Sunday, August 30, 2015

Is There Anything on the Other Hand?

How many Episcopalians does it change a light bulb these days? As many as it takes to form the committee to decide between CFLs and LEDs.

The story from Mark this Sunday, in which the subject of food and dish washing before meals (as prescribed by tradition) is raised, is a terrible temptation to give a Change sermon. After all, it uses the word "traditions"; what more is needed? Well, to start with, the rest of the passage. Once again the RCL reading leaves out a substantial portion of the text, so that of twenty-two verses the congregation hears but thirteen of them. And it isn't as though there is an intervening story or parable in this; they simply cut out first Jesus' condemnation of the pharisees' hypocrisy, and second his statement that what one eats cannot defile. The sense of it is plain, all put together.

But it doesn't have a lot to do with tradition in the church, and especially not within the typical Episcopal parish. This is particularly obvious when talked about in the context of the typical tradition (which is to say, story) of tradition (which is to say, custom) in the Episcopal Church. That tale is that we are fixated on the past, and doggedly resist changing anything. So what is that past? Let's start with the current Book of Common Prayer, proposed in 1976 and ratified in 1979. These are printed as two different editions, but as far as the text is concerned, the constitutions and canons dictate that the text of the book itself be identical between the two, because any changes to the book itself requires two GCs to pass. The only difference between the two is the word "proposed" on the title page and that the certification page has different text and has a copyright notice in the 1976 book.

I was sixteen when the proposed book came out, midway through high school. People born that year are approaching forty, so that except for a few retrograde parishes (and the various Anglo-Catholics) these relative youngsters have never had the opportunity to experience the "old" prayer book. It would not at all surprise me that very few Episcopalians my age remember doing the 1928 rite week in and week out; 1979 has in many places become the de facto "old prayer book" since Enriching Our Worship came out in 1997. And while I've heard of struggles in which altar guilds supposedly nailed altars to the wall and otherwise impeded the March of Liturgical Progress, I regard them as strictly legendary. Episcopal priests perhaps do not enjoy the same absolute freedom to apply the wrecking ball to the furnishings that Roman priests apparently do, but I have yet to come upon a parish where the transition to 1979 Rite II wasn't accomplished with all due haste. And the transition to a post-1979 liturgy is in very many already accomplished, so that if a 1976 book survives in a pew somewhere (which I doubt, considering the condition of my copy) it's because so many parishes use a liturgy from a leaflet which is more or less that of 1979, but might come from EoW or from who knows exactly where.

And it comes down to this, anyway: what goes on in the liturgy these days is a contest between traditions. The differences between EoW and all previous BCPs trace back to notions which were current in academia back when I was in college, if not somewhat earlier. They are barely younger than the BCP, and they come from a mixture of radical theological and secular ideas and movements. "Change" comes down to picking which tradition to follow, an issue to which scripture speaks. "Tradition" is used in a lot of senses in the New Testament, as it covers the transmission of stories and teachings of all sorts. The difference is that when you look at these in the large there is a consistent distinction between good and bad tradition: the latter to be shunned, the former to be clung to.

There's a better than even chance that any preacher my age or older who talks about tradition is going to mention Fiddler on the Roof. But mark well Tevye's three monologues when asked to yield on his daughter's desired marriages: twice he does yield, but on the third time, he states, "there's nothing on the other hand!" Scripture forbids his daughter's marriage to Chava's goyisch suitor, and thus Teyve refuses to consent.

1 comment:

underground pewster said...

I suspect the lectionary omissions help perpetuate the "shellfish" argument among the pewsitters.

The next revision of the BCP may prove that it is what comes out that defiles.