Michael Banks leads Coventry Forward in Faith in a pilgrimage into the Tradition

BEING TRADITIONAL does not mean being conservative” asserted the person I was speaking with. He was making a very good point. In ordinary speech we talk about the “traditions of the parish” and regularly mean thing~ that nobody wants to change. In that sense many Anglican Catholics may subscribe to this view. This conservative view may even be dominant among us. But my conversationalist was not referring to “traditions” (or “laudable customs” as our Cathedral statutes call them). He meant Tradition. Yet he did not mean Tradition in the sense that first comes to mind.

Tradition is normally taken to mean the things handed on from the Apostolic Church and subsequent documents. it includes the scriptures, Creeds, Council decrees and writings of the Fathers. These all have their interpreters. Looked at it this way, Tradition can sound conservative. “The same old thing, done by the same old firm, in the same old way”. Once this was something about which we were proud but as David Mills pointed out in New Directions (May 2000), people are not keen to accept the full significance of the teaching in their lives these days. However, this is not how my friend and I were thinking about Tradition.

Tradition is dynamic and developing It is an aspect of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Tradition is about God, the God whom we proclaim in the Sanctus as “God of power and might”. Coming to grips with the God of Power and Might through what is handed down by the activity of the Holy Spirit demands an openness and a desire to pursue matters and explore. Christians are called to use their faith and intelligence to ask questions of the Tradition in order to learn. Those questions are often radical because they are designed to get to the root of what God’s purposes are for our times.

There are very real questions being asked today about moral issues such as sex and marriage, gender, world ecology and economics. Others are raising questions that challenge the fabric of Tradition. These demand our own radical questioning of the Tradition to discern the mind of God I have come to the conclusion that it is time for all of us who hold to the Tradition to re-discover the courage to ask those questions in a radical but fully Catholic manner.

Conservatives we may be in our adherence to our traditions and in our teaching of the meaning of what Tradition contains. Radicals we ought to be in getting to the root of the meaning of the Tradition and putting searching questions to it.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I set about writing a Paper on Tradition. Forward in Faith in Coventry Diocese had invited me to speak to them on this subject. It was something I was pleased to respond to but it was a challenge. From the Paper I delivered has emerged this article.


Pilgrimage into Tradition

Jesus Christ is the source of our Faith. God has revealed himself uniquely in Jesus who is the incarnate Word. Therefore all there is to know about God and his purposes can be perceived in Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Look into the face of Jesus and there revealed is all there is to know about God. So like all succeeding generations we echo the prayer which the Greek believers who witnessed Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem addressed to Philip, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” (John 12.21). The source of the Tradition is Jesus.

The source of the Tradition is indeed Jesus but when the Tradition is described it sounds as if what is handed on is a package in an ecclesiastical game of “parcel post” running through the ages. How does this relate to Jesus? We need to recognise that the Tradition is there to help us grow ever closer to Jesus. It is a dynamic force we can tap into. So the first section of this article looks at our Pilgrimage into Tradition.

Karl Rahner explains Tradition in this way. He writes:

“The Word of God and his gifts of grace reach man through the preaching handed down in the Church. The mystery of Christ remains present in history because there is a fellowship of believers which in the vital process of life, doctrine and worship preserves the word of God, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, through all the changes of history, and thus hands it on safely to all generations till the Lord comes in glory.”

What Karl Rahner calls the “word of God” in the quotation above is the revelation of God and his purposes in Jesus Christ. How can we ever fully comprehend the infinite God with our finite minds? Our task in prayer and spirituality is to explore this as a Pilgrim People. God is always being discovered and as Gerry Hughes says is a “God of surprises”. God can never be fully understood by man in this life.

If we look again at Karl Rahner’s words, it may be that we can see in his phrase “the word of God” a secondary meaning. In this secondary sense, the Tradition is indeed a package containing the Scriptures, the Creeds, decisions of the Councils of the Church and the writings of the Fathers. Can we open that? Well of course we can and do. In fact we explore ever deeper into God and his purposes revealed in Jesus Christ when we turn to the contents of the Tradition, particularly the Bible. The Tradition then becomes for us not a set of beliefs and moral precepts handed down (as sometimes it seems to be) but more an infinite resource the depth of which we can never plumb in our pilgrimage.

I will illustrate this with a personal anecdote. I wrote an article entitled “Mary, ecumenism and me” which was printed in the May 1999 edition of New Directions. Some of you may have noticed it and possibly read it. I referred in it to my love for the Shrine of our Lady of Mount Grace. This is at a place called Osmotherly in North Yorkshire. In the article I related how my love for our Lady had waned but how a surprising call to visit the Shrine again some eight years ago, rekindled it.

That visit to the Shrine really did rekindle my love for our Lady. I began a period of five years in which I consistently studied the scriptures to reveal the place Mary has in God’s scheme of things. I began with a life’s experience of bible study and my theology of Mary grew from that. I decided to start writing a book and to my amazement began to discover that studying the scriptures had brought me back full circle to my understanding of the theology of Mary and my former devotions to our Lady which now are happily part of my life again.

Let me illustrate this from someone else’s experience. Saint Louis Marie de Montfort pondered long on the scriptural record of the Annunciation. He pondered on the coming of Christ, giver of all grace and salvation, by the work of the Holy Spirit through Mary. He began to see in this biblical story an image of how God works in the soul of each Christian.

Louis Marie knew that to be a Christian is to have Christ dwelling in one. We need to be formed and to be nurtured in Christ. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. However, Louis Marie began to realise that if at the Annunciation the Holy Spirit worked through Mary’s cooperation to give us Christ, this must be true for all Christians. He put forward the idea that the Holy Spirit works through Mary in the formation of Christian souls. In other words by his prayer and study he shaped the modem doctrine of Mary as the Mother of the Church. It is rooted in the bible even though it is modern.

We engage in our pilgrimage into the Tradition by turning to the scriptures, the creeds, the council decrees and the Fathers. They become the material that we study, meditate upon and ponder over. It is that study and prayer that leads us ever closer into the mystery of Christ that will only be fully ours when we see Christ face to face in heaven.

The point I am making is that the Tradition is not something we can comprehend. It is not something to learn and once one has learned it, there is no more to think about. The tradition is the matter we use to enter as pilgrims into the mystery of God and his purposes as revealed in Jesus Christ. We can never plumb the depths of this mystery nor ever reach the sublime heights of all there is to know. It remains in our yearning but one day it will be ours. That will come when we enter into the beatific vision that is our inheritance as the saints in light.

In the meantime what a wonderful pilgrimage in which to engage: to attempt to explore the mind and purpose of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We have many questions and the truth lies in God.


Infallible Tradition

If we return to the story of the Greek enquirers and Philip, a question immediately springs to mind. What if Philip had not been able to point them to Jesus? Suppose they had come to Philip at a time after the Ascension? What would he say? He would begin by saying “Let me tell you all about Jesus for I knew him!” He would be witnessing to his own personal faith and hand on what he knew. The “handing on’ is the Tradition. Inherent in this “handing on” there is a problem. How do we know that what is handed on is at least not wrong?

Saint Paul reminds us that “now we see through a glass darkly” only in the beatific vision shall we see Jesus “face to face” (I Corinthians 13.12). The darkness is because of our finite minds, our limited intelligence, our sin, the prejudices of our cultural background and heritage. Given these limitations within not only the hearer but also the preacher, how could the Greeks know that Philip was handing on what was true? How do we know hat what we have been told is correct? Perhaps it has gone wrong over the centuries.

Karl Rahner’s answer which I quoted above is that we know that what is handed on to us is true when we hear it in the context of a fellowship of believers, that is the Church. What we are hearing in those circumstances is what has been handed on. Yet, great though my admiration is for Karl Rahner’s theology, this answer does not suffice. We still have no guarantee that what we hear is the Tradition. How do we know that a particular fellowship of believers has in fact been guided by the Holy Spirit and has in fact safeguarded and handed on the Tradition?

This is not a cry for some form of security nor is it a cry for certainty rather than faith. Any PhD student knows that research can lead into a cul-de-sac and the role of a supervisor does not stultify but encourages the student to think of a way out. Infallibility never means that something can be described as right and true. Infallibility only guarantees that something is not wrong. What is not wrong may be quite uninspiring and unhelpful but the way to explore the Tradition is pointed out.

I thus find that the most suitable title for this Section is “Infallible Tradition”. Karl Rahner said we must look to a living witness in a group of faithful believers to explore the Tradition. I begin with an historical reflection.

Although revisionist historians now tell us that things were not as bad in the Catholic Church prior to the Reformation as subsequent protestant historians tended to make out, it does seem clear that the Catholic Church was wielding an immense amount of power. This made some Catholics quite uncomfortable. Also there were unscrupulous people abusing that power and it was difficult to disentangle abuse from truth. The issue was how to distinguish truth from error and how to safeguard the truth. Who and what were right?

Luther nailed up his theses and the Reformation began. Luther was left behind as the Reform spread and much to his horror, Protestantism evolved into a movement that saw authority only in the bible and even that was to be interpreted by private judgement. Luther kept the Church in his country from this extreme theology but in the process there emerged the Lutheran Church where truth was at the mercy of the German Princes. They decided what was to be believed.

The Church of England moved out of and into and out of communion again with the rest of the Catholic Church. In 1662, the Book of Common Prayer created for the separated Church of England the uneasy compromise that still exists between those of Catholic and those of Reformed churchmanship – but to some extent it worked. After 1662, as generation succeeded generation, the doctrine of the Book of Common Prayer seems to have acquired an authority of its own. People may have had doubts and reservations but publicly at least, for most Anglicans the Book of Common Prayer was accepted as an authentic Way of following Christ. It was seen to be not wrong or at least could be read in such a way, or covertly amended, to make it appear to be not wrong. In this way, Catholics in the Anglican Church (perhaps until the twentieth century) were able to reconcile a specifically Anglican spiritual pilgrimage to discover the reality of God with the Tradition received from the undivided Catholic Church. The Prayer Book was to some extent a standard against which teaching was assessed for its validity.

The issue faced the Roman Catholic Church at the Reformation too. With Reformers and their Churches going their own way, how could the Catholic Church convince people that what it was teaching was not wrong?

It tried to do this by way of a Council: The Council of Trent. At the council, it looked very hard at the source of its authority and recognised that it had no authority except that of the Gospel. Its duty lay in proclaiming what the Lord Jesus had proclaimed during his earthly life and ministry. It recognised that Jesus was a Jew and so it concluded that the Old Testament in use in his day, as well as the New Testament, must contain what he taught. This was the unbroken tradition over which there had been no disagreement and the Council reiterated this.

The Church was conscious though that there was debate about what books should be in the bible and repeated that these are those in the longer list for it knew that that was not wrong. (I add in parenthesis that it is only in some of the later books of the Old Testament that some of the teachings to which Protestants objected originate such as praying for the dead).

The Council also realised that some things were being taught that were not explicit in the bible and it needed a way to explain why this should be so. It faced the question raised by the Reformation. How could it be not wrong to teach things that are not explicit in the scriptures? It came up with this solution. Meeting on April 8th 1546, the Fathers of the Council of Trent agreed that:

“What the Lord Jesus Christ taught from his own mouth and then also through his Apostles about the truth of salvation and moral behaviour is contained in written books and unwritten traditions which the Apostles received from Christ himself’. (DZ 783,)

Without realising it, people assumed (as did the Roman Catholic Church subsequently until quite recently) that what the Fathers of the Council were meaning was that in addition to the bible there was a second source revealing the teaching of Jesus. This source was unwritten and had been handed down from the time of the Apostles. It was one way of dealing with how things could be taught that were not explicitly in the bible but it did not endear the Church to non-Roman Catholics and aggravated the rift.

Having failed to convince that it was not wrong the Roman Catholic Church went its own way until the politics of the nineteenth century attacked the political independence of the Pope. This precipitated the gradual emergence of personal devotion to the Pope. Parallel with this was the papal decision in 1834 to define as teaching of the Catholic Church the Immaculate Conception of Mary. These again raised among Roman (and Anglican) Catholics as well as among Protestants questions about the authority of the Church to teach things that are not explicit in the bible. How can it be not wrong to teach something like the Immaculate Conception?

The way out this time for the Roman Catholic Church was to declare in 1870 the infallibility of the Pope.

The idea that the Church would always preserve the truth of the Gospel has been around since the early centuries. In the face of gnostic heretics Irenaeus proclaimed that the Church is “the house of truth”. In 1870, Wisdom guided the Church and prevented it from claiming too much about its ability to teach the truth. However, the Church recognised that Christ had indeed given her the gift of being prevented from being wrong. This notion had always been around but it was only the realities of the times that brought it to the fore.

By declaring the Pope to be infallible in matters of doctrine the Church had brought out an old doctrine that actually applied to whole Catholic Church. The subsequent study and qualification of the meaning of infallibility set the Roman Catholic Church on a particular track to explore where infallibility lies. It is a track that could very well lead, in my opinion, to the resolution of the divisions of the Reformation. Christ has given the Church the charism of infallibility.

What this means is that the Roman Catholic Church has worked out that it is Christ’s gift that if Christians measure their thoughts and meditations as they explore into the wonder of God against the standard of the Church’s teaching they will not go wrong. The standard does not lie with Kings and Parliaments – German or English. The standard is not in the hands of the General Synod of an independent Church. The way to know that something really is the Tradition is to match it against the general teaching of the universal Church.

This is not how the Church of England generally sees it but I draw attention to the latest ARCIC document “Authority III” which argues for what will be a drastic change for Anglican thinking and theological method.

Without mentioning the word “infallible” or even the word “Pope”, the latest ARCIC document describes very clearly the functions they have and how such functions are a gift to bring about unity between all the Churches. I give four extracts:

1.”The Commission’s work has resulted in sufficient agreement on universal primacy as a gift to be shared, for us to propose that such a primacy could be offered and received even before our churches are in full communion.

2.”Both Roman Catholics and Anglicans look to this ministry being exercised in collegiality and synodality – a ministry of servus servorum Dei” (Gregory the Great cited in Ut Unum Sint, 88)

3.”We envisage a primacy that will even now help to uphold the legitimate diversity of traditions, strengthening and safeguarding them in fidelity to the Gospel”.

4.”It will be an effective sign for all Christians as to how this gift of God builds up that unity for which Christ prayed.” (Authority ill paragraph 60)

What is proposed for all is a Primatial bishop in a collegiate or synodical setting. His function is to preserve in the whole Church the legitimate identity of its parts whilst both strengthening and also safeguarding faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus. This bishop is a universal sign of unity.

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church is consistent with this. It uses the word “magisterium” to mean the general teaching of the Church. The Catechism teaches:

“It is the Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error”. (Catechism paragraph 890)

The infallibility of the Magisterium does not force into uniformity: which is a helpful comment for Anglicans. What it means is that diverse emphases, devotions and spiritualities; variations in customs and practices may differ; but Christians shall not be wrong if they heed it. It strengthens and safeguards fidelity to Jesus. Personally, I do not interpret this in a restricting way. It does not seem to me that there is an intention here of closing down study and debate. I believe that the intention is one of guiding people along the tracks they choose in such a way that they do not go wrong.

It is ours to accept and use as Anglicans “even before” we are in communion with each other.

A question that I often put to myself is how can one think this way and continue out of full communion with the Pope? It is a very challenging question for Anglican Catholics particularly in these times when we feel marginalised.

I think the resolution of the dilemma lies in the Second Vatican Council decree on ecumenism. Although it teaches that the Church founded by Christ is the (Roman) Catholic Church, the Council carefully draws the boundaries wide. It teaches that all those of faith who have been properly baptised are in real, though imperfect communion

Church of England priests began to adopt Roman Catholic teachings and practices despite the 39 Articles. I would not wish to attribute to Pusey responsibility for all that then ensued, but he was the first to translate the French spiritual writers on the basis that this was common heritage. The one led to the other.

Newman felt he must work out a satisfactory explanation of how the Roman Catholic Church could apparently add to its teaching before he felt able to join it. Also, he was and remained a student of the bible and had been brought up with the conviction that the full Christian revelation was in the scriptures. Suffice it to say in this Paper, that many scholars have argued convincingly that much of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council can be traced either directly or indirectly to Newman.

The Second Vatican Council dropped the idea of a dual source of the revelation of God and his purposes in Jesus. As I have described, this was the answer the Council of Trent gave when confronted with the need to explain how things were being taught in the Tradition that are not explicit in the bible. Instead it came up with this formula to “clarify” what Trent had said and Vatican 1 repeated:

“The apostolical preaching, which was expressed in a special way in the inspired books includes everything which contributes to the holiness of life, and the increase in faith of the People of God; and so the Church in her teaching, life and worship perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.” (Divine Revelation paragraph 8)

So the apostolic traditions are now seen to be expressed “in a special way” in the inspired books of the bible. In practice, what is now taught is that there is but one source of Divine Revelation and that is Jesus Christ. (This does of course raise questions in an age in which we are in dialogue with Peoples of Other Faiths). The Second Vatican Council also taught how the Tradition could be both rooted in the Apostolic Church yet flexible to develop in each generation. The thinking is pure Newman:

“The tradition that comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and the study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (Luke 2.19, 51) through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward towards the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” (Divine Revelation paragraph 8)

This clarifies that nothing new has ever been, nor can be added by the Church to the original revelation of God and his purposes in Jesus Christ. Yet there is continual growth throughout the centuries in understanding the realities and the texts that have been handed down. Such growth at its best comes from the rigorous radical questioning that I suggest pilgrims should be engaged in today. This leads to developed thinking that in turn extends the content of the Tradition.

I think we Anglicans should note that this is not giving any authority to the use of reason on its own. It has become clear that the decision to ordain women was a watershed in Anglican theological method. It is now apparently proper to argue for change on the grounds merely of liberal sensitivity to issues. This is not the Catholic teaching on development of doctrine. The Catholic teaching is that what has always been believed can develop into deeper truths. This emerges from study in every generation of the realities and the texts and I would add by a method of radical questioning.

I believe there is a role and a place for this generation of Catholics in the Church of England to ask in study and contemplation deep radical questions of the Tradition. That is what the Second Vatican Council asks us to do and for all we know, a new Pope will also be asking those deep radical questions in his study and contemplation. I repeat there are very real questions being asked today about moral issues such as sex and marriage, gender, world ecology and economics. Others are raising questions that challenge the fabric of Tradition. These demand our own radical questioning of the Tradition to discern the mind of God. I have come to the conclusion that it is time the rest of us who hold to the Tradition must join the few among us who are leading us in a radical but fully Catholic manner in facing these questions of our times.

Michael Banks is Canon Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral