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Back to the Future: "Retraditioning" in the Church Today by Martin B. Copenhaver

Back to the Future: "Retraditioning" in the Church Today by Martin B. Copenhaver

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Lead article from the Fall 2009 edition of Reflections Magazine published by Yale Divinity School. More information: http://www.yale.edu/reflections
Lead article from the Fall 2009 edition of Reflections Magazine published by Yale Divinity School. More information: http://www.yale.edu/reflections

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Published by: campbell_harmon6178 on Oct 09, 2009
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are instructions about what to wear to the service,and what one might say to comort the bereaved.Then, out o curiosity, I turned to the page thatdeals with the traditions o my denomination. Un-
der the heading o uneral practices there is this
question: “Are there mourning customs to which a
riend who is not a member o the United Church o 
Christ should be sensitive?” And this is the answer:“No. Local, ethnic, and cultural customs are more
relevant than any particular religious tradition o 
the church.”
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That statement, although not entirelyaccurate, was just true enough to make me wince.
And it did not just apply to uneral practices,
either. To be sure, our congregations had traditionsrelated to worship and church lie, but those tradi-
tions were mostly malleable to local custom, thepreerences o the congregation, and the proclivi-
ties o the minister. Wider church traditions couldbe, and oten were, ignored. So, teen years ago,
when I arrived at the congregation I currently serve,
a member asked, “Are we going to do Lent again this
year?” as i that central liturgical season were justanother programmatic choice.
Retraditioning Strategy: Fixed or Fluid?
Today that is beginning to change. In some respects,
the change is dramatic. It is a movement toward
what Diana Butler Bass has described as “retradi-tioning,” through which a congregation adopts, or
reclaims, practices and understandings that have
been part o the wider Christian tradition, but, orsome reason, have been abandoned or diminishedin importance. The deliberate reclaiming o Chris-tian traditions looks now to be a central element o congregational identity and renewal in the twenty-
The husband had been a member o our UnitedChurch o Christ congregation, and his wie was
Jewish. The service was to take place in our church.
I was particularly eager to learn more about Jew-
ish customs around death and mourning so that I
could design a service that incorporated elements o 
both traditions, where appropriate. So, in addition
to consulting with the amily, I also reerred to a
wonderul book,
How to Be a Perfect Stranger 
, which
describes various religious traditions and how onecan participate in them as a guest.
1
The uneral section o the book on Jewish prac-tices is thick and explicit, refecting a rich tradition.
The book describes the
shiva
period in which the
amily sits in mourning or seven days ater the u-
neral and receives guests. It outlines quite explicitly
what guests should say and not say (“it is customary
to sit quietly or talk to other callers, and wait to be
spoken to by the principal mourners”). Then there is
the explanation o the mourners’
kaddish
, the prayer
o praise that mourners repeat or eleven monthsollowing the uneral, as well as what is to be doneon the
yahrzeit
, the anniversary o the death. There
 A ew years ago I was asked to ofciate at a uneral or a young couple who had died in an auto accident.
Back to the Future:“Retraditioning” in the Church Today
by Martin B. Copenhaver
A generation ago, the pulpit was obvi-ously central, both literally and fgurative-ly. Communion was celebrated, at most,once a month, and the elements werebrought to worshipers in the pews. Itwas worship rom the neck up, a largelycerebral engagement with the divine.Today much o that has changed.
 
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orebears would recognize – at least, not our Con-
gregational orebears. At this service, each week we
have: symbols and colors that immediately situate
the worship within the fow o the liturgical year (no
one has to ask i we are “doing Lent this year”); arenewal o baptismal vows, including aspersion o 
worshippers with water rom the baptismal ont;
worshippers o all ages who gather around the table
to receive communion; members o the congrega-tion who line up to light prayer candles; those whostay to walk the labyrinth that is embedded in the
foor. There is a sermon, o course, but it is set
within dynamic liturgical practices in which all o 
the senses are engaged.
One might characterize this development asappropriating traditions rom other parts o the
church, particularly those with a richer liturgical tra-
dition than is evident in many Reormed churches.
And, in ways, that might be an accurate description.
But it is also true that we are learning how to claimwider church traditions as our own. In this sense,“our” tradition reaches back beore the Congrega-tional church in colonial New England, back beoreeven the Protestant Reormation. Yet we considerthis to be “fuid retraditioning” in action: these li-turgical practices are not merely adopted, they are
also adapted to our time and circumstance. It isalso an example o what Becky Garrison (in this
Refections
) calls “an ancient-uture aith,” which
searches the storehouse o Christian tradition or
spiritual treasures, while seeking to interpret thesetraditions aithully into new contexts.
The movement toward retraditioning can be seen
as well in the increased emphasis on distinctive
spiritual practices, as championed in the work o 
theologian Dorothy Bass and the Lilly Endowment’s
Vice President or Religion, Craig Dykstra, and a
growing literature on the subject. The ocus on spiri-
tual practices seems ubiquitous in church lie these
days, so it should be no surprise that it is refected in
these pages as well. Lillian Daniel makes a compel-ling case or recovering the practice o testimony,
and Peter Marty is determined to rescue the practice
o hospitality rom conusion with mere riendli-
ness. Even Kimberly Knight’s description o a churchrst century. Within a wider culture that breathlesslypursues the next new thing, congregations are expe-
riencing new vitality in old spiritual practices.
Bass is careul to distinguish between two orms
o retraditioning that lead in quite dierent direc-
tions, one she terms “xed” and the other “fuid.”She writes, “In its xed orms, retraditioning trans-lates into religious undamentalism, sectarian iso-
lationism, or resistance to all orms o change.”
3
 
Fluid retraditioning is something very dierent, asshe explains:
In its more fuid orms o rejuvenation,
adaptation, and invention, retradition-ing implies reaching back to the past,
identiying practices that were an impor-
tant part o that past, and bringing them
to the present where they can reshape
contemporary lie. In this mode, congre-gations will tend toward refexivity (will-ingness to change through engagement
with tradition and an equal willingness
to change the tradition through engage-ment), refection (thoughtulness aboutpractice and belie), and risk-taking.
4
This fuid orm o retraditioning is a source o 
vitality in so-called “emergent” churches, in an in-creasing number o mainline congregations, and isevident in the congregation I serve.
Engaging All the Senses
Wellesley Congregational Church (UCC) in Wellesley,MA., is perched on a slight rise on the square o this
leay New England town, as i presiding over the
whole village. And, indeed, it is the oldest institu-
tion in Wellesley, actually older than the municipalityitsel. The steeple o the church, the highest point in
town, can seem to pierce the clouds. We worship in
a space that is characterized by the clear windows
and stark, dignied lines o a New England Meeting
House. A generation ago, the pulpit was obviously
central, both literally and guratively. It act, preach-
ing was so central that all other elements o worship
could seem like little more than the opening actsthat warm up the crowd or the main event. Except
when the choir processed or the congregation stood
or a hymn, no one seemed to move. Communion
was celebrated, at most, once a month (in those
days, anything more requent might have been dis-missed as “too Catholic”), and the elements were
brought to worshippers in the pews. It was worship
rom the neck up, a largely cerebral engagement
with the divine.
Today much o that has changed. Our astest
growing worship service is not something that our
Preaching and worship-planning havereadjusted themselves around the Bible.Today sermons are not as likely to wan-der out o earshot o the Biblical text.
 
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