But what about tradition?

By Emily M. D. Scott

The word “tradition” gets thrown around a lot, especially among folks who hang out at church. Sometimes people like to talk about “traditional” versus “contemporary” worship, or “traditional” versus “emergent” or “creative” worship.

The words can function as helpful shorthand, but they also create dichotomies. “Traditional” is a tricky word. Sometimes when we say “traditional,” what we really mean is “it looks like what I’m used to,” or, “it looks like what I’m expecting.” At St. Lydia’s, the church where I serve, we gather each week to share a sacred meal that we cook together and bless with an early Eucharistic prayer. We sing and pray and eat together. Every once in a while someone will refer to our practice as “non traditional” worship. I’ll remind them that our rituals are rooted in the earliest traditions of the Church. What we’re doing may not look like Sunday morning in most of the United States, but it’s a practice that dates back to the second century. It’s really traditional.

On top of our traditions around worship, there are also traditions around church culture: how we make decisions, how we’re structured, how our year is patterned. There are vestries and councils and synods and conferences and pastors and rectors and elders and deacons and youth ministers and altar guilds and committees and all the different ways we’ve come up with to function as a body. This too is part of “The Tradition,” and sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s weighty.

I’m invested in St. Lydia’s doing something new that draws on something ancient. And I’m invested in our congregation doing this with freedom and grace while taking part in a deep and sustaining relationship with the larger church. A new-ish congregant and I were discussing all of this over a beer in an outdoor café near Grand Central recently, and we came up with some imagery that I’ve found helpful:

Tradition is not a ball and chain that we’re trying to loose ourselves of.

It is not a trap that we’re stuck in

or garbage that we’re trying to throw away.

Tradition is not a net that’s pinning us down,

or a weight that’s holding us back.

It’s also not necessarily a foundation that we’ve decided to build on.

It’s not an object that we’re here to replicate.

We’re not building a factory where tradition will be produced or fabricated.

It’s not an heirloom we’d like to pass down to a future generation.

Rather, tradition is an ocean we are floating in.

We are held up by it, sustained by it,

effected by its nature and character,

drawn into its tides and currents.

Our job is to be buoyant,

to allow ourselves to float weightlessly in a vast sea of heritage.

Emily M. D. Scott is a candidate for ordination in the ELCA and the founder and Pastoral Minister of St. Lydia’s, a Dinner Church in Manhattan. She blogs at http://sitandeat.typepad.com

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