World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Tradition and traditions - Rev. Dr Susan Durber

"The teachers and witnesses of the early Church: a common source of authority, variously received? Introduction and report from a co-moderator" is the title of this brief presentation on Tradition and traditions by the Rev. Susan Durber.

10 October 2009

The teachers and witnesses of the early Church: a common source of authority, variously received? Introduction and report from a co-Moderator

By the Rev. Dr Susan Durber

It is a significant pattern of Christian experience that we bear testimony to one another and that we listen to witnesses. We know that we take the bravest steps when we listen to accounts of deep experience, even when it is hard to testify to that experience in the words we already have. From the earliest witnesses to the present day, we in the Church take testimony seriously. And so I come as a witness, to testify to the experiences that I and others have shared as we have engaged with this project. This has not been, if anything ever is, only a purely academic exercise, but has engaged us deeply and spiritually, and has shown itself to be the kind of ecumenism for which many of us have longed. It can be irritating when someone tells you of their own delight in something you have not shared (like holiday photographs or travellers’ tales). But I would ask you to come with me as I tell you something of our journey on this project, and in particular, of my own experience as co-Moderator.

It should be said that those involved in the project, and in the Cambridge consultation in particular, came from very different experiences and perspectives to engage in this task together. Some came ready to share knowledge and experience of writers and texts that mean much to them and which have shaped their intellectual and spiritual lives and, more significantly, the Christian tradition which they are delighted to inhabit. Some came with much less expertise, feeling embarrassed by a comparative ignorance and inexperience. Some came with a range of questions, suspicions, and even fears, not sure where such a discussion would take them, and aware of how difficult it might be to express such things with sufficient clarity and integrity or that they would be heard. There were a number of ways in which everyone participating expected that this was not going to be an easy or comfortable conversation. But, for many, it has proved to be a profoundly significant encounter and one which has changed us. The discussions often reached the deep places where Christian fellowship begins to mean something significant and where a sense of unity between us was being built. The quality of listening, of reflection and mutual honouring was high and, I and others too will testify, that this was one of the most beautiful, truthful and hope-filled ecumenical experiences we have had. This is not to say that there were no difficult moments or intractable discussions, that we did not struggle with unfamiliar ways of understanding or talking, but it is to say that something important happened as we met.

At the heart of our discussions was the question of authority. We were not concerned only to share with one another our levels of interest in the teachers and witnesses of the early church, to engage in an intellectual exchange of ideas about them or even to reveal to one another their spiritual significance for us. Though these things happened, the testing ground of our discussions was around questions of authority. In what ways do they speak to us with authoritative voices? And, how does their authority compare with or relate to other significant forms of authority upon which we draw as we seek to speak of the Gospel? We did not take it for granted that we knew even what authority meant and we spent time in careful discussion and reflection. We all had a strong sense of unity in describing true authority as being something rooted in authenticity and integrity, rather than in anything like naked political power. True authority does not need to force itself, but is revealed from within. We shared together our convictions that the teachers and witnesses of the early church have authority for us because of their very ‘earliness’, as being among the first generations of Christians, and the first of those who began both to gather and to interpret the Scriptures. But they also have authority deriving from lives lived with integrity and holiness, often suffering or even dying for their faith. Though we did not want to romanticise the earliest teachers and witnesses or to erase their reality as human beings in particular contexts, we became aware that they often witnessed in times and circumstances we can barely imagine, that they were the pastors and practical theologians of their times, and that their witness was often made in blood and tears as well as in the joy of the Gospel.

We also spent time reflecting on what it means to talk of a living Tradition, and for many there was a renewed understanding of the dynamic movement of the Holy Spirit, who makes what some see simply as ‘the past’ into something part of a living process, as God works in both past, present and future to bring fulfilment and hope. We acknowledged that truth does not lie in seeing the past as lost to us or irrelevant, and neither does it lie in seeing the present as, by comparison, empty of God’s living presence. We learned to speak of time and tradition in new ways, enriched by the Gospel language of remembrance and hope. And we shared together a sense of the living reality of the communion of saints, in which we are in a real and lived unity with the earliest witnesses, who have particular importance for us as our common parents in the faith.

Let me be honest with you. I come from an experience of life in the Church in which the early witnesses and teachers of the Church have not often, until now, been a living force in my faith. And I would not be alone in that within my church, my tradition or in my cultural context. I live in a church and more so a culture which is not at ease always with looking at ‘the past’, and for which such pursuits often signal a presumption of conservatism and even obscurantism. The past is often seen either as a ’foreign country’, a strange alien place which we need not visit, or perhaps alternatively as heritage of a rather sentimental kind for our entertainment. I am also among those who take very seriously the insights of Feminism, for whom a group often referred to as ‘the Fathers’ does not readily commend itself. I have colleagues and friends who cannot see why it would be relevant or helpful to read ‘the fathers’ and that their witness should be muted as we shape a church for mission in today’s world. I know of those who are not indifferent to the patristic writers but rather concerned first of all to challenge their witness or their significance for us. Some in our churches today would say that it was ‘the fathers’ who made the faith unnecessarily complicated, who changed the simple message of Jesus into the complexities of philosophical theology. Some have also understood ‘the fathers’ as those who, perhaps in contrast with Jesus himself, have made a Church in which women have no or little voice and in which power is resolutely given to men. They find, for example, the pieces in John Chrysostom where he interprets Genesis 1 in the light of 1 Corinthians 11 to say that only men are made in the image of God. They paint a picture of the early church in which the original and radically transforming Gospel of Jesus was changed and in which the powerful forces of patriarchy quickly reasserted themselves. These are some of the questions with which I came to the conference myself and some of the concerns that I carried with me, sometimes hardly daring to name. And they are real and important concerns.

But I came away from the consultation deeply persuaded that the teachers and witnesses of the early Church are and should be honoured as our common parents. I continue to recognise that all times in human history are strange to us (even our own if we are honest) and certainly that no times are pure. I do not believe there ever was, or ever will be, within human history, a golden age in which all who speak will do so from pure motives and in uncompromised truth. This applies as much to contemporary feminist discourses as to the earliest of the early Church and it is part of being human. I have learned to celebrate the miracle that holy gifts from God can be mediated through human beings and their words, in all our rootedness and complexity. There is a proper place for all the critiques and suspicions to which we have learned to listen, but there is also a place for a hermeneutic of trust. And I have learned that the treasures of the Holy Spirit can indeed come to us carried in earthen or even cracked vessels. I learn this from the Bible of course, and it is also true of the teachers and witnesses of the early Church, and of the slightly later Church, and of the Church that is yet to be.

I came to see during the consultation in which we shared that learning what was called ‘patristics’ in a cool, beautiful and civilised room at Oxford University seriously misled me. I imagined each of the authors I read in a book-lined study looking out over a garden with lemon trees and warm sun, writing beautiful elegant words by day and then perhaps enjoying wine at night, dressed in clean togas and with full stomachs. I may have learned something about desert monks and pictured them in quiet caves, troubled by little more than dreams. I knew about the work of the Councils, but imagined the delegates sitting neatly and politely as though at an academic conference. Of course I should have realised that this was a completely false picture of the early Church. I learned about persecution and suffering, about martydom and politics, but in another class on another day. Now I see how important it is to connect these things. And I see that what gives much of the writing and witness of the early Church so much authority (even those on opposite sides of an argument) is that these were people able to give them selves to Christ even unto death, and who gave up their own spirits, following Christ, for the sake of handing on the tradition which was dearer to them than their own lives. As Felicitas suffered with Perpetua, she declared her belief and faith that Christ would suffer for her as she for him. The time of the fathers and mothers is a time of suffering, struggling and martyrdom perhaps as much as it is a time for formulating doctrine and it is in this powerful witness to faith that part of the authority of this period lies. Many of the early witnesses were wrestling with the faith while they were hidden in mines or caves, not at all in book-lined studies. And they proclaimed their faith in the arena as much as in the pulpit. They were indeed those who were following Christ, often to death and the way of the cross. Many of them were renegotiating what it means to be human before God, to live and even to die. They often faced ridicule, conflict and death for this new and life-giving faith.

If I may speak very personally and as co-Moderator, it would be true to say that involvement in this project has led me into a larger space, one that perhaps I feared to inhabit, but in which I found a beloved extended family, which we all share. As I engage now with the teachers and witnesses of the early Church, with our common parents, and with questions about the authority of their writings and teachings for faith today, I recognise that I deeply desire the very tradition with which I must also continue to wrestle and struggle. This is about love and community as much as it is about truth. My faith is both tested and enriched by theirs. I cannot be me without them and I do not want to leave the space that they inhabit, though I do not necessarily live in it without discomfort. The questions with which I came, and the critiques which accompanied and haunted me, were not erased by this positive experience, but were given a new context and new partners with whom to engage.

The next step of this project on Tradition and traditions will be one in which we invite each other to step into our own ‘spaces’ and to listen as we explore together sources of authority within the Christian story and family which might come from other places than the early teachers and witnesses. We envisage a second consultation on such themes. I am looking forward to that journey, exploration and discovery. We offer in the report some particular ways in which a rediscovery and re-engagement with the early teachers and witnesses will bring something valuable and precious to our ecumenical conversations and encounters. Our prayer is always that Christians together may journey deeper and more broadly into the inheritance which God gives us and which is a living tradition through the power of the Holy Spirit.