Robin Blount: ecumenical notes, cruise ship chaplaincy and lots more

Tradition and habit

7 June 2022

"When the Greeks got the gospel, they turned it into a philosophy; when the Romans got it, they turned it into a government; when the Europeans got it, they turned it into a culture; and when the Americans got it, they turned it into a business."

To this excellent quotation from Richard Halverson I would add just one more line: "and when the English got it, they turned it into a habit." At first I'd put "into a tradition", but actually I think, in my own experience of growing up with Sundays in the local church as the climax of the week, it's as much habit as tradition.

This, I think, is because the church - and I'm referring mainly to the dear old C of E - is so obsessed with its traditional forms of worship. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) services are still widely available, if often at inconvenient times of day. Discovering small parish churches as we travel around our new-found northern territory, very often the church notice-board will be advertising a Prayer Book Holy Communion, maybe every other week as clergy become increasingly responsible for several parishes. But it seems to be beyond question that church-goers expect - demand, even - the traditional form of service.

Back in 1928 a revised Prayer Book was issued, and indeed was widely adopted by clergy who welcomed the use of what then was English-as-spoken rather than that of the sixteenth century. Its use was left to the incumbent in discussion with the church council, and the bishops allowed its use despite its lack of parliamentary authorisation.

When I was a lad in our local Anglican church, the main Sunday services were Mattins and Evensong, and Holy Communion (shorter version) was tacked on once each every month. But in the 1960s the Parish and People Movement saw the emergence of the Parish Communion as the new main Sunday service. By its very nature, the parish communion was exclusive, in that people not confirmed could not take part in the distribution of bread and wine. Nevertheless, the parish communion remains the central act of worship in most Anglican churches.

Over the years we have seen the introduction in 1980 of the Alternative Service Book - usually called ASB - as an accompaniment to the BCP rather than a replacement. However, in many churches the BCP Holy Communion is still available at 8am on a Sunday morning, for those who like to insist on the form of service they grew up with. And here's the point of this piece: it seems to me that in many churches, the point of being a member is so that you can take part in something that is written deep into your very soul. The repetition of familiar words is a therapeutic gift, an opportunity to reach down in your memory to relive the journey of faith as it has come to you. A retired priest who used to conduct the BCP communion with his eyes closed comes to mind - it was so familiar that he didn't need the book. He seemed only to open his eyes at the sermon or the distribution.

I do not decry the value of tradition, nor recitation of the familiar. But this is where tradition may become habit, where familiarity of words becomes more important than the meaning behind the words. This, I think, is part of the message of Jesus, who challenged the repetition of the familiar and encouraged his hearers to rethink what they had been taught and to redirect their faith from benign comfort into a passion for change. It is so easy to go to church, to enjoy the words, the music and the company, and to leave afterwards without having met the God who makes all things new - and in so meeting, to have felt stimulated and commissioned to make what changes for good come your way.

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