Tradition vs. Traditionalism, May Fete Style

With much anticipation, St. Unction’s Episcopal Church called a new priest. At his first Sunday Eucharist, when it was time for the Prayers of the People, half the congregation stood up and the other half knelt. The half who were standing started yelling at those who were kneeling to stand up, and the ones who were kneeling yelled even more loudly at the ones who were standing to drop to their knees.  Then the standing parishioners began singing, “Stand up, stand up for Jesus,” while the kneeling parishioners drowned them out with a chorus of “Let us break bread together on our knees.”  The new rector was flabbergasted.  He didn’t know what to do. After church, his senior warden suggested he consult the ninety-eight-year-old patriarch of the parish for advice. As the rector drove to the older man’s home, he hoped the patriarch would be able to tell him what the parish’s actual cherished tradition was.  When the rector arrived, the older man invited him in and served coffee, while the rector asked, “Is it St. Unction tradition to stand during the Prayers of the People?”

The older man answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”

Ah!  The rector was finally getting somewhere.  He pursued, “Then the tradition must be to kneel during the prayers.”  The old man answered, “No, that is not the tradition either.”  The exasperated rector then lamented, “But the congregation yells all the time, fighting over whether they should kneel or stand…”

The old man interrupted, exclaiming, “That is the tradition!”[i]

Kneeling vs. Standing

Kneeling vs. Standing: An Episcopal Church battle royale

Theologian Jaroslav Pelikan wisely said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.  Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, and I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives Tradition such a bad name.”[ii]

The distinction is subtle but crucial.  Did you catch it?  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.  Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”  Well, of all days at Christ Church Cathedral, May Fete is a day about our own tradition, so we’d better be clear about with which of these two we’re concerned: tradition or traditionalism.

First, traditionalism.  What is it?  It is what I usually call “dead custom,” those things we do simply because we’ve always done them.  Their primary purpose is to grant us the illusion that the world around us is static and unchanging, against the grain of the rest of our experience which demonstrates to us so clearly that the world is always in rapid flux.  The pace of change in our world gives us—as it has always given people—existential whiplash.  It discomfits and worries us, and we seek the comfort of traditionalism like the warm blanket we could always trust for comfort when we were children.  In its benign form, traditionalism often takes shape as gentle nostalgia.  But in its corrosive form it clings to past things with a myopic grip, saying to the changing world outside, “No, no, no!”  In the church, traditionalism closes the circle of grace to outsiders for fear that they might change us.  Traditionalism turns the church into merely a museum, or perhaps a mausoleum.  That’s why Jaroslav Pelikan calls traditionalism “the dead faith of the living.”

But is that what May Fete is about?  Not by a long shot!  May Fete is not traditionalism; it is tradition, and Jaroslav Pelikan says that tradition is the living faith of the dead.  Tradition is the remembrance and reenactment of the strength, and courage, and faith of those saints who have gone before us, so that we can be informed and inspired by them to meet our own challenges.  Tradition is reading today’s very Gospel text and asking, “How were our ancestors faithful to this charge?  And how can we remember and emulate them?”

Today Jesus says to us in John’s Gospel, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Christ Church Cathedral old photo (1936)

The present Christ Church Cathedral was built in 1893, the year of the Great Panic and subsequent economic depression.

So what was in the backdrop of these words in the 1890s, when the people of Christ Episcopal Church decided to launch a spring festival, to celebrate youth, fecundity, joy, and faith?  Why did the parishioners of this place decide that May Fete was the way to demonstrate that they were neither troubled nor afraid, that they, indeed, loved their God and desired nothing more than to keep God’s good word?

In 1892, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of American made the first revision of its Book of Common Prayer since the original American Prayer Book was issued in 1789.  We are, of course, experiencing the liturgy from that Prayer Book this very morning.  By itself, as many here will recall from 1979, a Prayer Book revision can be a traumatic experience for Episcopalians.  All indications are that Christ Church weathered the 1892 Prayer Book without missing a beat, but scarcely had the new Prayer Book been introduced than an event far from Houston affected local life immensely.

In the immediate prior years, Argentinian national bonds had been all the rage for American investors, but in 1890 Argentina’s wheat crop failed, and an ominous run on American banks followed.  Three years later, in 1893, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad failed, and much more extensive bank runs resulted.  Hundreds of banks collapsed, the stock market tanked, and European investors pulled their gold from the U.S. system.  Though it is little remembered today, in 1893 the United States entered a severe economic depression that lasted four years.[iii]  In the wake of our own Great Recession of 2008-2009, and with the price of oil languishing at $45 per barrel, try to imagine ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, but with our present anxiety magnified exponentially, as credit froze, businesses failed, and the good people of Houston were impotent to do anything about it.


February 6, 1893 New York Times, headlining the financial crisis

Let me add this: The population of Houston in 1890 was twenty-seven thousand.  Around that same time, Easter services at Christ Church attracted over fifteen hundred communicants.  Consider that proportion: Christ Episcopal Church was easily the Lakewood of the day!  In the couple of years before the depression of 1893, the church fathers at Christ Church planned for the future.  They built a new parish house and began construction on the cloister to connect the parish house with the church.  But when the contractor began to attach the cloister and the church, the east wall of the church collapsed, rendering the entire church structurally unsound.  With no other choices, the vestry rebuilt the whole thing, finished in that inauspicious year of 1893, which is the beautiful and sacred space in which we now worship.

As soon as the depression hit, it became obvious that the timing couldn’t have been worse.  Even after pledging sacrificially, which they did, parishioners were unable raise the building funds from among themselves, and Bishop Kinsolving made it known that he was opposed to debt.  Ultimately, Christ Church was left with no choice.  They were forced to take out a loan of $20,000 in gold coin—that’s more than half a million in today’s dollars—at a rate of 8%, with the balloon at the end of five years.  Daily operating finances became so tight that beloved sexton Friday Carr saw his pay cut from $40 per month to $30.[iv]

Aunt Fairy photo(2)

My Great Aunt Fairy and Great Uncle John Hunter Thompson on the way to May Fete, c. 1910.  (My grandfather wouldn’t be born until 1913.)

Days were dark, and there was no sign of the dawn.  How would the people of Christ Church respond?  Would they cower in fear?  Would their tongues forget to utter words of God’s love and grace and instead speak through their anxiety?  Well, at some point along the way, in those very years of depression, someone (almost certainly from the Ladies Parish Guild) suggested that the best response, the faithful response, the response that reminded both Christ Church and the Houston community of which Christ Church was the very social center that the God of resurrection still made God’s home with them in the midst of the city, was to have a party, a grand festival.  In the face of despair, Christ Church would celebrate.   And so it was that Friday Carr erected the Maypole for the first time, the parish children danced and played, and the adults anticipated the bright future even though it was beyond their immediate horizon.   For us, today, what could be more inspiring?

These days we tell ourselves all the time that God is in the midst of the city.  And today we enact the tradition, the living faith of our ancestors, that has proclaimed this truth to Houston for one hundred twenty years.  As today we worship and play as they did, let not our hearts be troubled.  Allow us instead to love the Lord and keep God’s word as faithfully as they did, celebrating joy, spring, and the gift of resurrection.


[i] Adapted from a joke found at

[ii] Quoted in Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, pg. xviii.


[iv] Johnson, Marguerite.  A Happy Worldly Abode: Christ Church Cathedral 1839-1964, 122-127.

One thought on “Tradition vs. Traditionalism, May Fete Style

  1. This was a good one. I kneel because not only it is an Episcopal tradition, but is a leveling act. No matter how we come to worship from our long week, we are all one in the eyes of God. Kneeling together in prayer feels right but I do not condemn those who choose to stand.

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