Tradition and Conversation

Tradition and Conversation

Although saint benedict’s table is part of the Anglican Church of Canada, little thought and time is given to that fact. The Who We Are section on the website sums up the prevailing attitude we have towards our denomination:

“We are positioned within the Anglican tradition, which for us is less about denominational labels or institutional jurisdiction—though we do exist as a congregation of the Diocese of Rupert’s Land—and more about being rooted in rich spiritual, liturgical and theological soil.”

Some who experience how worship is done at saint benedict’s may question why we put the emphasis on tradition when on first glance our service seems to be quite untraditional. As I was attending different Anglican churches in the mornings and saint benedict’s in the evenings last year, the parishioners who greeted me would often inform me that the service I was about to experience was going to be a lot more traditional then saint benedict’s. Of course I understood what they meant—there was going to be a choir, an organ, a strict conformity to the prescribed liturgy—but I also realized that how they used the word tradition and how saint benedict’s uses it is quite different.

Although I have not heard an explicit definition of “tradition” given at saint benedict’s table, Alasdair MacIntyre’s understanding of tradition is likely the working definition that is being used:

“A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.”

Tradition is not something that binds us to performing the liturgy only one way, or using one particular type of music and instrument. A tradition that demands that one conforms to what has been done in the past in nearly all ways is a dead tradition it has stopped being “historically extended.” Such a tradition claims to honour the past by conforming to it, but misses the fact that to do so it must pick a particular point in the past and disregard all discussion that came before, which led to that point, and all that came after, that led from that point. There was a time in the history of the church before our current liturgy, before choirs and before organs.

To be “traditional” for saint benedict’s table is not outward conformity to prescribed modes of worship (although we understand all the good that can come from doing so), but being part of the historical conversation with the rest of the catholic church. This gives us a license to explore, to be creative, and question presumptions. What stops us from going off and inventing all kinds of new things, throwing the past out the window, and doing what we think is right on our own? The key is that it is a conversation.

I love to converse with people; not the typical “Hi, how are you doing?” conversations that stop at the surface level but the conversations that force you to explore an idea with another person, stretch your ability to think on your feet, and force you to make new connections in your thought that you didn’t know could be made. Those kinds of conversations keep you thinking about them for days after they are done. In such conversations there are unspoken rules: the two most important are not to interrupt the other person without a really good reason and to stay on topic.

Although much can be said about the first rule, it is the second one that is more pertinent to the subject of tradition. If someone is conversing to me about the humour of Monty Python I could focus on the performance of John Cleese (perhaps because I am more interested in him then the rest of Python) and bring in the work he did on Fawlty Towers to the discussion. My friend may have a specific point he wants to make about Monty Python and will steer the conversation, either directly or indirectly, back to that particular subject. I could chose to follow the conversation back to Monty Python, in which case the conversation will continue, or I could resist and thus exclude myself from the conversation. In the case of saint benedict’s table we have chosen to converse with the Anglican tradition. If we start to go outside of what is being discussed there, and no one wants to follow us, we put ourselves outside of the tradition.

So for saint benedict’s table it is our understanding of tradition that gives us the freedom to worship how we do, and it is our commitment to be in conversation with the Anglican tradition that keeps us from crossing into craziness.

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One Response to Tradition and Conversation

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this, Bryan.
    I think that one of the more interesting observations has to do with how, when you visited other Anglican parishes, you were often told that it “was going to be a lot more traditional then saint benedict’s.” Your sense that this generally meant “there was going to be a choir, an organ, a strict conformity to the prescribed liturgy” is absolutely on… and I would say what these folks were really describing was not so much “traditional” as “conventional.”

    Back in 2006, John Longhurst wrote a profile of saint ben’s for the Winnipeg Free Press, in which he picked up on a comment I made about how “We wanted to loosen the bolts on the ancient Anglican tradition and give it new flexibility and play.” I think that is not a bad description of our ethos, but since then I’ve come to think that any time a church tradition becomes too firmly bolted down it tips over into traditionalism; an entirely different thing from being rooted.

    If you’re interested, the Free Press piece is still available online:


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