But we've always done it this way

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, October 16, 2016

You know what they say about Episcopalians? Do something once and they hate it. Do it twice and they don’t mind it. Do it three times and it’s a cherished tradition. The statement, “But we’ve always done it this way” (or it's closely-related cousin, 'But we've never done it that way') may therefore ring some bells…

The cartoonist and priest Jay Sidebotham, who is actually the head-honcho, nationally, of the Renewal Works program that we are taking part in, has a cartoon with several panels of the Titanic slowly disappearing under the waves with the captions ‘But we’ve… never… done it… that… way…’.

Copyright, Jay Sidebotham

Copyright, Jay Sidebotham


One of the big metaphors that Episcopalians traditionally have used – and for good reason, because it’s so apt – is that of the ‘three-legged-stool. 

A three-legged stool is inherently one of the most stable pieces of furniture you can have - so long as all three legs are present, and of the same dimensions as each other. The three legs of Episcopal belief are:

    Scripture (the Bible),
    Reason (your God-given capacity to think for yourself) and
    Tradition (centuries of evolved accumulated wisdom).

So, when you read the Scriptures, they will only make sense in the light of your own rationality, and the wisdom of those who have preceded us. But, equally, reason in isolation is meaningless - it needs Scripture and Tradition to give it purpose. And so on. So, in using the metaphor – as I believe we always should – tradition in isolation is also meaningless. Which is why the phrase, ‘but we’ve always done it this way’ is so potentially problematic – because the context of reason changes and what might have been the best way of thinking about something at one time might not be so now.


OK. An historical interlude for you. And I believe that I may possibly have told this story before, but I think it certainly bears repeating: the standard railroad gauge in North America (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and English expats (nice fellows that they are) built the American railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

Why did they use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

OK. Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

The standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. And bureaucracies live forever. So, wonder what horse’s ass came up with this system, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

Now the twist to the story.

Whenever you would see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there were those two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These were solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs were made in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit wider, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happened to run through a tunnel in the mountains.

The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is, arguably, still the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s backside.

(Howard Winsett, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center)

For me, this encapsulates so many things about tradition that can be related to our experience as Christians in the Episcopalian tradition. Because while tradition can enslave us, on the other hand, there is also something wonderful about being in a long unbroken line of evolved tradition that builds on the wisdom of previous generations, and where we get to add our generation’s patina, if you will, to the endeavor. 

But first, why all this talk of tradition anyway? Our first reading was from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, in which Paul exhorts Timothy and his congregation to ‘continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it’.

The story about the railroad and the horse’s backside (and it’s not often you get to say that in a sermon) is an interesting one because at one level our response is that it seems slightly laughable and, perhaps, somewhat regressive. Indeed, look up ‘regressive’ in the thesaurus (as I in fact did) and one of its synonyms is ‘traditionalistic’. Tradition is often stoutly defended but is often not seen as the ‘right’ thing. Tradition, to put it more simply, is very often regarded pejoratively.  And that phrase I used a minute ago ‘we’ve always done it this way’ is used even more pejoratively, conjuring up images of people who blindly and unthinkingly do the same things over and over and over again, ad nauseam.  

Sir Isaac Newton, painted by a member of the English School around 1715

Sir Isaac Newton, painted by a member of the English School around 1715

But, to be honest with you, what really hits me with that story about the horse’s backside is something really rather edifying, rather wonderful in fact. It reinforces that the only progress we make is through building on the accomplishments and insights of others. Sure, the space shuttle is wheeled into place with the width of a horse’s ass. But what does that matter? Surely the point is that we cannot do anything without reference to what has gone before, but that what we do with the old knowledge is apply it to the new context. I am also reminded of the words of Sir Isaac Newton, who said, ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants’.

As you can imagine, when clergy get together they do tend to obsess on the role of innovation and development in the Church. When you hear someone suggest that what the Church needs is something radical to shape it up, like some radical new liturgies or some radical new thinking, what do you think? We hear it in the church, and we hear it in the world of business – phrases like ‘radical shake-up’ or ‘radical departure’ and dressed up with some awful jargon. What it is always good to be reminded of when people throw around the word, ‘radical’ (and its obvious really when one thinks about it) is that the word ‘radical’ in fact means ‘getting back to our roots’. So a radical departure in a sense becomes an oxymoron. If it’s to be ‘radical’ it’s anything but a departure from; in fact it’s a return to. 

What is it that Paul, if he were writing to us, instead of Timothy, might be saying that we needed to return to?

A number of things, I suspect. First of all he’d probably be posting his letters as a message on our Facebook walls. Old knowledge, new context. Two more things, among many, perhaps: first, he would reiterate what he said to Timothy, that ‘all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ and then he would add, ‘but notice that I said ‘inspired by God’ and not ‘the literal word of God, so don’t forget to make use of the intelligence and powers of reason that God gave you to apply the essence of the Gospel to today’s situation’.

I think that Paul would probably also reinforce what he said to Timothy: ‘For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires’ and then he would add: ‘and just look at the Church now. People going to church expecting to be entertained and wanting the preacher to make them feel good about themselves and to affirm and justify their actions’. These kinds of actions that can easily lead to us behaving as 'consumers' of religious products more than disciples of Jesus Christ. A symptom of consumerism is, of course, shopping around for the 'perfect' fit, the best 'deal', so to speak. It's a danger.

Having said that, I have some sympathy with people who try out lots of churches – go ‘church shopping’ – wanting to find the place where they will feel at home. We all are inclined to do that. Our personalities are all different. We're all wired differently, and respond to different things in different ways. For example: introverts may find some kinds of worship very distracting. Extroverts may find some kinds of worship very ponderous and labored. But we have to make sure that we are monitoring ourselves, lest ‘feeling at home’ doesn’t just end up being about egocentricity. We live in a very egocentric world. We always have done, but the tide of temptations for it are relentless today more than they used to be. So long as we remember that going to church is primarily not about us, but for others, we'll be on the right path.

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