I sit here in the hushed beauty of this 15th century chapel at Kings College, mesmerized by the grandeur of the design - an architectural expression of worship by a king to his King. The evening sun has set ablaze the brilliant colors of stained glass windows that reach high toward magnificent fanned roof arches. I study the depictions of timeless stories that span biblical history from the garden to the final judgment. The silence is suddenly broken. A world renowned organist has seated himself before the massive oak console and at his touch music pours from the golden pipes and reeds and reverberates through the stone edifice - music with such power and passion as I have not before heard. Outside the walls of this cathedral-size chapel lies the city of Cambridge with its centuries-old colleges and medieval churches, quaint shops and pubs along narrow cobblestone streets. It is a city deeply rooted in history and tradition. Priests still reside in their parishes and remain the primary custodians of baptism and marriage records for the state. Robed dons still file into richly adorned college dining halls and take their seats at elevated tables while respectful students stand stiffly at attention. Students still pole flat-bottom punts up and down the quiet River Cam and young musicians play the classics on street corners for coins.
There is something very appealing about tradition. It makes life predictable. It slows change to a more comfortable pace. In an age of cell phones and instant internet communication, tradition in this place values libraries with original manuscripts and professors who tutor personally each of their students. Tradition prefers the use of forged iron latches on the great wooden doors of its courtyards over electronic gadgetry. Tradition prefers shopkeepers and city centre markets to shopping malls. The social norms of civility and punctuality and cordiality are very nice indeed. And the worship, following liturgy that the saints have used for a thousand years, gives a connectedness to the historical roots of the Church like little else can.
Tradition has a way of creating a sense of permanency. Morning worship at Kings College is conducted each day following much the same form that King Henry VI instituted in 1441. The worship of Almighty God, the king declared, would forever be at the center of all education at his college. And so, morning and evening, year in and year out, for centuries, morning prayers and evensong have taken place without fail. Of course, few if any students attend these services any more - only a chaplain and his faithful assistants, and sporadic groups of curious, romantic and sometimes reverent visitors who want a taste of historic Christianity. Tradition does offer rootedness but it does not necessarily produce new life.
Actually, tradition often resists change. The more I read the history of this land of my roots, the more I discover that most of its history-shapers have faced the resistance of the traditional establishment. Oliver Cromwell, 17th century ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland, embraced certain Puritan doctrines over the objections of the hierarchy of the Church of England and opposed the crown. Four centuries later the United Kingdom is still conflicted about this “dissenter.” A current exhibit on his life in the Cambridge University Library is entitled “A brave bad man.” Oliver’s head, unceremoniously hacked from his exhumed body and displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall, was eventually buried with honors on the grounds of his alma mater at Cambridge. John Wesley, loyal priest of the Church of England, found himself at odds with the arch-bishop over his methods of evangelizing the poor who had largely been ignored by the established church. After years of agonizing struggle, the “non-conformist” was eventually frozen out and reluctantly created the Methodist Church. William Wilberforce, a statesman who devoted his entire public career to the eradication of slavery in the British empire, was for many of those years considered the most despised man in England.
Though an innovator at heart, I sit here in this majestic chapel with my soul strangely stirred, filled with deep appreciation for generations of guardians who understood preservation to be their calling. Must tradition always brace itself against the winds of change, I wonder. Can it not peacefully coexist with innovation? Tradition, I recall with gratitude, guards like precious gems the sacraments of the church such as baptism and communion for future generations of believers. Its high office is to protect from contamination and extinction those treasures history deems irreplaceable. But tradition can also allow one to slumber complacently through an unexamined life. It can also offer resistance to the fresh winds of the Spirit. How can I determine, then, when “non-conformity” is necessary for new life or when it is merely strong-headed rebellion? Perhaps I cannot know for certain when “dissent” is right, apart from looking deeply into my own soul to determine the source and nature of the motivation which impels me.
The relationship between preservation and innovation seems as inextricable as the seasons. Just as last years seeds spring new shoots that blossom and bear fruit - all from soil nourished by the legacy of previous seasons, so new visions spring forth with each new generation. But as fresh as their expressions may be, visions are not born in a vacuum. Each original thought, each new insight, each revelation is a shoot that springs from soil that history has prepared.
And so I will continue to enjoy this immersion in tradition, taking care to neither worship nor diminish it. And I will continue to marvel at the perennial engagement of God in the affairs of humankind from generation to generation.