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Hallo again to all.

Tradition is such a large part of our Anglican life together. We so enjoy many traditions, and we write about them often. This week we've been thinking about potential darker sides of church traditions.

By tradition in some churches, embroidered linen purificators measuring 12 inches by 12 inches are folded in thirds and placed over the chalice. It is also traditional to wash them by hand immediately after the service. One might call them 30 centimeters by 30 centimeters, though that is terribly untraditional. One might also send them out to a commercial laundry the next morning. But that would be shockingly untraditional. Dark side? Hardly, unless they are also made of polyester. So we can afford to be outraged at metric purificators sent to the laundry down the street.

By tradition in some churches, worship involves no music. In churches perhaps nearby to those, worship involves a praise band equipped with drums, electric guitars, and a horn section.

By tradition in some other churches, abuse of a wife could be called for because the wife did not fully and adequately submit to the headship of her husband.*

We've all read about pre-Christian churches that had traditions of sacrificing humans (usually women) at the altar to appease a god. There has been considerable historical analysis of the Aztec tradition of human sacrifice in the practice of religion and of the efforts by Spanish conquistadores and missionaries to end that tradition.

How do we know how to respond to others' traditions? When do we push against them and when do we accept them as deeply-held and faith-based? It seems obvious to us, 21st-century Anglicans, that the Aztec tradition of human sacrifice during worship is wrong. And it seems obvious to many people that abuse of women in the name of traditional male headship is wrong. It is very unlikely that a ritual or belief would become a tradition unless a core of people believed it to be right, so most likely the priests engaging in human sacrifice and the husbands abusing their wives had a core of belief that they were doing the right thing with justification in both scripture and tradition.

While we do have a few elderly friends who would consider electric guitars and human sacrifice to be in the same category, they are few and their grandchildren do not share that view.** Most people we know have a well-formed sense of right and wrong and apply it without hesitation to others' traditions. Human sacrifice: no. Praise band: fine, but I won't come to your church. Machine washing of purificators: 21 lashes.

All issues worthy of public discussion are complex, and this one is no exception. In our youth, there was no social stigma or health warning attached to smoking. Millions of people smoked; sometimes there were smoking and non-smoking areas set up in public places. But over many decades it became obvious that smoking didn't just injure the smoker, it injured bystanders. In many countries law and custom adapted to this new understanding by tightening the restrictions on smoking and then tightening them some more. The issue wasn't whether smoking was wrong, it was whether smoking injured bystanders.

Like many of you, we are watching with fascination the combat in England over the role of women in the church. Is a tradition of excluding women something harmless, like worship with no music, or is it something toxic, like smoking? Does exposure to people who must exclude women damage children the same way that exposure to cigarette smoke damages children? There is, for example, a great deal of credible research indicating that children who are witnesses to men abusing women are more likely themselves to become abusers or victims as adults (whether or not the abuse was committed in the name of deeply-held religious principles). There is no data suggesting that children who grow up believing that bishops must be male will become criminals.

No one seems to know just who formulated the phrase 'Scripture, Tradition, and Reason' to describe the structure of Anglican authority, though it dates to the beginning of the Reformation. John Wesley is universally credited with adding 'and Experience' to produce the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. A mathematician would be quick to point out that if tradition is entirely based on scripture and reason is entirely based on experience then there are really only two independent factors, scripture and experience. Even though not everyone can parlay experience into increased powers of reason.

We love our traditions. They are part of our identity. But we are glad that outsiders evaluate our traditions for the possibility that harm might come of them. Sometimes we'll refuse to buckle to such evaluations: the knowledge that incense is bad for asthmatics and that someone could get hurt by a flyaway thurible does not even slightly impact its role in our lives. And when we are outsiders to others' traditions, we think about them and whether harm might come from following them.

See you next week. After all, it's a tradition.

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21 July 2013

*See the sermon delivered to Denton Bible Church by Dr Bruce Ware on 22 June 2008, or read a commentary on it if you'd rather not pay for the sermon.

**Though we remember that in 1989 when Panama's General Noriega took refuge in the Papal Nuncio's estate in Panama City, the US troops tried to blast him out by playing English-language rock music at high volume (see the playlist). We cannot imagine wanting to surrender after hearing David Bowie's rendition of 'Dancing in the Streets' or 'Ghost Rider' by The Outlaws, but obviously General Noriega saw it differently.

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