Does Tradition Have Any Value?

 Westcott House, Cambridge

Westcott House, Cambridge

Does tradition have any value? This provocatively simply question occurred to me a few weeks ago, and it struck as being a good way to start on a Sunday which would be followed by the post-service discussion slot. Does tradition have any value? It’s a question on which everyone would surely have an opinion. What I could not have foreseen however, is the extent to which this question would feature in this week’s news. A few days ago, a story appeared in the Guardian: “C of E college apologies for students’ attempt to ‘Queer evening prayer’.” The College in question was Westcott House in Cambridge, where I trained for the Anglican priesthood. At Westcott, the normal pattern of evening prayer consists of the words found in the book ‘Common Worship’, and to a lesser extent the words found in the ‘Book of Common Prayer’.


On occasion, however, this regular pattern was broken for what is referred to as ‘creative worship’ - an opportunity for a student (or a group of students) to do something a little bit out of the ordinary. Sometimes that was quite a subtle change: this evening we will do Evening prayer in the round, as opposed to all sitting forward... Or sometimes a little bit more creative, praying with stones that we all drop into a bowl at the end; writing something on a piece of paper which is passed around; or playing with the music a bit, more contemporary music, or Jazz perhaps. In the light of this month being LGBT History Month – a time in which the country is to celebrate and reflect on LGBTQ lives throughout history - some students at Westcott were given free rein to mark the occasion through a special ‘creative worship’ service. So far, so good.


As we all know, the Church of England has some serious problems affirming the lives of LGBTQ people. Just over a week ago, the Church restated its position in support of marriage inequality, in its vain attempt to appease the conservative strands of the Church, and avoid schism. Human history is one long list of examples of people having to choose one of two paths. The path of saying, ‘sod you, I’m going to say and do the right thing regardless of the consequences’, and the path of kowtowing to the status quo, the path of least resistance, the backhanded deal with the devil. In Jesus, we seek the way of love and justice even if that leads to persecution, even if that leads to a raw deal, regardless of the consequences. Like Holden Caulfield in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, I have an axe to grind when it comes to phoniness. I can’t stand superficial style over substance, it drives me nuts. Westcott House has a big problem with style over substance. Many a trainee priest perfects a certain affectation, a certain concern less for the Gospel and more with the number of buttons on their cassock. Less a quest after the object of ultimate concern, and more the need to be seen genuflecting at the appropriate moments. When it comes to language, this includes the use of Polari, the gay slang of the 1960s. As absurd as it is true. It’s probably politically incorrect to even acknowledge that Polari can be amusing. I mean, it’s somewhat old fashioned humour these days, and brings to mind comedy of a bygone era: Bless me Father, Round the Horne, or comedians of the 60s like Kenneth Williams. But none the less there was clearly a time and place for it. What is surprising is the appropriation of this slang and subculture into today’s Church. So, when I heard that Westcott House was in the news because some student put together a Polari evening prayer service I was not at all surprised. What is funny is the extent to which some have suggested this was a regrettable isolated incident, when in fact it points to far deeper and more significant problem within the Church of England, a fake posturing of radicalism within narrow confines. It would be a grave mistake to imagine this subculture of Anglicanism was in any way representative of LGBTQ Christianity. Gay liberation activists from the 70s onwards have regarded such as offensive. So, does tradition have any value? I think this incident is quite interesting when it comes to the question of traditionalism. The principal of Westcott commented to the BBC that this incident will require a “tightening [of] the internal mechanisms of the house to ensure this never happens again." This moronic response clearly suggests a clampdown upon the students, a reigning-in of their already incredibly limited creative freedom. Whereas of course it is within the freedom, within the risk, that ministers can actually grow into competent curators of worship. It takes experience, not oversight, to discern what is and is not appropriate.

 The 1662 Act of Uniformity

The 1662 Act of Uniformity

Okay, now I’m going to change tack a bit, and talk about the ‘Anabaptists’. When we think about our Unitarian roots, we can start in one of several different places. Quite often we start with the ‘Great Ejection’, in the wake of parliament’s Act of Uniformity in 1662, which required greater adherence amongst the Churches’ ministers to the prescribed customaries within the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ (which obviously resonates quite closely with what we were just talking about). At that critical moment in history, thousands of ministers were driven out of the Church of England, and this led directly to the establishment of this religious community, and this building. Another place we could start however is a Century earlier with the ‘Anabaptists’. The ‘Anabaptists’ were not a homogenous movement in unanimous agreement. Rather the ‘Anabaptist’ label encompasses much of the impulse within the radical end of Christianity throughout Europe in the 16th Century; an impulse which manifested in a few different ways. Because the ‘Anabaptists’ didn’t play by the rules, they were greatly feared as a great, potentially destabilising, force. The word ‘Anabaptist’, we could say, was synonymous with a word today like ‘Terrorist’. So, the characteristics and traits of the ‘Anabaptist’ you could say set the stage for us Unitarians to follow. They defined the parameters of the conversation if you will; which is to say we are not the same, but to a greater or lesser extent you can see similarities which have endured from them to now.

Okay, so briefly these are the things which characterised the ‘Anabaptist’: a desire to get back to a simplified Christianity, akin perhaps to the kind of Christianity we read about in the Book of Acts; there is a strong pacifism strand – no wars, no soldiers, no violence; an anti-society strand, and that usually includes a scepticism about the value of cultural trends, like celebrity culture, or materialism; an anti-hierarchy strand, not being subservient to Bishops or committees on high, but being directed by the people for the people; and finally, and most significantly for our purposes this morning, a strong anti-tradition strand, and that came from people in the 16th Century recognising that there was a lot of stuff in the Church (which was all part and parcel of doing Church) which was completely absent from the Bible. Like organ music, like set prayers, like having ordained priests with robes, like a traditional communion service, almost everything could be, and was, questioned along these lines.

 'Anabaptists' being burned. 

'Anabaptists' being burned. 

Now, I think with all of these characteristics of the ‘Anabaptist’, we as Unitarians would want to be critical to some extent. To use a metaphor, we could say that these characteristics represent the wind filling our Meeting Houses’ sails, but that does not necessarily mean that the wind dictates our direction. Our reason, our experience, the rudder of our ship can be turned this way or that, collectively and as individuals. So, in the light of anti-traditionalism, we can see in this space that a lot of the traditional trappings of “Church” have been stripped away. There is no cross, no altar, no green altar cover, no priest, no rood screen, and within the structure of our services there is nothing so sacrosanct that it could not be absent. We are free and at liberty to experiment, to try different things out, to shake things up a bit. But, and this is very important, though we can do that, though we can throw everything out the window, in reality, here in community we develop our own patterns and traditions. Like a family, certain ways of doing things emerge. Now on one hand, rules are made to be broken, and to some extent it’s the minister’s job to break the rules, and make sure people don’t get too comfortable. But on the other hand, one must feel at home within their family church or Meeting House, and so there is a balancing act, a middle approach which is to be discerned. But it is important, I think, to note that though we have some of our own home-grown traditions, which have grown up through us, nothing has come down upon us. And I think that is a big part of what being a Unitarian is about.

So, does tradition have any value? As you had probably guessed my answer was going to be: yes and no. It has a lot to do with personal preference, it has a lot to do with the community within which you find yourself worshipping. For some Christians, a very prescriptive approach to liturgy is not oppressive, like we may find it to be, but liberating. It’s about discerning what is appropriate for you, what is appropriate for your neighbour, and what is appropriate within your faith community. That may not always line up neatly, but through grace, and patience, and understanding, we learn to muddle through with each other, and grow together.

Amen.