Philosopher Leszek Kolakowski in his essay, Modernity on Endless Trial writes about the constant tension between conservation and evolution. Human society, he posits, lives in the pull between wanting to hang on to the old and the reality of constant change.
His thesis has the ring of truth to me, not only in society, but also in my own life, and in the church that I serve.
I like new things. I like new shirts and new sweaters. At the same time, there are a few of my old things that I hang on to and wear even beyond when they ought to be replaced. I have two flannel shirts that I’m thinking of. They are soft, they fit me really nicely, they have long tails so they tuck and in and don’t come out of my pants even when I’m working in the yard or on some house project. And I keep wearing them, even though I have other flannel shirts that I could wear. Each of my old favorites has a couple of broken buttons; I could replace the buttons, but I haven’t yet. I keep wearing them with the broken buttons. By contrast, I can think of other items in my wardrobe that have immediately become favorites upon their purchase and they have quickly replaced other items that I used to wear regularly. What’s to account for the difference? I don’t know.
I do know that I encounter the same thing in the congregation as a living organism. I can think of one woman in a former parish who was all about innovation in worship. I introduced a gospel procession and she loved it. I was the first pastor to enlist women to read the lessons. She loved the new way. The list is long of new things I brought to our worship life that she loved. I can think of one that she didn’t: the Good Friday Tenebrae service. When we left behind Tenebrae for the Liturgy of the Cross, she was quite vehement that we needed to go back to Tenebrae. To her credit, it wasn’t even that she didn’t like the Liturgy of the Cross; there was just some emotional connection with the old that she wasn’t willing to give up.
Some people love new hymns and they want to make sure we sing their old favorites. Some people want to completely eschew the liturgy, but don’t want to see certain rituals disappear. Some people are gung-ho for new ministries and programs and don’t want to put to rest old programs that no longer serve their purpose.
I don’t know how to account for it, but I do know that it’s real, in my own life, and as I experience parish life with other members of our church community. I don’t know that it’s even a bad thing, or that it’s something that we should work to change in ourselves. But I do think it’s something that’s useful to remember and to call ourselves out on. And in being aware of it in ourselves and in others might make us a little less emotionally reactionary when we do encounter change or when we experience others encountering change.
I think it’s also useful to remember the tension especially when we hear the constant voice for change in the church. That shouting becomes so loud sometimes that I can’t hear anything else. “We’ve got to change or we’re going to die!” Yes, there’s always a drive to be relevant to current culture, but the church has been fairly successful at doing that for a long time. And the biggest changes in the church have not come because someone said, “We’ve got to change or we’re going to die.”
I think of Martin Luther, for instance, who had no intentions of leaving the church or starting a movement. In many ways, he was a deeply conservative man who simply wanted to restore right teaching to the church that he held dear. Yet he was on the cutting edge of so many changes in the church and in western society in general.
I don’t think everything from the past is worth hanging on to. Some is. I don’t think that everything new is worth embracing. Some is. So, we live in the tension. And I think this is so key to understand — we live in the tension. Let’s acknowledge it, accept that it is part of our personality and that as a collection of individuals, it’s part of our life as church. Let’s acknowledge the tension and then work together in community to discern what is worth hanging on to and what is worth embracing.