Well, I can tell you what it isn’t – according to Helmut Schmidt (former Bundeskanzler in West Germany) in his wonderful book Ausser Dienst. He says this on page 28 of the German edition:
Tradition ist etwas Wichtiges, aber es ist nicht der Hauptzweck des Lebens. (Tradition is something important, but it isn’t the main purpose of life.)
He is actually talking about the tradition he inherited when he left public office and moved into publishing with the great German newspaper, Die ZEIT. But his comments put very succinctly something that bugs me and has done for a very long time.
I grew up in a Baptist church in Liverpool. (Obviously, I grew up in a house with my family, but you know what I mean.) We prided ourselves on having no regard for tradition or liturgy … like those Anglicans down the road who probably weren’t Christians anyway.
But, of course, we did have traditions – inherited ones we revered and assumed to be sacrosanct. They had to do with particular theologies, particular ways of reading the Bible and understanding history and the church. And we did have liturgies … well, just one, really. Every service was the same-ish in the journey on which it took us and it was not hard to predict who would do what in which order and using which words.
Human beings are by nature traditional. We build today on what and whom have gone before us. We make unconscious assumptions about what we regard as essential, useful and desireable in life and they become part of the ‘backstory’ that gives us our identity now.
So, I don’t have a problem with traditions or how to maintain them when they are worth maintaining. I do have a real problem, however, with the sort of people and churches who claim not to have traditions (or ‘be traditional’) or who pretend not to be ‘liturgical’ when it takes only ten minutes of being in a service to work out what actually is going on, who is in control and what the likely future journey will be.
Just admit it: we are liturgical and traditional beings. No shame in being honest about the human condition.