Tiwwadi: Between Inertia and Incarnation

By Derek Olsen

Though some may not be familiar with the term, everyone who has spent much time with a Christian congregation of any stripe is familiar with the concept of “Tiwwadi.” No, it’s not a term from an African language like “Ubuntu” or “Indaba” (though to my untrained eyes it could be…). Rather it’s an acronym for an English phrase which I have no doubt is uttered just as frequently in other languages by tongues across the world. Usually preceded by a “But…” it lives on the lips of church matriarchs and patriarchs, altar guilds, flower guilds, vestries, you name it: “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

Now—let’s be honest. Clergy and church leadership types usually invoke this line with a snicker recognizing it as a delaying tactic that someone has deployed in an attempt to not do something we want them to. But I’d like to move beyond the snicker for a moment. Indeed, I’ll even suggest that tiwwadi has some lessons embedded in it that we’d do well to acknowledge.

The first lesson is that tiwwadi isn’t just an excuse—it’s is an evolved defense mechanism, a protective mechanism, that we would do well to heed. Of the things that the Episcopal Church believes about the faith, one of them is that it was, in fact, “delivered” to us. The quotes here aren’t scare quotes but are translation quotes. In his discussion with the Corinthians about the Eucharist, St. Paul appeals to what they learned about the faith which was based on what he learned about the faith: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed…” (1 Cor 11:23). The Greek word for “delivered” here is paradidomi; Jerome, when he translated St Paul’s words into Latin uses tradidi which is the precise root from which we get “Tradition.” We believe that we stand in direct and organic continuity with a line of teachers and preachers of the faith that stretch back through Cranmer, Jerome, and Paul to Jesus. We didn’t make it up—the faith has been delivered to us. For this line of delivery to function effectively over two thousand years, it requires a certain healthy conservatism, a stasis, an inertia, that resists easy and idle changes. Snicker as you will, tiwwadi is one of the ways that our tradition preserves itself.

Now, not all inertia is good inertia. (And let’s not cram the comment box pretending that’s what I’m saying either.) There have been plenty of clarifications to what has been handed down that have enabled us to better proclaim the Gospel. All I have to do is look at my ordained wife to remember that. We’d do well to remember that paradidomi, the verb Paul uses to “deliver” his teaching is the same verb that Judas does to Jesus, “delivering” him to those who will judge and kill him. (Sobering reminder isn’t it: sometimes a “delivery” can be the life-blood of a movement, while in other contexts it can be its betrayal…)

That having been said, if we had a penny for every dumb idea by a bishop, priest, deacon, or lay leader that had died a silent death due to tiwwadi we’d likely be able to pay off the national debt. A lot of things that “seemed like a good idea at the time” have been smothered by this inertial force and, looking back at some of the things that I’ve suggested in congregations, that’s not a bad thing by a long stretch. Indeed, it’s by suppressing those spontaneous, hare-brained notions arising from transient inspirations or fads that tiwwadi does much of its best work. There is a logic of the ages embodied in tiwwadi that inhibits careless tampering.

So, here’s my first major point: if someone calls “Tiwwadi” on you, take a step back and think carefully. What inertia are you trying to overcome—an inertia born of stagnation, or an inertia that is preserving our Gospel proclamation? When we starting looking from this perspective, we begin to recognize that a systematic dismantling of a congregation’s tiwwadi mechanism may accomplish more harm than good in the long run.

The second lesson that tiwwadi can teach us is that it plays an important role in the endless, inevitable, and necessary negotiation between the catholic and the incarnate. Let me explain this by way of a classical case of tiwwadi. St Augustine’s Letter 54 to Januarius recounts a discussion that he had between his sainted mother, St Ambrose, and himself. Upon moving from Africa to Milan, St Monnica was quite troubled at what she perceived as a departure from proper piety—the Milanese church did not fast on Saturdays as her African Church had. They didn’t do things the way she’d always seen them done.To help his mother out, St Augustine asked St Ambrose which was correct: to fast or not fast? The response from St Ambrose wisely avoids the simple either/or and moves to the underlying principles:

“When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here, I do not fast. On the same principle, do you observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offense by your conduct, nor to find cause of offense in another’s.” (Ep 54.3)

As the letter unfolds, Augustine states the principle that if neither Scripture nor the Universal Church command or condemn something—thinking particularly of pious practices—then Christians should observe the customs as they find them. To do otherwise is to stir up unnecessary trouble that harms the faith through matters that are peripheral to it. (See in particular section 5/Chapter 4.)

That is, at the heart of the faith stands its catholic basis: those things that are believed and done by all. However, Christian communities are inherently local: we live, believe, work and love in particular times and places. The faith incarnates itself in different ways in different local communities—and this is just fine as long as those ways do not threaten our catholic identity. In its best forms, tiwwadi preserves this principle of incarnation, the universal made comprehensible and accessible in its particularity.

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve been worshipping in my current congregation for about a year. Some things are common and familiar to me. Others are part of the common Anglo-Catholic heritage that both the church and I claim. Still others I find just plain odd. I could rail and protest. I could keep doggedly doing my own thing, supporting it by the fact that this is how I learned it at Smokey Mary’s or Phil-on-the-Hill or one of the other many churches I’ve worshipped in my life. But I don’t. When I dig deeper, I find something of the particularity of this parish, of its foundations in South Baltimore’s working class, of its ministry to the Polish and Slavic immigrants who filled its pews in the early 20th century. I learn too of my own priest’s formation in a related parish in central Baltimore. Other echoes point to the Missal tradition which flourished among the Anglo-Catholics of this region. Still others are silent reminders of a long-tenured alcoholic priest who left the parish scarred. In this place, tiwwadi functions as a vehicle for our own history, our own incarnate experiences of not just the faith, but the journey this faith community has traveled.

Tiwwadi isn’t always a cop-out or a simple appeal to the past for the past’s sake. Sometimes it’s a rehearsal of who we are now because of where we’ve been together. And this recounting can leave its marks in the strangest places—where water is kept during the service, an acolyte’s extra trip to the altar to return the deacon’s glasses, why we lay out the green French vestments after Epiphany rather than the English ones. You may not know who left the oddly disturbing candlesticks for the Lady Chapel in Lent, but Marge may well remember and tell you the story that goes along with them. Efforts to change these relics and recollections may be efforts to move the story forward—or to erase it altogether. Some customs are healthy to release, but others carry key clues to who we are in this time, this space, this place of grace.

Again, this defense of locality shouldn’t be misread as a license for anything goes.

Anyone who knows the Anglo-Catholic movement with any depth knows that one of its chief trials is rampant idiosyncrasy. There are things that all of us do need to hold and do together. As Episcopalians, we hold the catholic faith as written and prayed in our authorized Books of Common Prayer and our customs ought to be in line with that theological system.

Beyond that, though, we do well to remember the advice that St Ambrose gave to Sts Monnica and Augustine: observe the prevailing customs. Do it the way we’ve always done it. Sure, sometimes it’s stagnation and an unwillingness to change, but sometimes it’s wisdom, identity, and corporate memory.

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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