Common threads through traditions

By Catherine Hoffman
New Times Editor & Communications Officer

Posted in Faith

“A part of me wants to be cheeky and quote Winston Churchill: ‘Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep. Without innovation, it is a corpse’.”

When asked to speak on the topic of tradition within the Uniting Church, Rev Matthew Stuart is quick to realise its complexities – and to make a joke.

Raised in the Anglican tradition, Matthew left church for a time before turning to the Uniting Church. He has been attending for approximately the last 15 years, and has been ordained for five of those. His first placement was at Newland Memorial Church, a Uniting congregation that traces its roots back to 1839.

During his time in the Uniting Church, Matthew has also worked in defence – this is his 18th year, with 15 years spent in the army reserves before becoming a defence chaplain.

Steeped in the practices of the Australian Defence Force, in addition to those of the Anglican and Uniting denominations, Matthew has had plenty of time to think about the role of tradition and its connection to his own faith.

“We often use the word ‘tradition’ to refer just to worship style, with ‘contemporary’ styles of service set up in opposition. But every church is liturgical, and every church, no matter how old, has tradition.

“For me, tradition is the language we use to tell our story.”

While Matthew recognises the appeal of more “contemporary” or charismatic styles of worship, particularly the use of everyday language, he finds a deeper personal connection with more traditional styles.

“I refer to myself as someone who prefers high liturgy – responsive prayers, services that keep to clear sections. They remind me that I belong to a tradition bigger than me, to the body of Christ,” he says.

“The language might not be what we’re used to using or hearing in our daily lives, but I see this as a positive thing – people are made to really explore the meaning of the language used, allowing them to reflect on their faith at an intellectual level as well as a spiritual one.”

A high liturgical style of service is particularly suited to Matthew’s work as a defence chaplain. While he does not have a chapel on base, he frequently provides space for worship when with a unit on deployment. These services will be open to all people within the unit, meaning they are usually ecumenical and sometimes multi-faith.

“I’ve found that a traditional style is often more inclusive in this situation,” Matthew says. “There is common language across denominations within high liturgy, allowing more people to connect with the worship being delivered and their own faith.”

Many churches have moved away from “high church” styles of worship in recent years, including within the Uniting Church. This change has often been a conscious move, arising from the belief that more conversational language and high energy music will appeal more to younger generations. While this is certainly true in many cases, many young people are being drawn back to more traditional styles.

“I think we’re seeing this shift because our world is changing so rapidly. High church styles of service have stood the test of the time and have a strong connection to the church’s history. When participating in these services, there’s a sense of joining a larger, longer story,” Matthew reflects.

“We are people of the book. We don’t need to recreate the book – it has stayed true.”

This article first appeared in the June 2015 edition of New Times.


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