I must say, at Conway FUMC (and this is true of much of Methodism), we are so traditional! In fact, we are more traditional than many who accuse us of violating tradition. I believe we need to reclaim this word and, to do so, we must understand more deeply what it really means. At Annual Conference, we heard Dr. Greg Jones, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, define tradition as “the living faith of those who have gone before us rather than the dead faith of the living.” That’s a good place to start if we are to reclaim the word “tradition” from recent abuse. We can either use tradition to protect what is comfortable to us or we can add our witness to the living tradition and give creative expression to God’s continuing work in our lives, building upon the blessings that have been passed on to us.
First, our worship is rooted in tradition. We honor the living tradition of the holy and catholic Church through liturgical seasons, historic prayers, hymns, and creeds – even in our contemporary services. We firmly believe that planting ourselves in the living tradition of the church is key to both faithfulness and fruitfulness. Without this rootedness faith becomes shallow and small.
Secondly, we have a very traditional view of scripture. Our view is so traditional that we acknowledge that the church formed the Holy Bible, selecting the “standard texts” from many options. In other words, tradition gave us the Bible as we know it. We are blessed that our tradition did not give one uniformed perspective. We have four gospels and multiple forms of writings, all with diverse theological perspectives, and written in different contexts. Taking the scripture seriously, we avoid the immature practices of proof-texting and selective literalism that are so popular among those who focus on using tradition to protect what is comfortable to us. We honor the whole while giving weight to key text that help us interpret the whole – even as Jesus used this method when he summarized all the law and the prophets with the word “love.” Led by the Holy Spirit, we are called to struggle together with the tensions found even within the scriptures themselves. In this struggle we discern God’s will for our time and, most importantly, learn how to love. That’s what it means to be part of the living tradition of the body of Christ.
Next, we make the important distinction between the living tradition of the church and our human traditions, which can easily become idols or false gods. The living tradition of the church leads us into God’s truth. In the scriptures, this truth is defined relationally. Truth “reveals” or “discloses” what is good and life-giving (That’s what the original Greek word means). Biblical truth is found in virtue more than opinion. It is revealed, or hidden, in how we treat one another. In the Wesleyan tradition, truth is truth only when it is united to “humble, gentle, patient love for all.” Lies, on the other hand, hide goodness and conceal love. Spiritual lies cultivate division, judgment, self-protection, and fear, and can be made to sound holy. That’s what happens when we substitute the living tradition with our little traditions designed to actually hide us from God’s truth.
A great irony about truth and lies occurs when some are accepted in the church only when they are willing to keep parts of their identity hidden. There are those among us who want them to lie about or “hide,” for example, who they love when the living tradition calls us to “bring to light” how we are all called to love – with faithfulness, forgiveness, patience, humility, and kindness. There are those who want to focus on outward manifestations rather than illuminating the deeper truths of the gospel to which we are all called. Jesus had a lot to say about this kind of white-washed righteousness.
The plan passed at the last General Conference is called the “traditional plan.” With mandates to exclude, punish, and strengthen rules that harm, I do not believe this plan honors the living tradition of the church. Drawing upon a description from the Judicial Council, I would suggest that we call it the “inquisitional plan.” That is much more fitting. I’ve also heard it called the “mean plan.” The unintended blessing of this plan is how it has caused the truths of the gospel to come to life in the hearts of so many. May this enlightening continue. May we honor the living tradition of the church.