The Great Tradition of the Church

In Visible Church, Visible Unity, Ola Tjørhom described what he called the Great Tradition of the Church.

  1. The Great Tradition of the Church is ground in the apostolic witness to Christ as ultimately revealed in the Holy Scriptures and living on in the Church’s anamnesis – its memorial – expressed in liturgy, tradition and witness.
  2. The Great Tradition of the Church is defined and shaped by the ecumenical creeds (Nicene, Apostolic and Athanasian) of the ancient and undivided church.
  3. The Great Tradition of the Church is fundamentally catholic in the sense that it aims at incorporating the faith of the church in all its richness across time as well as space.
  4. The Great Tradition of the Church is sacramentally, ecclesiastically and liturgically based, which means that it insists that participation in the fruit of Christ’s sacrifice takes place through word and sacrament in the space of the church.
  5. The Great Tradition of the Church realizes that the people of God are a structured people in the sense that pastoral leaders and shepherds as well as laity are included. (Here he is drawing a distinction between the ministry of the ordained and the ministry of the people).
  6. The Great Tradition of the Church is based on the firm conviction that the Church, in accordance with its nature, is one.
  7. The Great Tradition of the Church holds God’s will to be binding and obligatory for human life in its totality. And it acknowledges its commission to preach God’s law, which is to affirm its responsibility to confront all violations of the goodwill of God the creator with his call to repentant lives renewed to his glory for the benefit of all humankind.
  8. The Great Tradition of the Church places significant weight on the church’s sending, mission and service in the world. Strong social commitment is a hallmark of the Great Tradition.
  9. The Great Tradition of the Church realizes that the dialectic between creation and redemption provides the framework for the church’s mission. The aim of this mission is not only that a number of souls be saved, but that God’s creation will be redeemed. The Church must make room for and provide a voice for the world’s longing for redemption.
  10. The Great Tradition of the Church should never be perceived as a purely nostalgic project. Being firmly fixed in the witness and shape of the ancient church, it also looks both outward to the people and the world it is called to serve, and forward to the time of eschatological fulfillment, when Christ returns in order to bring his work to completion.

For Tjørhom, the Great Tradition is the essential visible unity of the ecumenical church.

Writing in 2004, however, Tjørhom appears to have given up on finding an ecumenical solution. He said that he felt like a foreigner, homeless in his own church, Norwegian Lutheranism. He didn’t believe that his own church was one in which he could live within the Great Tradition. Instead, it had taken the path of what he called “liberal pietism.” Just before the book was published, Tjørhom joined the Catholic (big “C”) Church.

I know how he feels. To be sure, I would offer quibbles, caveats and qualifications to Tjørhom’s program, but the general outline seems about right to me. But while the Great Tradition often gets lost within my own United Methodist Church, I’m not turning to Rome anytime soon.

Where, in practice, does one find this tradition? And how would one live within it? British Methodist Geoffrey Wainwright wrote the foreword to Tjørhom’s book, and envisioned three possibilities:

  1. Remain in your current church and work toward a recovery of the Great Tradition. Wainwright says that this has been his approach. He also identifies Albert Outler, among United Methodists, as one who took this approach.
  2. Join with other “Great Tradition” minded Christians to form new communities of faith and practice. Wainwright doesn’t reject this path outright, but warns that it could easily increase division within the church instead of reducing it.
  3. Join the Catholic or Orthodox Church. This was Tjørhom’s path. Wainwright notes, however, that all traditions fall short in one way or another (so that we need to learn from each other), and that even Protestants can make contributions to the Great Tradition.

Thanks to Chaplain Mike at the Internet Monk for pointing me in Tjørhom’s direction.