On the margins

26 Nov

I’ve spent a lot of the last month grading students’ papers.
Quite often, I learn a lot from these essays and the reflections from which they emerge.
In one essay, the student began with a story—unfortunately no source was cited. A Christian person had the opportunity to meet with the Dalai Lama, and asked the great man whether she should become a Buddhist.
The Dalai Lama replied, ‘No. You should live more deeply into your own tradition.’

Whether the story has any factual basis or not is irrelevant; I think this is wonderful advice.
‘Live more deeply into your own tradition’.

The fact is, so many of us do not know and do not value our own traditions.

Last week, I had a really intriguing experience which pressed home to me something of my own tradition. I recognized something that is so easy to lose, even to betray.

I belong to the non-conformist tradition of Christianity, deriving its roots from the Dissenters and the radical protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries, but drawing inspiration from the earliest Christians who refused to be seconded into the worship of Caesar.
The radical protestants have always declined to accept the support of the public purse, believing that to do so would compromise their right and ability to speak a prophetic word to the established political powers.
As a result, groups such as the Baptists and other ‘free church’ communities were marginalized in Britain.  For example, for most of their history, they were not welcome into the educational institutions. Until the 1870s, it was not possible to graduate from Oxford or Cambridge unless one was an Anglican. Births and baptisms were recorded by the Anglican system, so the children of Dissenters were often not registered at all. They were on the margins.

At present, an educational institution with which our college is affiliated is undergoing a major strategic review, considering its future in relation to the government controlled university sector. Will we, the associated theological institutions in this state, become part of this system and its related bureaucratic controls?
While contemplating these issues, and in dialogue with others who were also reflecting on their own traditions, I realized just how normal it is for me, for my tradition, to be on the margins.
We do not expect to be fed by the public purse. We do not expect to live under the bureaucratic controls of government. We value, deeply and emphatically, the separation of church and state, and if means we are poor, then so be it. That also helps to explain why our communities have, for so much of our history, been vigorous and dynamic. We have to be, to survive!
To live more deeply into my tradition is not about maintaining a ‘stand-off’ from others. Nor is it a kind of inverted pride, over against others who take a different stance, and consider themselves more ‘established’. But it is about clearly recognizing the priority of knowing who we are, and whose we are, and valuing that defining set of relationships. We are a community of faith, defined by discipleship of Jesus Christ and thus communal relationships with each other. These relationships define our freedom: this is what the ‘free church’ is about—not a freedom from controls so much as a freedom for Christ and for each other, in discipleship community. This marginal community, this freedom, is my tradition, and I value it more deeply, even as it is more acutely challenged.

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