Tradition as a living thing

Tradition as a living thing

Back in 2003 when saint benedict’s table was first beginning its life as a worshipping community, one of the things I was keenly aware of was that we were starting with a relatively blank slate. We didn’t have to contend with all the local and in-house traditions that can make innovation so difficult in many congregations. No one was talking about “how it used to be,” or wistfully longing for some imagined glory days when things were somehow so much better. We were – and are – very much rooted in the Anglican liturgical tradition, but as I said to John Longhurst of the Winnipeg Free Press, “We wanted to loosen the bolts on the ancient Anglican tradition and give it new flexibility and play.”

And so we simplified the liturgy to make it a bit less wordy, built in more space and silence, added some of our own unique touches (such as the sounding bowl that we use to punctuate the silences), and invited our musicians to write new music for worship. And at least one of our in-house “traditions” is simply playful… if you click here you’ll know exactly what I mean!

The primary definition of “tradition” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom),” and I suppose it doesn’t take long for a group of people to begin to see a practice as traditional in this sense. Right from our very first gathering, we have used Steve Bell’s setting of the sanctus/benedictus as a part of our worship… and though there were only nine of us present that first night, we really sang it!

  • To listen to Steve Bell’s version of the sanctus, as led by Gord Johnson, click the arrow:

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And then about a year ago, Mike Koop arrived with a different setting in hand. It was part of his project to write new music for each of the traditional liturgical texts, which included a rather Beatles-inflected version of the Creed, but I knew that an alternate version of the sanctus would stretch people in a way that these other settings simply wouldn’t. With tongue in cheek, one person even said to me that she would appreciate two weeks warning any time we were going to depart from Steve’s version…

  • To listen to Mike Koop’s setting of the same text, click the arrow:

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So there we were, a church community less than ten years old, and Mike’s setting threw us a curve ball. “This isn’t what we usually sing; this isn’t what we’ve always done.” Yet while  Mike’s version is clearly different from Steve’s, it is no less a part of the great tradition. The ancient church fathers carried a sense that “tradition” was to be “handed over” as opposed to merely “handed down;” that it is a living thing, to be apprehended anew by those to whom it is handed over, and not something fixed to be received, maintained and preserved like an artifact in a museum. As was true for Steve some twenty years ago when this liturgical text first really caught his attention – when he was first aware that in some sense it had been handed over to him – so too with Mike when he first heard a new melody beginning to emerge for this great liturgical text.

All to say that the slate isn’t quite so blank for us as it was back in 2003. We have developed some habits, practices, and traditions, and that is as it should be. And yet as we continue to explore the Christian tradition as a living thing, what a gift it is to have poets and artists and songwriters in our midst, to whom the riches of the Christian faith have been handed over, and whose gift it is to help us all receive them anew.

Jamie Howison

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