How the word ‘Traditional’ closes down conversation tha ought to be opened up

Reflection 30-8-15

The ‘gay marriage’ debate has drawn in a lot of commentators. Recently, Brian Houston of ‘Hillsong’ has issued a statement occasioned by the engagement of one of his choir directors to a member of the choir. He says “My personal view on the subject of homosexuality would line up with most traditionally held Christian views. I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject *.”

What I found interesting was his appeal to ‘tradition’ in this context. Apart from the reformation doctrine of ‘sola Scriptura’ which he seems not to hold to in this quote, it strikes me that the way we do marriage now is anything but ‘traditional’. It can be argued that it owes more to the industrial revolution than to anything that scripture says. It can also be argued that in days gone by people made left handed people write with their right hand because they held to the ‘traditional’ view of ‘handedness’ that to be right handed was to be ‘adroit’ and left handed was to be ‘sinister’. ‘Tradition’ as a ground for doing things is not the be all and end all.

Now I don’t want to make this reflection to be about gay marriage, but I do want it to be about the use of the word ‘tradition’. In the case of Brian Houston, he uses the word ‘traditional’; as a positive word. It is meant to add weight to his argument by saying ‘This is what has been thought and done in the Church ‘for a long time’ and so because it has been done ‘for a long time’ it carries more weight than something that has been done ‘for a short time.’

But think about this: Recently I went to a workshop on worship. There the word ‘traditional’ was used in a slightly negative sense. People were saying ‘We want to design ‘modern’ forms of worship because we don’t think that ‘traditional’ forms of worship speak to us any more, or that they won’t attract ‘modern’ people. Here the word ‘traditional’ is a negative adjective because the people who want to do something new think that something that has been done ‘for a long time’ is not very good, and that it is time to do something that has not been done for a very long time.

But I think that the way people use this adjective, both for positive and negative uses simply shuts down conversation, rather than opens it up. No one can escape tradition, not even those Churches that say ‘Sola Scriptura’. The question is not whether one wants to be ‘traditional’ or not. The question is ‘What tradition do you stand in?’ Now we can have a conversation. Asking this question requires a person to give an account of their views. Brian Houston might then say ‘I am in the tradition which says along with others Churches ‘We think that to be Gay is to be somehow further from the purposes of God than straight people, so that we will not appoint Gay people to leadership in the ‘Hillsong’ Church. (Or something like that. It is certainly the case that Hillsong will not appoint Gay people to leadership). But the Anglicans in the UK have adopted another view. They say “We don’t mind if you’re Gay, but as with other ‘single’ people you have to be celibate. We will also not let you be in leadership if you are going to be ‘married’, although we will let you be in leadership if you are in a ‘civil partnership.’  Then the argument is clear, even if it is sometimes convoluted or illogical.

The same applies to worship. My commitments for a Sunday Morning are to Liturgy (the work of the people) and to Eucharist as Sacrament and the journey that we are taken on by this celebration. Other people are committed to a ‘ministry of the Word’ and a more variable liturgy. But at least with these two traditions spelled out, I am not left feeling like a ‘fuddy-duddy’ because I am labelled ‘traditional’ by some people who are committed to other traditions, or left to feel ‘less than Christian’ if I do not support a view about something in the church that some one else has called the ‘traditional’ view.

So my beef is with the use of the word ‘traditional’ as a way to sloganize or characterise certain views, without their being the opportunity to explore what those views are. In this I am on the same page as Brian Houston who said in the same interview ‘Hillsong we don’t want to reduce the real issues in people’s lives to a sound bite.”

If conversations get into the public media, then it is inevitable that these conversations are going to be reduced to sound bites for public consumption. That is a shame, I think, because then the political decisions are taken on the grounds of ’which slogan appeals to you’ or ‘which slogan sounds like the tribe to which you belong.’ So there is no movement. There is no engagement.

I remember, just after I finished agriculture, I began to think a long way into the future. I wondered ‘what will I do in retirement?’ I was interested in pigs, so I thought “I’ll buy a small plot of land form a farmer, and put in a small piggery, just enough to generate a living. Then I can run that, but not have to worry much about where my income was coming from.’

Well now, I’m thinking different things, but at the time, the idea of having a small piggery just filled in a hole in my life that was at the time an ‘open question’. By doing that, I did not have to think about it any more, and I had an answer to the people (including myself) who asked me ‘What are you going to do when you retire?”

I think that the adjective ‘traditional’ like many other slogans functions like this kind of ‘bolt hole’ which gives a ‘safe place’ to hide, and enables us not to have to suffer the pain of an ‘open question’. Like the experiment with the four year olds and the marshmallows, we take the one marshmallow straight away, rather than live with the openness of the time between ‘now’ and ‘then’. Brian Houston is also right when he says “This — like many other issues, is a conversation the Church needs to have and we are all on a journey as we grapple with the question of merging biblical truth with a changing world.” He and I might differ on a lot of things, but one thing that I can share with him is that about the issue of Gay marriage, and on the issue of Worship, as on many others, I am on a journey. I have to have some provisional answers, otherwise I can’t commit to any kind of action at all. But on the other hand, being on a journey means staying open to conversation, and getting below the surface of sound bites and slogans.



About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Religion and Society, Weekly Reflections at St. John's Montreux and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How the word ‘Traditional’ closes down conversation tha ought to be opened up

  1. Very interesting comments, I seem to find many on the gay marriage debate (on both sides) stick to ‘twitter arguments’ which stagnate the conversation. I am not a Christian, and consider myself a Humanist, but welcome the calls for open discussion. In relation to gay marriage, which you touched on, the debate always seems to veer towards the idea of gender, and what it means to be a member of a specific sex. I feel many on the anti gay marriage camp seem to have gender and sexuality already worked out. The problem I have with this, is that when I try and rationalise their ideas I normally get something along the lines of “anything that is not traditional is sin, an abomination or bad”. And from there the conversation becomes very one sided as I am told how god ‘told’ them this is the beat way to live one’s life. I feel it is being used as a power instrument to push a certain philosophy or idea without the threat of challenge. What do you think of the use of ‘traditional’ as not only something that stagnates conversation but is actually being used as a tool to push people’s views on matters such as gender, sexuality or parenting?

    • frpaulsblog says:

      I remember a family coming to me to ask that their child be baptized. I explained that this involves coming to Church. They did not want to, saying “I think it is better for children to make up their own minds about religion when they grow up’. A few weeks later, I aw them in a large clothing store, butying footballs, jerseys, scarves and beanies for the young boy. I asked ‘Don’t you think it is better for him to make up his own mind what foortball team he will follow when he gets older?’ Without a hint of irony they said ‘No!!! He HAS to be brought up in the tradition of the great Carlton Footy Club’. My point is that everyone is brought up in a ‘tradition’no matter where you come from, so using the way people use the word ‘traition’ as a reason not to bring people up in a ‘tradition’ makes no sense to me. What does make sense is becoming aware of one’s ‘tradition’ and also applying ‘reason’ and using Scripture as a conversation partner (authoritative, but not ‘absolute’) and one’s own experience to life’s situations helps to make us all a bit more humble and open to another. Its the ‘without the threat of challenge’ which is the problem, as if there is one ‘knock-em-down’ argument that is going to take away the insecurtiy that is part of all our lot in changing times.

      • Thanks for the reply,
        Although I do not necessarily agree with with giving too much importance to ‘tradition’, and putting aside the fundamental differences between a religious faith and a football team. I think you are right in your point about absolutism. My decision making does not involve any form of faith in a religious sense, and consider myself as using ‘reason’ to shape my behaviour (there are limits to this). But going back to the idea of absolutism and football. Do you think someone can believe in different faiths? In football terms, do you think someone can choose to support different teams, or no teams at all. If there is only one team one ‘should’ support, is that not absolutism? Anyways thanks for replying to my comment, I understand my last question is not necessarily directly related to your reflection on tradition so please don’t think I expect an answer. All the best 😀.

        Walking Around Human

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