Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Is Tradition the Enemy of Innovation? Some Historical and Ecumenical Examples

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Is Tradition the Enemy of Innovation? Some Historical and Ecumenical Examples

Article excerpt

The question posed in the title of this essay has often come to my attention, but perhaps most pointedly when, as a representative of our Seminary Faculty to our Board of Trustees, I have observed the kind of faculty presentation that a typical new dean tends to want to feature at a typical meeting of the board. The kind of report that is sought is always about something new that is now being done, not about something old that is being done better. No congratulations are offered to faculty who are trying-perhaps working very hard and even succeeding-to improve the lectures they have previously been giving, by going deeper into the same subject, for example by reading more of the scholarly literature and original sources, or by re-fashioning their presentation of the subject, in order to give a more comprehensive and accurate account of an important theme. Rather, what tends to be of much more interest to deans and trustees (any of them; I am not speaking of particular individuals, and I suspect I am not speaking only of General Seminary) is whether the subject matter of the lecture itself is being changed to some new topic, or if the lecture method is being exchanged for team teaching, or if the chairs are being rearranged so as not to suggest that there is any professor and that all are equal, or if the grades are no longer letters but pass-fail, or if no exam will any more be given, or if the students are told that they are the teachers and the professor pretends to be the learner, or if pictures are substituted for readings or if field trips are substituted for written assignments or diaries substituted for research papers, or similar "innovations" are being made. Such changes are hailed as "creative innovations" that have finally broken the tyranny of musty traditions that were holding back the learning process. The assumption is clear that preference should be given to these kinds of changes, rather than to deeper scholarly research of the sort where at least in the great field of historical knowledge, a greater value seems to be placed upon tradition, further explored and more fully utilized, than upon innovation that is recently created.

The assumption that prevails, then, in such kinds of thoughtless affirmations of "innovation" within the Church is that concern for the tradition prevents innovation from happening, that tradition is too often the actual enemy of innovation, that innovation is always good and tradition always bad, that the new is usually better than the old. Or, among the few who do not regard the two quantities or approaches as totally separate, at the very least it is assumed that the one is superior to the other, that God-in religious terms and in spite of the ambiguity of the biblical witness-is always on the side of the new.

All this presents a problem for Church historians, of course, because we tend to have a certain allegiance in both camps. As committed Christians most Church historians, I suspect, tend to share a similarly positive evaluation of the new, whereas as historians with an allegiance to the historical profession which has its own integrity and in academic terms looms even larger than the professional field of religion, historians must have a certain commitment towards continued exploration of that which has already been, towards an inquiry (that is what the word "history" means) that will allow the past to speak for itself, even towards a view that the future is better served by a critical study of the past than by the dreaming of new dreams that have as little connection with the past as possible.

And so we come to some ways of re-phrasing the question that I am trying to explore. Given that "change" is always happening, is God always on the side of change more than of continuity? Given that "development" is always occurring, does God always prefer that which is different, prefer the new rather than the old? If "it" is different, is it better? If it isn't broken, should it nevertheless be fixed? …

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