Archive for June, 2004

Tradition, Tradition, Tradition

June 6, 2004
From Titusonenine (heavily edited, emphasis mine)

From the Plano-West Statement Long Beach, CA ~ June 4, 2004

As an orthodox Anglican in North America, standing under the authority of the Word of God and to the glory of Jesus Christ, the only Lord and Savior of the world, I commit to:

Marriage between one man and one woman, and marriage as God’s sole provision for sexual relations.
The rejection of all teachings and claims of revelation that are contrary to Holy Scripture or the apostolic teaching of the church.

From the website of the American Anglican Council, Los Angeles

PLANO-WEST: An Historic Gathering of Anglicans Committed to the Great Commission June 3 & 4, 2004
Long Beach Convention Center, Long Beach, California

Plano-West Speakers
THE REV. CANON DR. ALISON BARFOOT, co-rector Christ Church, Overland Park, Kansas and soon, assistant for international relations to Archbishop Henry Orombi of Uganda.

Dear Prof. Say,

Thank you for your letters, including your last letter. However, you ended on a tantalizing note. To quote you,

Both the ‘ordination’ of women and same-sex ‘unions’ use or imply the use of the same scriptural hermeneutic, i.e., the same method of interpreting Holy Scripture.

Both require the same rejection of Tradition as a source of authority in the Christian Church.

And both are an attack on core Christian doctrine, specifically the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Forgive me if I seem a bit impatient, but you’ve left me hanging here. Perhaps that was your intention?

In any case, I’d like you to try to finish what you started. For example, you say the both the ordination of women and homosexual acts are contrary to both Scripture and Tradition (and I note that you capitalize Tradition). Yet isn’t tradition just an Anglo-Catholic thing? And didn’t Jesus warn us against ‘traditions’? Why should a ‘tradition’ begun in another era be binding on what the church believes today? Shouldn’t Holy Scripture be the fundamental authority?

Georgina Smithers

Dear Georgina,

Thank you for being patient with me. I’m afraid I’m going to try your patience just a bit again, however, since on reflection I don’t think I can tackle all of the topics I left hanging at the end of my last letter in just one more. I will make a stab at only one this time, and that’s Tradition. My reasons for starting and (at least in this letter) ending there will eventually become clear, I hope. Perhaps in the future I can say something about hermeneutics and core doctrine.

First, no, tradition is not an Anglo-Catholic ‘thing’. It is an Anglican thing. That’s because it’s a scriptural and patristic thing, as well as an early Anglican (from Jewel to Ken and beyond) thing.

Yes, our Saviour did warn against ‘traditions’, specifically traditions of men, which he accused the Pharisees of using to contradict the meaning of Scripture. But St Paul advised the Thessalonians to “hold fast to the traditions you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2.15) and to “keep away from every brother who is living in idleness and not according to the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thess 3.6) He commends the Christians of Corinth because they “maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” (1 Cor 11.2) He instructs Timothy to “guard the deposit” entrusted to him (2 Tim 1.14)

I remember an excellent sermon by an Episcopal bishop some years ago (ah, those were the days!), who was defending the “institutional church” against those who would put it down. These were, he said, people trying to reinvent the wheel. “If you get together to pray, you’re a church. If you agree to do it again next week, you’re an institution.” All very true, and he might well have added, “and if you teach your children to do the same thing, you’re a tradition.”

In other words, tradition in some sense is inescapable. The question is, what sort of theological meaning or meanings are we to attach to it? The word itself is ambiguous. Paradosis in Greek and traditio in Latin mean handing over or passing on, both in the positive sense of bestowing something precious and in the negative sense of betrayal. ‘Tradition’ and ‘traitor’ have the same Latin root!

Of course, the old line was that Anglican authority was based on a ‘three-legged stool’ of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, to which in recent years a fourth leg has been added by some, Experience. In the past this ‘three-legged stool’ was attributed to Hooker, although Hooker never actually wrote it (what he did write I’ll discuss below). I honestly don’t know who first came up with it, inspired by Hooker or not, but this ‘three-legged stool’ has been under fire lately, particularly by Anglican evangelicals who point out its (alleged) un-Hookerness (nonHookerianism? aHookerishness?). However, I still think it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

In fact, I’d even like to put in a good word for experience. Experience, properly understood, lies at the heart of virtually any religion, particularly Christianity, since our faith is not simply a set of intellectual or moral propositions but an encounter with the Living God. The Burning Bush was an experience. Pentecost was an experience. When Luther declared that, upon understanding St Paul’s message in Romans, he “felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates,” that was an experience. Or consider the words of the 11th century St Symeon the New Theologian, one of Eastern Orthodoxy’s most famous and important mystical theologians.

He, however, who is united to God by faith and recognizes Him by action is indeed enabled to see Him by contemplation. He sees things of which I am not able to write. His mind sees strange visions and is wholly illuminated and becomes like light, yet he is unable to conceive of them or describe them. His mind is itself light and sees all things as light, and the light has life and imparts light to him who sees it. He sees himself wholly united to the light, and as he sees he concentrates on the vision and is as he was. He perceives the light in his soul and is in ecstasy. In his ecstasy her sees it from afar, but as he returns to himself he finds himself again in the midst of the light. He is thus altogether at a loss for words and concepts to describe what he has perceived in his vision.

Now there’s an experience.

So I for one don’t want to knock experience as a religious category. A problem arises, however, when experience becomes a religious authority, because, in the final analysis, all religious language is inadequate and potentially misleading, and all religious experience is subjective. So, unless we are to lapse into a kind of religious solipsism, our response to this sort of thing cannot be to simply hurl ourselves into the abyss of subjective religious experience, as so many seem tempted to do these days. In fact, it is precisely because it is such an abyss that we require guides, why we insist on stepping back, why we rely on other authorities: on revelation; on the record of those who have gone before; and on the critical faculties God has given us—in short, on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

(This, by the way, is another common theme I find in arguments for both the ‘ordination’ of women and same-sex ‘unions’. “Well, I used to be against the ordination of women, but then I met the the Rev. Clarissa, and she seemed to be so nice and preached so well that I changed my mind.” “Well, I used to think that same-sex unions were a bad idea, but then I saw the dedication and love that Sam and Joe had for each other, and it seemed so deep and sincere, so I changed my mind.” In both cases, experience of second-order virtues—sincerity, competence, solidarity, even piety, etc.—is allowed to overwhelm first-order authorities. But I digress.)

If I may be allowed to ride one of my hobby-horses for a moment, I think no one in the Anglican tradition better exemplifies this idea of subjective religious experience drawn from, dependent on, and submitted to both Scripture and Tradition than Lancelot Andrewes. Andrewes was the bishop of Winchester under James I, one of the principal translators of the Authorized Version (he knew fifteen languages), and probably the greatest of the Caroline Divines. He composed for his own private use a set of prayers in Greek and Latin, the Preces Privatae, which were posthumously published and translated. The prayers are arranged after his own fashion but almost entirely drawn from Scripture and the ancient liturgies of the Church. To read them today, particularly in the edition of F. E. Brightman (still in print), is to be struck by how intensely private and personal they were, how deep an experience of prayer they represent, and yet how completely within the stream of historic Christian tradition they stand. After the Book of Common Prayer they are perhaps the finest and most characteristic monument of Anglican spirituality, and they are the product of a mind soaked in Scripture and at the same time immersed in Tradition.

But to return to my theme: typically one hears ‘tradition’ used in two senses in Christianity, especially among western Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, as either ‘customs’ or a source of authority. However, I would like to suggest three possible meanings of ‘tradition’ in a Christian context (not necessarily in order of their importance):

1 – Tradition as ‘traditions’, plural, with a small ‘t’.

2 – Tradition as, in the words of one Eastern Orthodox theologian, “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”

3 – Tradition as a distinct category of authority, apart from, but in harmony with, Scripture.

The first meaning of tradition is often an object of scorn. However, viewed more charitably, traditions such as favorite hymns, liturgical colors, hot cross buns on Ash Wednesday, and so on, are part of human nature and add color, texture, and affection to our lives. Who would want to ban “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” from wedding gowns? Who would want to put an end to church fêtes? At the same time, it must be admitted that such traditions can become odious, burdensome, and a spiritual hindrance, as their meanings get lost when the culture disconnects from its Christian roots. Perhaps the best example is the commercialization of Christmas, or “the national orgy of sentiment,” in the words of Russell Baker. Egg nog was supposed to be an occasion for breaking the Advent fast with joy and thanksgiving, not a ‘holiday treat’. How many people realize that now? In this case, traditio does indeed meld into traditor, ‘tradition’ becomes ‘betrayal’.

The second and third meanings of Tradition have been seen as opposed to each other. The third view, typical among western Christians, pictures Tradition as a commentary on, or something complementary to, Scripture, thus treating Tradition as a separate source of authority. The second view, which one commonly finds in Eastern Orthodox theologians, objects to the very idea of multiple sources of authority. Rather, there is one authority, God, who, in his revelation of Himself in the Incarnation and continuing presence in the Church through the Holy Spirit, provides one stream of authority: Tradition. From this single organic Tradition comes Scripture, creeds, sacraments, indeed everything that makes the Church what she is, the Body of Christ.

I would, however, suggest that these two approaches to Tradition are not mutually exclusive but rather represent formal, but not material, distinctions. Just as the New Testament distinguishes, but does not separate, ‘faith’ and ‘works’, or ’sin’ and ‘death,’ or ‘justification’ and ’sanctification’; just as we can speak of a God who is both immanent and transcendent; so we can make a formal distinction between ‘Scripture’ and ‘Tradition’ while yet acknowledging one ultimate source of authority in the Church. (Indeed, the Second Vatican Council went some way towards this view.)

The second meaning of Tradition can be summed up in the words of the Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky in a famous essay, “Tradition and Traditions”:

The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, or receiving, or knowing the Truth in the Light which belongs to it, and not according to the light of human reason.

What is the “job,” so to speak, of the Holy Spirit? It is to make Christ present: in the womb of the Virgin Mary; in the Word of God becoming, well, the Word of God, both in the inspiration (literally) of the biblical writers and in the inspiration of the prayerful reader; in the Blessed Sacrament (hence the epiklesis or invocation of the Holy Spirit in the canon of the eucharist); and in the Church, which is the Body of Christ because it is the earthly repository of the Spirit of God.

Tradition (in the positive sense) literally means a handing over or passing on to subsequent generations, down through time. When we are within a tradition, we act, or think, or just are as those who have gone before us, whether that tradition is a language, a political system, an artistic style, or whatever. But in the Church, we not only inherit something from our forebears; we are Spiritually linked with our forebears in a very real sense, because we are all still members of the Body of Christ. If the Church, the Body of Christ, is something which exists not only over space but also over time, and indeed is something which transcends time and space; if we really believe in “the Communion of Saints;” then this Body of Christ, created and sustained by baptismal and eucharistic fellowship, is quite literally a Tradition, and that Tradition is quite literally the “life of the Holy Spirit.”

Tradition, then, is not what the Church teaches; it is not even what the Church does; it is what the Church is — the living, pulsing, breathing Body of Christ, created by baptism, animated by the Holy Spirit and centered on its eucharistic life, where the Body of Christ becomes one with its Head and so becomes one with the Father, as our Saviour prayed.

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17.21-3)

It can be no accident that these words of our Saviour, usually referred to as the ‘high priestly prayer’, come in St John’s gospel at the very first eucharist, the last supper, and that the entire passage (chapters 14-17) stands in place of the synoptic gospels’ account of the words of institution (“This is my body . . . this is my blood . . “) and thus form a commentary on the synoptic narrative.

Since Tradition in this sense is first what the Church is, and secondarily what the Church does, and only finally, when verbally expressed, what the Church says, then, as a source of doctrinal authority, Tradition is not distinguished from Scripture as an alternate source of truth. As God is one, and as truth is one, so authority within the Church is one, whether Scripture, sacrament, or conciliar decree. Indeed, as early as 200 AD, more than a century before the Council of Nicaea, this tradition was described as the “deposit of faith” or “canon of truth” or “rule of faith” by such writers as St Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon.

We receive our faith from the Church and keep it safe; and it is as were a precious deposit stored in a fine vessel, ever renewing its vitality through the Spirit of God, and causing the renewal of the vessel in which it is stored. For this gift of God has been entrusted to the Church, as the breath of life to created man, to the end that all members receiving it should be made alive. And herein has been bestowed on us our means of communion with Christ, namely the Holy Spirit, the pledge of immortality, the strengthening of our faith, the ladder by which we ascend to God.

This “deposit” or “rule of faith” early on took on a summarized, credal form, eventually becoming what Anglicans refer to as the “Apostles’ Creed.” We know it primarily as something recited in the Daily Office, but it is the lineal descendent of the creed recited in the early Church by those about to be baptized. Thus the “rule of faith” did not stand alone as a series of intellectual propositions or historical statements; it was the confession of faith made by the believer just before baptism and admission to eucharistic communion.

Hence at the core of this “deposit,” at the heart of Tradition, is our redemption and renewal in and through the Church’s sacramental life. In the language of the Prayer Book, from the post-communion prayer,

Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou does feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom.

Tradition is thus God allowing us, while yet creatures, to participate in the life of the Trinity, to “partake of the divine nature,” (2 Pet 1.4) in eucharistic fellowship with Him and with each other. Or, in the words of St Irenaeus,

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, of his boundless love, became what we are that he might make us what he himself is. (AH 5)

So Tradition is not a series of arcane doctrines and rituals, but a mode of life or vision of God whereby the Spirit makes us one with Christ and through Christ with each other, enabling us to be as He is and to share in the Triune life of God while yet remaining creatures. This concept is summarized in the eastern Christian tradition by the word theosis, or ‘deification’, a term that sometimes startles western Christians who are more used to words such as ’sanctification’, but which is central to early Christian soteriology, an experience of God expressed in such passages as John 14-17, 2 Pet 1.4, and Romans 8.9-17, and summarized by St Irenaeus. It is picked up again over a century later by Athanasius as the fundamental truth that he wanted to defend against the Arian assault upon the full divinity of Christ:

For the Word was not degraded by receiving a body, so that he should seek to receive God’s gift. Rather he deified what he put on; and more than that, he bestowed this gift upon the race of men. (Against the Arians 1.42)

We should not have been freed from sin and the curse, had not the flesh which the Word assumed been by nature human . . . so too humanity would not have been deified, if the Word who became flesh had not been by nature derived from the Father and his true and proper Word. (Against the Arians 2.68)

For He was made man that we might be made divine (theopoiethomen, “be deified” or “made God”). (On the Incarnation 54)

Indeed, the arguments and doctrinal decisions of all the early ecumenical councils, from Nicaea in 325 to Chalcedon in 451 and beyond, centered around the nature of God and Christ, which is to say, they filled out the meaning of the deposit of faith, the soteriological significance of baptism in the threefold name (the Trinity) and partaking of the Word made flesh (the Incarnation). In other words, they carried out St Paul’s instruction to Timothy to “guard the deposit,” to protect the meaning of entrance and participation in the life of God through baptism and eucharistic communion.

Hence, in this view, Tradition is literally alive. It is our ‘quickening’ or the deification of our natures. It is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

The third sense of Tradition — as a separate source of authority — can already be found among the Fathers of the early Church. The most famous instance of this is found in the treatise On the Holy Spirit by St Basil the Great, one of the so-called Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century and spiritual heir of St Athanasius in the struggle against Arianism.

Concerning the teachings of the Church, whether publicly proclaimed (kerygma) or reserved to members of the household of faith (dogmata), we have received some from written sources, while others have been given to us secretly, through apostolic tradition. Both sources have equal force in true religion. No one would deny either source — no one, at any rate, who is even slightly familiar with the ordinances of the Church. If we attacked unwritten customs, claiming them to be of little importance, we would fatally mutilate the Gospel, no matter what our intentions — or rather we would reduce the Gospel teachings to bare words. For instance (to take the first and most common example), where is the written teaching that we should sign with the sign of the Cross those who, trusting in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, are to be enrolled as catechumens? Which book teaches us to pray facing the East? Have any saints left for us in writing the words to be used in the invocation (epiklesis) over the Eucharistic bread and the cup of blessing?

The full passage goes on quite a bit longer, but that should do for now. There are a few points to observe about Basil’s list of “unwritten traditions.”

First, Basil’s comments need some qualification. While Basil declares that they were transmitted “secretly,” by Basil’s time these practices were hardly secret, and one suspects that they had not been so for some time (and they certainly were not after Basil published them!). Nor are they “secrets” in the sense of arcana held onto by an inner elect (as with gnostics), but rather things known within the entire baptized community, which was hardly a small number in Basil’s day.

Second, they are all congruent with Scripture, even if not found (directly) within Scripture, and have the effect of a commentary on Scripture. For example, listen to Basil’s explanation of praying towards the east: “We do this because we are seeking Paradise, our old fatherland, which God planted in the East in Eden.”

Third, all of St Basil’s examples come from the Church’s liturgical life, specifically in connection with baptism and the eucharist. They are all things the church did (and does), not propositions put forward for belief. They are part of the “life of the Holy Spirit.” It is no accident that this passage comes from his treatise On the Holy Spirit.

However, the continental reformers of the sixteenth century believed that, by then, too many “traditions of men” had been given the status of Tradition. In the debates of the Reformation, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli famously put forward a doctrine of sola scriptura, or “Scripture, not tradition.” To this the counter-reformation council of Trent responded with, in effect, “Scripture and tradition.” Thus the word “tradition” had something of a bad smell among those who objected to various teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church at the time.

In this situation, Anglican divines of the 16th and 17th centuries, rather than be either boxed in by sola scriptura or misunderstood by using the dreaded “T” word, instead relied on the appeal to antiquity. So John Jewel, the Bishop of Salisbury under Queen Elizabeth and the first real defender of the Anglican settlement, gave his famous Challenge Sermon of 1559, daring the opponents of the Church of England to prove their doctrines and practices from the first six hundred years of Christianity, the era of Fathers and the early ecumenical councils. In his Apology of the Church of England, Jewel (who was certainly no Anglo-Catholic), declared

Further, if we do show it plain that God’s Holy Gospel, the ancient bishops, and the primitive church do make on our side, and that we have not without just cause left these men, and rather have returned to the apostles and the old catholic fathers; and if we shall be found to the same not colorably or craftily but in good faith before God, truly, honestly, clearly, and plainly; and if they themselves which fly our doctrine and would be called catholics shall manifestly see how all these titles of antiquity, whereof they boast so much, are quite shaken out of their hands, and that there is more pith in this our cause that they thought for; we then hope and trust that none of them shall be so negligent and careless of his own salvation but he will at length study and bethink himself to whether part he were best to join him.

Richard Hooker, the greatest Anglican divine of the 16th century, who was something of a protegé of Jewel’s, wrote his famous formula of authority in Book Five of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (5.8.2):

. . . what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.

Now it is true that this does not amount to a “three-legged stool” as has been claimed in the past. But it is quite clear from a reading of Hooker that when he wrote “the voice of the Church” he meant the Church both present and past, and that he saw the ancient church as a controlling authority in the interpretation of Scripture. The text of the Laws is replete with references to the Fathers and the doctrines of the early ecumenical councils; Hooker’s exposition of the Trinity and Incarnation are justly famous. Hooker’s patristic knowledge was, for his day (he died in 1600), extremely good, and his appeal to antiquity would be continued and developed by the Caroline Divines of the 17th century even as knowledge of patristic literature grew with the increasing publication of critical texts of the Fathers.

Probably the best example of this would be my hero noted above, Lancelot Andrewes (who was quite familiar with Hooker). Andrewes’ famous summary of Anglican doctrine was

One canon reduced to writing by God Himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of fathers in that period—the three centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.

In the words of Canon Arthur Middleton,

For Andrewes the authority of the Church of England is based on the Scriptures and on the fact that her faith is that of the Church of the first five centuries. She holds as de fide neither more nor less than did the Fathers . . .

The ‘tradition’ of the Church can never be reduced to a simple conservation of what has been said or done in the past. For Andrewes it is a dynamic process transcending ordinary time without destroying it. It is a way of living in time in the light of eternity.

Sound familiar? It is significant that the most recent important study of Andrewes has been by the Eastern Orthodox theologian Nicholas Lossky.

We may conclude our review of the appeal to antiquity with the famous last words of Thomas Ken, last of the great Caroline Divines, non-juror and a man of great personal holiness:

I die in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic faith professed by the whole church before the disunion of East and West; more particularly I die in the communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from all papal and puritanical innovations, and as it adheres to the doctrine of the Cross.

With the non-juring schism of 1689 (in which Ken and hundreds of others lost their jobs), the great succession of Caroline Divines came to an end, and the Church of England entered a, shall we say, theologically fallow period (though with notable exceptions) in the 18th century. The atmosphere of the Enlightenment was not conducive to appeals to Tradition. By the time of the Catholic revival in the 19th century, some of the immediacy of the Reformation controversies had subsided and it was time for the “T” word to resume its rightful place, as it did with the Tractarians, beginning with Keble. (I think it is not a coincidence that Keble was both the translator of St Irenaeus for the Library of the Fathers and the first modern editor of Hooker’s works).

But enough of that. This began as a discussion about the similarities between same-sex “unions” and the “ordination” of women to the presbyterate and episcopate. I should think that, as regards Tradition, it would be obvious by now. Both are innovations that cannot be found in the Tradition of the primitive Church, either in sense two or sense three. In fact, the supporters of both seek to reduce the prohibition against them in Tradition from senses two and three, in which Tradition is an authority, to sense one, where tradition is merely custom. A common strategy suggests a common origin.

Supporters of same-sex “unions” often like to claim that the ancient world did not have a concept of homosexual “orientation” and that the homosexual relationships condemned in Scripture were only those of an exploitative nature. Those who oppose same-sex “unions” but support the “ordination” of women often cite (quite rightly) Plato’s Symposium as evidence that this was not so—the ancients certainly did know of “committed” same-sex relationships and St Paul condemned them anyway.

Yet oddly, these opponents of same-sex “unions” who support the “ordination” of women seem not to have read the same text of the Symposium I have. For along with a very full discussion of all possible varieties and motives for homosexual relations, my Symposium includes the famous speech in which Socrates describes how he was initiated into the mysteries of the god Eros by a woman, Diotima. In fact, Diotima’s description of the beatific vision was well known to Christian theologians and had a profound impact on the history of philosophy, Christian and otherwise.

So somehow St Paul and the early Christian world were fully aware of the possibility of committed same-sex “unions” and rejected them as contrary to the will of God, yet were completely ignorant of priestesses conducting mysteries (of which there were more examples than just the literary figure of Diotima). Our Saviour’s choosing only men to be his apostles, despite the obvious presence of any number of worthy women; the continued practice of the apostles of choosing only men as their successors, despite the almost immediate breakdown of racial and economic barriers under the pressure of the gospel and the guidance of the Spirit; the unbroken tradition of the Church for nearly two thousand years, despite the countless examples of dedicated, pious women from Thecla to Mother Theresa�all this is a result of an appalling ignorance or slavish adherence to popular convention.

The Fathers knew all about gay sex, but somehow they missed the priestesses?

I don’t think so.

“Spirituality” is hot these days, and one popular text is something called the Apothegmata Patrum or Sayings of the Desert Fathers. (You’ll find a translation in many a Christian bookstore.) These are the collected aphorisms of early Christian monastics of the Egyptian desert from the third and fourth centuries, with comments on spiritual progress, inner peace, self-control, patience, humility, etc. These sayings include some from such famous monastic pioneers as Abba Antony the Great himself, the reputed founder of monasticism.

They also include sayings of some desert mothers, such as Amma Sarah and Amma Syncletica. Indeed, monastic communities for women began as soon as, if not sooner than, those for men. If ever there were an obvious place for a woman priest, it would be in a secluded community intended only for women, where women could and did exercise considerable authority. Yet the Church maintained the example set by our Lord and the apostles—only men celebrated the eucharist.

It is true, however, that there were women priests—among gnostic heretics. This is a subject to which I shall return if you still want to carry on this correspondence. Enough for now to say that within orthodox Christianity, under all sorts and conditions of time, place, and culture, the tradition of only men presiding at the Church’s central mystery, eucharistic communion with her Lord, has been maintained and still is for the overwhelming majority of the world’s Christians.

I have been writing of Tradition here mostly as an authority; but, like all systems of thought or belief, Christian theology is interconnected and interdependent, so it is impossible to adequately treat Tradition purely in terms of what it allows or forbids. Both same sex “unions” and the “ordination” of women represent a change, not only in what the Church says, and not even in what the Church does, but in what the Church is. As I said before, both are using a faulty hermeneutic and represent an assault on core Christian doctrines of creation, Trinity and Incarnation, of baptismal redemption and eucharistic union. In the words of Hooker,

The Church hath authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both it may do well. But that which in doctrine the Church doth now deliver rightly as a truth, no man will say that it may hereafter recall, and as rightly avouch the contrary. Laws touching matter of order are changeable, by the power of the Church; articles of doctrine not so. (5.8.2)

I have only really dealt with questions of authority here, although authority is certainly an “article of doctrine.” I promise to address those remaining “articles of doctrine” in the future — that is, if you still wish me to after wading your way through such a long ramble as this!


Prof. I. R. N. Say

Dear Prof. Say,

Whew! I finally got through your letter! It took several cups of coffee. However,

a) yes, I would like you to finally get to those other issues you mentioned (although perhaps you could a bit less long-winded?).

b) I am still not entirely satisfied on the question of Tradition versus Scripture. Didn’t St Athanasius himself say that Scripture contained all that was necessary for doctrine? And isn’t that the position of the Thirty-Nine Articles?

c) You say that Tradition is an authority for the Church. But doesn’t Tradition hold that women can’t be priests because they are inferior to men? How can we believe that today?

d) Somewhere I read that Scripture shows a trajectory of change, whereby slavery, racism and sexism are gradually revealed to be sinful (thus allowing the ordination of women), while there is no such trajectory for homosexuality; ergo, the two (ordination of women and same-sex unions) are not really comparable. What do you make of that?

e) Along those lines, doesn’t doctrine ever develop? Does it never change?


Georgina Smithers

My dear Georgina,

(to be continued)