Tradition and change

A report from the recent RooT Conference

`JESUS CHRIST is the same yesterday today and for ever.' The `everlasting gospel' spoken of by the angel of Revelation (Ch 13) is not lacking in power and efficacy to give `fullness of life' and healing to searching humankind in every age. Through the Church, it is equipped to face and answer the manifold experience which every human generation brings. Yet cultures, historical circumstances, ideas and man's self-understanding grow and develop, and with them change also the expressions in which the Church articulates the Christian faith.

So the Church finds herself in each age faced with two complementary questions in relation to the Tradition of the Faith she has received. What is permanent and unchangeable, and what may be considered to be open to change or development? What from the present may be assimilated? What is the nature of this dynamic between tradition and change? Are there criteria to ensure that this `development' of the Christian faith is authentic.

Mirfield in June

These kinds of questions lay behind the challenging brief addressed to the (ninth) annual conference of RooT (Religious of orthodox Tradition) held at Mirfield in June, attended by over thirty religious. The full title of the conference was `Tradition and growth: the limits of acceptable change.' We were admirably served for this purpose by two stimulating presentations from our principal speakers, Fr Jonathan Baker, Principal of Pusey House, and Fr Dominic Milroy OSB, formerly Headmaster of Ampleforth and one time Principal of St Anselmo in Rome.

Not far from our minds in considering this theme were far-reaching changes in the Church of England possibly imminent. Our hope was to shed light from the Church's history and the experience of religious life, notably from St Benedict and John Henry Newman, on the question of change and development, so as to be better informed as religious for the wider debate.

The conference began with a meditative address from Sr Barbara Anne, who took for her leading thought a verse from Ecclesiastes (3.11) `He [God] has put eternity into the human mind.' Our attention was drawn to the eternal aspects of Truth to which religious life traditionally pointed, `the bare austere purity of seeking Truth' (M Maria of Normanby). We can only grow to our full stature by `being grounded in the unshakeable', that cosmic perspective which opens us to the world's sin and suffering, and the cost to Our Lord of its redemption.

In the midst of our age of over-activism, time-pressured agendas and `talkative Christianity' (EM Forster), a plea was made for a recovery within the religious life of its `ascetic theology', particularly of silence, solitude and prayer: to stop and realize that our life comes to us at each moment from the `Uncreated Source'. Such contrasting figures as the Dalai Lama (`They have taken away our silence') and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (`How can we protect the right of our ears to silence?') were invoked in support. Religious life has traditionally served the Church in its offering of stability, peace, and `rest in God'; we heard here an appeal for the `restoration of the contemplative dimension of the Church's life'.

Newman on development

Fr Jonathan Baker brought us face to face, within the limits of a single hour, with the intricacies of John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman starts with the assumption that `to be a Catholic Christian is to develop.' All kinds of things develop in the Church - doctrine, devotion, ascetic practice, sacramental, hierarchical, practical. They each have to grow until the Church's teaching emerges. How do we discern what is a legitimate and what an illegitimate development? We have to ask does it `lead us into all truth?' in which case it will produce coherency; or `does it lead into error?', in which case it will `wither and die'.

Newman's observation was that doctrine originates to define the Church's faith against heresy. In some sense, heresy actually enables the Church to clarify what she believes. It is the imbalance, contained in its emphasis of one aspect of truth to the exclusion of the big picture, that constitutes its heretical character. Whatever changes or developments occur, we cannot say more than the original idea, only illuminate it (viz the Incarnation).

The comprehensive survey closed with Newman's seven tests by which to judge authentic, or inauthentic development. These, particularly the sixth and seventh on `conservative action' and `chronic vigour' were thought to be particularly applicable to our present situation, and there followed lively discussion.

The monk on a journey

Father Dominic Milroy OSB, considered the same theme, but in relation to monastic life. He reminded us there had always been a tension between the traditional monastic life and the contemporary culture; indeed its roots are biblical. We ought not to see the tension as one of opposition and conflict but life-giving and creative, given understanding, discernment and love.

Two images were offered to illuminate the resolution of this tension: the speaker's personal vision of the Cross, depicting monastic life as the joint between the vertical beam (representing monastic silence and stillness before God) and horizontal beam (the rush and bustle of modern life). The second, more an admonishing image, was that of the biblical Jonah, which articulates to us the dangers of human bigotry. Is the monastic seeking like Jonah the seclusion and safety of the ship's hold (the monastery?) from the storms of the sea (the conflict encountered in the world)?

Turning to the vows, he began with the specifically Benedictine vow of conversio mores (conversion of life, but sometimes read as conversalio mores, conversation of life). Its purpose emerges as the new mindset needed to be faithful to `the lifestyle of the particular monastery' to which the monk belongs. Conversio (inner change) thus becomes the glue that holds the two other vows of stability and obedience. Stability for Benedict is a community virtue, a perseverance of love within one's own community, bearing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of others; this, rather than simply staying in one place.

Monastic life for Benedict is more like a journey on the model of the Prodigal Son's return to the Father; so a monastery becomes a place of departure, not of arrival. The journey theme is a common biblical one: Abraham's going out into the unknown, Moses in the desert, Christ going up to Jerusalem, St Paul's road to Damascus, the disciples on the road to Emmaus. In addition, it not just a horizontal venture, but includes the difficult vertical one, that of climbing the ladder of humility.

It has been interiorized spiritually in the works of as varied a group as Dame, St John of the Cross, and John Bunyan. For St Benedict, a monk is therefore on an uncertain and risky pilgrimage in the search for God. The monk is not in the Arrival Lounge, having just landed, but in the Departure Lounge about to take off!

We return to Mirfield next year where we were warmly and generously hosted. We were pleased to have with us the Bishop of Beverley, who brought us up to date us on a number of current issues in the Church, as well as making a lively contribution to the other sessions.

Fr Peter Yates is a member of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.

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