What affection we have for ‘Mum, Mum, Mum’* on Mothering Sunday. We know we shouldn’t, but we love it. We recognise the song’s aesthetic flaws. But it’s an SMV tradition. And yet if a clergyman or preacher came along and said they were a traditionalist, we might immediately suspect them. A fuddy-duddy, someone stuck in the past, unwilling to break out of an antique theological mould, a Biblicist. St Mary’s wants to be radical, not traditionalist. But even the use of the word radical is tricky since it means going back to the roots. So where’s the rub?
The roots of Christianity are in gospel simplicity: those crisp pericopes of pared down description, consider the lilies of the field, or the concise parable of the Good Samaritan, like a novel in a single paragraph, unravelling the meaning of life. Tradition has accrued, sometimes like dust, on the ancient roots and it can both enlighten and obscure.
In Oxford’s high turnover society, where undergraduates are here for three years and visiting scholars bring their families for a short time, tradition can be simply what happened last year and we should be wary. I was once a governor of Bishop Stopford’s School in Enfield, an over-glazed 1970’s functional building, where the first headmaster had a taste for instant tradition and when the school was opened he introduced a ‘four-fold salute’: GLORIA DEO, VIVAT REGINA, PROCEDAT LUDUS, FLOREAT CHAMAEMELUM. Glory to God! Long live the Queen! Let the School advance! Let the camomile flourish! He claimed the school had been built on camomile fields and made the plant the school’s emblem, alluding to Falstaff’s line in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I: ‘The camomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows.’ I hope that wasn’t his policy towards the children.
So traditions come and go and in an ideal world the best ones stick. You needn’t be too literalistic about them either. We speak of belonging to the Western Catholic tradition, or the Lutheran tradition, or the Anglican tradition. And those are places where we might locate ourselves, in broad terms. So we could say, this is the paradigm within which I am trying to work out my faith - what I believe, what I think, and how I should be. There is room for manoeuvre. I haven’t got to swallow a whole package. Indeed these traditions don’t really offer a univocal, watertight view on belief or ethics anyway. Tradition is not a prison but a part of our liberation.
*This is a song written for St Mary the Virgin, Oxford about ten years ago - 'Mum, Mum, Mum, we lu, uv, you'. You can just imagine it. There's also quite a lot of standing up and sitting down during the singing of it.