G. K. Chesterton is said to be the best writer never to have written a masterpiece. He can be enormously fun to read. Yet he was forever crafting memorable lines that have the ring of truth but that aren’t, in fact, true. A case in point: his contention that tradition must be respected because it is “the democracy of the dead.”
There are certainly arguments to be made for tradition, but this one doesn’t bear much scrutiny. It should be remembered that the people who established our traditions were not themselves traditionalists; they were the Young Turks who went against the status quo in their day. And those who followed in their footsteps may have done so because circumstances hadn’t changed. The graveyard vote can only cite historical precedent in support of its position because its denizens are themselves consigned to history. They cannot take current circumstances into account, nor do they have to live with the consequences of any vote cast in their name.
One might imagine how the sparks would fly if Chesterton were locked in a room with Thomas Jefferson, who believed a revolution every 20 years or so was “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” In a letter written to James Madison when Jefferson was an American emissary in Paris during the French Revolution, he declared that the earth belongs to the living and “the dead have neither powers nor right over it.”
As a Christian apologist, Chesterton was the truest of all true believers, a convert. In every other area of life, he was adept at picking apart the dogmas of the age; in this one he was predisposed to accept the dogmas of the church as the received wisdom of the ages.
Although raised in the Episcopal Church myself and temperamentally inclined to pick apart its dogmas, I can appreciate Chesterton’s position. Like many people, I wandered away from the church as a teenager and returned as an adult. However, the church I rejoined was not the same one I left. The Book of Common Prayer, one of the glories of the Anglican tradition, had been extensively revised in the meantime, which did not sit well with many traditionalists – nor, for that matter, with me. Intellectually, I agreed with most of the changes, but I missed the sonorous language of the old prayer book, which had been in continuous use in various versions since the 16th century. I felt like I had returned home after a long absence, only to discover that the furniture had been rearranged in my absence.
The revisions in the prayer book were merely the prelude to a series of changes in the Episcopal Church that have wrought serious dissension within its ranks and have raised the prospect of schism within the worldwide Anglican Communion. The ink was hardly dry on the new prayer book when Episcopalians, after much wrangling, approved the ordination of women. Conservatives objected that women were unsuited for the priesthood because they did not conform to Christ’s image by virtue of their gender. The last straw, as far as they were concerned, was the consecration of an openly gay bishop in seeming violation of scriptures condemning homosexuality. Each of these steps was approved by the church’s governing body without regard for the dead, who had no vote and who presumably are still turning over in their graves.
When people choose sides in such matters, they tend to argue for the past or for the future. The reality, of course, is that the circumstances that prevailed in the past may no longer apply, and the future we envision may never materialize. This is something Chesterton himself could appreciate, at least in the political realm. “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives,” he once quipped. “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” In the end, we are thrown back on the present, which may never enter the discussion at all, even though it will ultimately determine the outcome. We are inescapably products of our own time, which embraces both our understanding of the past and our expectations for the future. And even though we may have our eye fixed firmly on where we are going or where we have been, the present is the only ground on which we can stand.