that their marriage won't survive, or that they can’t keep their jobs, and here we are just bouncing along, grinning, praising God. We've got some good stuff for that kind of thing -- where is it?'"

Willimon speaks of running into a preacher who said his church had had contemporary worship for 12 years. "When does the contemporary stop being contemporary? When we go into our second decade of this stuff." The preacher said, "You mark my word, you've heard it here first; you're going to drive by some Baptist church in Atlanta, and they're going to have, out there on the lawn, an amplifier, a set of drums, and a guitar for sale. We will have moved on to some other infatuation."

Willimon reports that he heard an (ELCA) Lutheran pastor say recently, "We are starting to form new churches that have, as part of their mission, the aggressive, loving nurturance of traditional Christian worship."

The fact is, there is something to be said for using words that have been used in Christian worship for 2000 years, something to be said for using prayers that St. Augustine and St. Basil and countless others handed on to us like the precious gems they are. There are 2000 years of Christians who have pressed them to their hearts, stained them with their tears, and carried them to their deaths. The core of our Christian worship is filled with the life blood of Israel as well. The truth is, not many people realize how ancient are the prayers that we pray and the substance that fills them or how ancient is much of our music. This is not to negate that there is some bad theology in traditional hymns nor the need to bring a freshness to worship or a spontaneous voice to prayer.

It IS to say that what traditional worship gives us is something that is not only unique, but something holy, something that has bubbled up from thousands of years of Hebrew-Christian experience.

There are contemporary hymns I love, that bring me fresh insight into God and my relationship with God. But I will never stop breaking out in goose bumps when the choir sings an "Aye Verum Corpus" or a Gregorian chant that suddenly brings the world of my Christian ancestors so close I can almost reach out and touch them; those who felt that God was worthy of the deepest reverence they could offer.

A student asked Willimon, "How come we always sing these old hymns in Duke Chapel? I don't know any of these hymns." Willimon replied, in love, "Well you'll notice that you won't hear any of this kind of music on MTV. This is different kind of music. You had to get up, get dressed, and come down here at an inconvenient hour of the day to hear music like this. Check out the Ten Commandments. It says that thing about 'honor your father and your mother.' This is our attempt to do that in a small way. To be a Christian is to find yourself moving to a different rhythm, a different beat."

So yes, this year in our church you will hear the ancient words again and you will hear the ancient music again and the reason it will touch you is because it has woven its way into your soul as it did those before us. No doubt, there are things that are new, both tunes and words that will ultimately weave their way into our hearts and souls as well. In the meantime, perhaps the test of whether they stay or leave should be do they give you goose bumps! If not that, then at least it should be something that doesn't just make you feel good, but something that pulls back the veil between God, you, and the rest of the community, so that we are able to perceive just Who it is we come before and worship.

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