At the centre of the conversation about the future direction of the church is, I think, a core dilemma. On the one hand, the church needs to try new things, to experiment, to be free to explore creative new pathways. Yet on the other hand, the church—like many other institutions—can be bound by tradition and custom and so be an unlikely place from which creative experiments are to emerge.
That thought comes to mind particularly in this week when the church commemorates Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers, bishops, and missionaries of the 9th century. (Their feast day is February 14 and is often, alas, overshadowed by the celebration of two little-known 3rd century Christian martyrs named Valentine.)
Cyril and Methodius were born in modern Greece but as young men became missionaries to what was then known as “Great Moravia” and now overlaps with the modern territory of Serbia, Poland, Hungary, and other neighbouring countries. These were Slavic-speaking countries and the brothers decided on an experimental approach: rather than relying on Christian resources that were written in Latin and Greek, they would produce their own resources in Slavic. Not only did this require them to learn the language, they also had to “reduce” it to writing, inventing an alphabet along the way. (The Cyrillic alphabet, still used in Russia and elsewhere, is named after Cyril.)
Their decision to use Slavic generated great discord in the church. Other bishops insisted that they use only Latin resources, viewing Slavic as too vulgar a language for the works of the church. After a period of significant turmoil, in which Methodius was imprisoned, Pope Adrian II intervened on their behalf and permitted them to continue with their experimental work. By the time the brothers had died, the entire Bible had been translated into Slavic as had the entirety of Byzantine ecclesiastical law. The two brothers are now remembered in the eastern church as “equal to the apostles” and, along with St. Benedict, have been declared co-patron saints of Europe.
In the story of Cyril and Methodius we see this tension between the need for experimentation and the desire to uphold custom. I find myself thinking of the role of Pope Adrian who was a decisive voice in granting permission for the experiment to continue. As people called to religious leadership, this is sometimes our role: to grant permission to others to try new things and support them as they do. In congregations and other ministries, there are talented people who want to boldly venture into new territories. Sometimes all it takes is someone to say to them, “Go for it. I’ve got your back.”
This message was written by College Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.