3 min read

When tradition deserves a break

Upsetting a convention caused uproar, so is it right to break with tradition?

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A robed and seated man, in a speaker's chair talks and gesticulates.
The House of Common's Speaker.
Parliament TV.

“Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since a speaker of the Commons stood down from its high chair with dignity and to applause.” Thus wrote Andrew Rawnsley in the Guardian this Sunday. Last week the House of Commons erupted. An unedifying lava-spew of recrimination and anger flowed through the corridors of power as the Speaker of the House, The Right Honourable Sir Lindsay Hoyle, broke parliamentary convention to the seeming benefit of the Labour Party. Memories of his predecessors’ playing fast-and-loose with Parliamentary procedure pushed buttons. The SNP’s Gaelic fury founded a flurry of calls for the Speaker to step-down, and it was not until he gave a near-tearful apology that some calm seemed to be restored. Opponents cried foul - ‘how dare he upend the conventions of the House!?’ - while supporters jumped to his aid - ‘he was just trying to protect MPs from further harassment over the Israel-Gaza debate!’ - and everyone was unhappy…  

The technicalities of this convention (that multiple amendments are not called upon for voting during an Opposition Day Debate) are less interesting to me than the fact that the convention exists. ‘Convention’ is another word for ‘tradition’. Traditions are important. Our famously ‘unwritten’ Constitution relies heavily on tradition, especially for the smooth running of Parliament. Rather than having the process of legislating and governing micro-managed with procedural minutiae, the Commons operate on the basis of nurturing and conforming to its traditions. In essence, the House of Commons operates on the basis of respect - by respecting the traditions of the House, Parliamentarians grow to respect each other as fellow followers of tradition. Exterior action builds-up interior disposition. Practice influences sentiment. 

At least, that’s my romantic take on it. Traditions give some coherence to a society - from the society of elected MPs right through the society of a nation - and allow it to flourish. Traditions bind people together. Traditions unite. You may come from a different part of the country than your neighbour, have different family values, have a different religion or skin-colour or education-level, etc…but you can be united in the traditions you follow. Whether it’s having a roast on a Sunday, going to a Carol Service in December, singing Three Lions in a World Cup year, the traditions you share despite all other differences give you a common cause with those around you. 

This is not to say that traditions can’t have a dark side. Some traditions can alienate guests. Some traditions can stifle creativity and innovation. Some traditions can be maintained purely to bamboozle the uninitiated for the benefit of those in the know. In extremis, some traditions can lead to groupthink, to the othering of those who don’t share them, to jingoism and hatred; St Paul wrote that it was the zeal for the traditions of his fathers than led him to persecute the first Christians. Traditions should never be taken for granted or left unexamined. Traditions are roses - beautiful and sweet-smelling, but always in need of pruning. But let the gardener prune carefully - you want some roses left for the garden. 

When the scribes and Pharisees try to trick and trap Jesus with impossible thought experiments, they often quote their traditions. Jesus always wins the debate. He wins in the face of their traditionalism. He wins by being a radical. RADICAL! His radicalism is not marked by the abandonment of the concept of tradition, but by deep respect for it. The Sermon on the Mount is probably the most famous speech about the importance of tradition - “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…But I say to you…” - keeping the traditions of God in the face of the self-serving traditions of men. The scribes and the Pharisees are the White Witch to Jesus’ Aslan: ‘“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time.”’ 

Not every critic last week will have genuinely cared about the traditions of the House of Commons. Many will have mouthed the words but would have happily stood by if the breaking of convention benefited them. Nevertheless, we must take tradition, and it’s breaking, seriously. Traditions nurtures the relationships of MPs. Traditions nurture the relationships of neighbours and fellow citizens. Traditions nurture relationship with God, as the traditional rhythms of religious practice and Church seasons help order prayer and worship. Perhaps we’ll look back on the upturning of this particular Commons tradition and recognise it as the right rejection of an outdated convention…but let's be cautious. Traditions are important. Break them with care. 

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?