A Return to Tradition

A new interest in old ways takes root in Catholicism and many other faiths

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Celebrating the Latin mass at St. Mary, Mother of God in Washington.

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Talk to Carl Anderson, the senior pastor of Trinity Fellowship Church, and you get an idea. "Seven or eight years ago, there was a sense of disconnectedness and loneliness in our church life," he says. The entrepreneurial model adopted by so many evangelical churches, with its emphasis on seeker-friendly nontraditional services and programs, had been successful in helping Trinity build its congregation, Anderson explains. But it was less successful in holding on to church members and deepening their faith or their ties with fellow congregants. Searching for more rootedness, Anderson sought to reconnect with the historical church.

Connections. Not surprisingly, that move was threatening to church members who strongly identify with the Reformation and the Protestant rejection of Catholic practices, including most liturgy. But Anderson and others tried to emphasize the power of liturgy to direct worship toward God and "not be all about me," he says. Anderson also stressed how liturgy "is about us—and not just this church but the connection with other Christians." Adopting the weekly Eucharist, saying the Nicene Creed every two or three weeks, following the church calendar, Trinity reshaped its worship practices in ways that drove some congregants away. But Anderson remains committed, arguing that traditional practices will help evangelical churches grow beyond the dependence on "celebrity-status pastors."

Something of a celebrity ex-pastor himself, Brian McLaren, the popular author and a founder of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., recently left the pastorate to talk and write about the emergent movement and other developments in Christianity. While at Cedar Ridge, which catered specifically to previously "unchurched" seekers, McLaren instituted a Eucharistic liturgy and contemplative prayer retreats. And he appreciates the role of tradition in the new self-organizing communities that are sprouting up around the country. "Protestantism has been in a centrifugal pattern for so long, with each group spinning away from others," McLaren says. "But now there is some kind of pull back to the center."

Like McLaren, Tony Jones, author of The New Christians: Dispatches From the Emergent Frontier and national coordinator of Emergent Village, talks about the postmodern aspects of the new traditionalism. People of the postmodern mindset—particularly 20- and 30-somethings—question the hyperindividualism of modern culture. They search for new forms of community but tend to be wary of authority figures and particularly of leaders, Jones says, who take divisive liberal or conservative social-political positions—one reason why the emergent groups tend to be antipastoral. "The problem is not the issues," says Jones, who belongs to an emergent church, Solomon's Porch, in Minneapolis. "The problem is how we talk about issues. We are going to live in reconciliation with each other, and traditional practices are what restore us and hold us together."

The young neotraditionalists also have an almost intuitive attraction to liturgy, ritual, and symbol as forms of knowledge that complement the dominant rational, scientific one. "There is a certain kind of postmodern sensibility that loses confidence in the rational explanation of everything," McLaren says. For him, Jones, and others, "doing church" in traditional and innovative ways is a form of theological reflection that leaves behind the fundamendalists' need to make all religious propositions into pseudoscientific statements, to turn Genesis, for example, into a geology textbook.

Pushing limits."I would argue that people are looking for a dialectic," says Avi Weiss, senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in Bronx, N.Y., and founder of a new rabbinical school that trains Jewish leaders in the approach of what he calls Open Orthodoxy. "People are looking for a commitment that is grounded but not one that is stagnant," Weiss says. "The other part of the dialectic is an openness but not without limits."