The drama of the selection of the new pope has captivated the world, and why wouldn’t it? They’ve just selected the first non-European pope in 1300 years. There is the question of how the new pope will deal with the sexual molestation scandals that have rocked the Church. There is, of course, the reality that the new pope will have the ability to shape doctrine for millions of people around the world. But I have to confess that what has captivated my attention is the smoke.
Smoke signals. The conclave of cardinals uses smoke signals to update the world on how the whole voting thing is going. Now, I get why sending up columns of black or white smoke was a sensible form of communication 1000 years ago, but really? Smoke signals? This is 2013. You couldn’t use Twitter? (#stillnopope, #gotone) When is an embrace of the ancient and arcane a lovely part of the grand pageantry and a way to honor a rich history, and when is it just silly?
Of course, churches with a considerably smaller store of history and tradition run up against the same problem of whether and how to allow the modern world into church life. Do we stick with the old, beloved hymns, or do we introduce more contemporary music? Do we need to pay to send the newsletter out on paper, or can we just email it to everyone? Will putting in a screen for multi-media presentations destroy the look of the sanctuary? Do we offer online small groups in place of gatherings in the church basement?
It’s hard to let go of the way things have always been done. And change is not always for the best. Churches have an important role as conservators of language and ritual that have served the human soul across the centuries. There is a depth to the Lord’s Prayer, the words of Jesus repeated across the world and across 2000 years, that is just not likely to be present in the words that your minister pulled out of thin air (aka The Holy Spirit) on Sunday morning. To paraphrase 19th century Unitarian Theodore Parker, some pieces of tradition are transient, while others are permanent.
Of course, in some instances it doesn’t much matter. The Vatican can keep sending up smoke signals for another 1000 years, by which time humans will no doubt have developed instantaneous transmission of information directly into the chip implanted in your brain, and no one will be the worse for it. But what about adherence to the policy of an all-male, celibate priesthood? In the immortal words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” What about clinging to a prejudice against homosexuality, based on the assumptions of a bygone era? Sometimes the failure to recognize what is a transient holdover from an long-ago society carries a devastating cost, both to the institution and to individuals.
In the days to come, we’ll find out what Pope Francis I thinks is permanent and what is transient within the Roman Catholic Church. But all of us will still have to go on deciding for ourselves what in our own lives is precious and must be preserved, and what we must let go of in order to make room for new growth.