Tag Archives: Practical Divinity

Langford on Tradition, Preservation, and Idolatry




At what point does the preservation of tradition – particularly organizational patterns and structures – become little more than idolatrous self-preservation?  Do we in the Church cling to old models more out of anxious fear and idolatrous calcification than a concern for the message, will, and work of Christ in the world?

“Tradition,” said Jaroslav Pelikan, “is the living faith of the dead.”  On the other hand, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Is the Methodist movement, particularly as instantiated in the United Methodist Church, representative of a valuable, vibrant, living tradition, or have we devolved into a virus-like self-replicating traditionalism?

On these and similar questions, I culled a helpful tidbit from one of our greatest theologians in the last half century.  In his classic Practical Divinity, Tom Langford makes the following insight:

Further, it may be argued, there is no value in continuing a tradition only to perpetuate its life.  Indeed, there is a pernicious idolatry in sustaining an organizational form only in the interest of self-preservation.  As the vitality of purpose within a movement declines, there is often an aggressive effort to reinforce the organizational structure that earlier served its dynamic life.  A developed church order may be confused with the initiating and ultimate cause it was intended to serve; and by subtle shift, structure may be perpetuated in the name of the cause.  If the Wesleyan tradition no longer possesses a distinctive contribution and no longer enriches total Christian witness and life, then this tradition and its ecclesiastical structure have no reason to continue. (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1983, 270)

There are dynamics here that play out in every organization, of course.  But given the current state of the church in North America, they are particularly applicable for discussion by contemporary Christians.  These are questions that come up at every level of ecclesiastical life, from the local church struggling to “get back to what it used to be” to denominational officials clinging to structures whose original purpose and meaning have been lost.  I see both flexibility and fearful preservation in my own denomination.

We see evidence of flexibility – for better or worse is a matter of judgment above my pay grade – in a recent Call to Action report suggesting some pretty major changes to polity and ministry.  Most interesting is the end of the so-called “guaranteed appointment” and the suggestion to do away with the language of “commissioning” in the ordination process (an obvious move given that no one, outside or inside the UMC, has ever understood exactly what is meant by a practice that amounts to de facto psuedo-ordination).

One aspect of preservation that is clear to see is the traditional(-istic?) insistence on itinerant ministry.  As one hoping to be ordained as an itinerating Elder, I wholeheartedly assent to this practice as is currently implemented by the church.  The issue as that what we now call itinerancy bears primarily a nostalgic resemblance to the itinerancy of of the Wesleys in England and Asbury in the US.  The ideal itinerant was a single male travelling  a “circuit,” not staying in one place very long.  He generally lodged with laypeople on the road, was expected not to marry (to do so would require “location” usually), and his primary ministry was preaching, organizing small discipleship groups, and administering the Sacraments.  We have retained the language of itinerancy while absorbing the larger practices of Mainline Protestant ministry: the professionalization of clergy with its corollary educational requirements, credentialing process, and cultural respectability.  Clergy went from traveling a circuit for a number of years to being in a parish for a number of years.  Even now, when all the stats point to longer pastoral appointments being healthier for all involved, we insist on calling our form of “sent” ministry itinerancy.  We are dangerously close to Papa Wesley’s warning about seeking the power without the form.  Why cling to something just to retain the name?  I think Langford’s warning about “structure being perpetuated in the name of the cause” may ring true here.

At what point does tradition become traditionalism?  When is preservation not idolatry?  If our efforts at excellence/effectiveness/fruitfulness/(insert-cliche’-quasi-business-terminology-for-growth-here) are driven only by a desire to preserve existing structures, to what extent are we serving ourselves rather than Christ?

Langford’s words are interesting fuel for thought for those in any organization facing the specter of decline.  Why keep it going?  If we in the Church don’t know what (read: Who) we are about – and at the local church level this question is often pathetically lacking – then we have a bigger issue than trying to find new and clever ways to grow: we don’t deserve to.