Paul Griffin explains why traditionalism should not be confused with an unrealistic idealization of the past

Matthew Arnold wrote of ‘this strange disease of modern life, With its sick hurry, its divided aims’. He was writing when Britain was under no major external threat, when there was therefore abundant opportunity for internal quarrels – about God, about monkeys, fossils, women. His Scholar Gipsy, whom he described as being born ‘in days when wits were fresh and clear, And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames’, in fact lived during the terrible Civil War. Matthew was a Romantic in a Golden Age mood, rather than an analyst of the seventeenth century.

Changing threat

Aims are less divided in the face of external threat, which may be one reason why we can obstinately value the ways of two Churches, and be so reluctant to divide further. I wonder if Osama bin Laden realizes what a boon he is to Church unity.

He is of course free to fight on two fronts, the religious and the political, and has the benefit of invisibility. Today’s enemies do not, like the Germans, wear swastikas or, like the Japanese, distinctive uniforms.

Today’s Islamic extremists are hard to pick out, so that we have constantly to remember that an enemy can come in many guises, even as an angel of light. So it is that sometimes we forget what we are against, or class it with another Christian institution of which we happen to disapprove. At the moment we have incidents of what is called Islamic extremism to unite us; but in what cause?

Like Matthew Arnold, we tend romantically to idealize the days when what would now be called a terrorist was pictured as a foreigner in a dark cloak holding a smoking bomb. Those were the days, when our political enemies were not British, unlikely to pose as priests, mullahs, doctors, accountants, and other respectable citizens.

We are known in the Church by the name of Traditionalists. It is a misleading name, if it gives the impression that anyone opposed to us does not care for tradition. This would be ridiculous in the holders of a faith based on that very thing. I suppose, when the term is used pejoratively, it means that we hold to certain customs and beliefs, not because we value them for themselves, but simply because they are traditional. Matters, of course, are not as easy as that.

The primitive Church

Returning to Matthew Arnold, we can find ourselves agreeing with the phrases about ‘this strange disease of modern life’ and its ‘sick hurry and divided aim’. But just as Arnold places his Golden Age in a vastly unsuitable century, so Christians must beware of adorning any other age with gold, whether it be the Reformation, or even the thirteenth century, when Francis and Thomas Aquinas walked the earth.

The tendency, especially over the past few years, has been to acknowledge the wisdom of this advice and cry: ‘We must return to the primitive Church and its ways.’ If this means that we must study what we know of the primitive Church, and ask ourselves whether, because of its proximity to our Saviour’s life on earth, we should follow its general lead, well and good. If, on the other hand, we regard that time as a Golden Age, we are making the same old mistake.

Man being what he is, he too is always making the same old mistakes, and showing the same old vices. There never was a Golden Age, only a few saintly people and moments when the Holy Spirit called a brief armistice. Even at that long-ago Passover Supper, Judas was waiting to betray all that was truly good, Peter was waiting to deny it, and for all I know the lamb was overcooked!

Our business is to detect what is good and follow it, in today’s world. In the process, we seek to recover, preserve and guard what is good from the past. It was not Golden; nor is our own age; but neither is leaden. To end with a quotation from another Victorian, Alfred Tennyson: ‘Some work of noble note may yet be done.’