Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Hospitality living in tension: Tradition vs. The New

There are many reasons people go to church. Some have gone to church their whole lives and wouldn't think of doing otherwise. Some even have gone to the same parish for all of their lives.

Others come as they have children, or as they move into a new community. Sometimes they've gone "church shopping" and settled on a church for a particular reason.

Some come seeking answers to questions that are huge. Others come because of a crisis in their life: the death of a loved one or the death of a marriage. Some come seeking friendship, or a relationship with Jesus, or God as they conceive of God. And many come for a combination of those reasons.

That holy mix of reasons can create tension in a faith community. One of the strengths of the Episcopal Church, I believe, is that we are able to live in the tension as a community -- most of the time -- through our worship. Yet the tension sometimes plays out as a conflict between traditional and contemporary forms of worship and music. Some prefer the "traditional" Lord's Prayer ("Our Father who art in Heaven...) while others prefer the newer version ("Our Father in Heaven..."). Some love only the hymns in the blue hymnal, while others love only those in the newer hymnals.

Both can exist together if our values include hospitality -- welcoming all people.  To practice hospitality, we need to find ways to live in the tension of accommodating, as best we can, the many reasons people come to church, the theological ideas they bring (or the lack thereof), and the tastes they have in worship and music. It may help to know that much of what we think of as tradition is sometimes not that old; traditions can grow up in a hurry in a church. The wording of the  "traditional" Lord's Prayer dates from the 1880s (check out the Middle-English version sometime). Many beloved hymns began as beer hall tunes in the Reformation. Meanwhile, a number of supposedly "contemporary" church songs are now more than 30 years old.

Sometimes someone at St. Paul's tells me of how the congregation "all knows" a particular tradition. I tend to wince at those pronouncements; we have 1,600 people listed on our rolls, and many new people, and many subsets of people. No one knows everyone or every "tradition." Meanwhile, some people bring "traditions" from other places, and they sometimes expect it will be exactly the same as the place they left. It won't.

It is my hope and prayer that we can find ways to live in community together by yielding to each other now and then (that is the point Paul makes in his Letter to the Romans when he talks of yielding to those who won't eat meat). Can you be happy that someone likes a particular hymn (traditional or contemporary) even if you don't like it? Maybe you don't need a service program to find your way around the prayer book, but can you appreciate that someone else needs the help? And if everyone has a program, then no one needs to feel embarrassed by using a program. Those are small items, but they loom large as details of hospitality. If we are truly serious about calling ourselves "inclusive" it must begin not with abstract theological arguments about the Bible, but with hospitality at the front door.

This is one in an occasional series on hospitality.

Cartoon by Dave Walker

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