As long as mankind has existed, individuals have lived in close proximity to one another. Their shared, organically-derived customs, developed over time, facilitate life in community. They constitute tradition, a language for which the community of practice is the community itself. The many and interconnected precedents set by custom form the living tradition of a society.
When the citizens of Babel became proud, God punished men by confusing their tongues. The subsequent history of language, as taught by my linguistics professor, who hated the putting on of airs in all forms, is a history of snobbery. There would be no English alphabet and even no English, had not urban centers declared their dialect of Anglo-Saxon to be standard. Ditto for most other languages. But when the tribes kept to themselves, they developed their own ways as needed. Only an outsider would need them explained.
Custom is an organically-generated “language” of behaviors. It ensures that “speakers” can live by the Golden Rule within a community of practice, and connects them to a greater story about their place in the world, the meta-narrative. Manners are just consideration for others, expressed through habits regular enough to set an example for the rest of the community.
At Holy Communion, we are reminded of Christ’s sacrifice, the central event of history, and are nourished by the spiritual food of his most precious Body and Blood. Lectionary readings remind us of the previous chapters of the story that God has written; secular liturgies instruct us in the manner that Christianity is to be lived out in the current chapter of history. Men open doors for women because they are the weaker vessel; donations to charity are made privately because of the publican’s triumph over the Pharisee; and on like that. These rules constitute a secular regula. More on this later.
Custom is already in formation in the digital world. There is no formal set of guidelines for proper cell phone use, but my generation has developed them. For example, it’s now the universal custom to text a friend before calling, unless that friend is known to be free. The rule was born of consideration, as are all rules: We lazy Millennials worked during college. A ring during lecture or work would be rude. People sometimes correct us because they think texting is “annoying,” but it just doesn’t work that way. Bottom line: Much of the time, it’s now proper to text before calling. Period. That rule will likely be written into etiquette books one day (if it hasn’t been already). Propriety is a tradition. Like any other, it must grow into present concerns.
That said, there are lots of other things we never learned to do. Millennial “misbehavior” is usually just ignorance. We don’t forget our manners, we just never learned them for the reason that we never learned how to address a letter: We never needed to, so we weren’t taught. Then we went to college for four years. Any display of self-control or manners caused others to feel judged. After all, they said, even the churchy kids loosen up and have fun when their parents aren’t watching. Why don’t you? If we behaved well, it was social suicide in most circles. Most of us spent four years consciously rejecting most of the standards that functioning people need to meet in real life. And now we binge on Netflix and work from home at “side hustles” and emerge into the light almost unable to interact at all. I don’t criticize this development as a stranger to it.
“…remnant communities must continue to rebuild their meta-narratives, and graft them to present concerns. If they do, they live. If not, they die.”
The consequences of slack standards and a lack of decorum
But we wonder where convertitis comes from! The Golden Rule is not a rule, or a list of rules, but a language, with both a religious and a secular register. The loss of guidelines for behavior is the loss of a grammar, and with it, the words and concepts which the Christian language communicated. As mass culture lowered behavioral standards, this worsened until custom no longer signified anything to a large number of people, and in some cases was transformed into an AL by TRMs. Without a “grammar” for proper behavior, nobody will ever be able to speak our language. This makes people insecure. Some have responded by seeking stability in the Church. But our society is so “dumbed down” that many of those people couldn’t tell the real thing from a counterfeit.
Consider certain hyper-Charismatic churches. Someone I know, also a young person, sought deeper discipleship in such a church, and was lucky to escape. Some of these churches are based in pious little towns where Christianity has hardly been questioned by the token atheist in centuries! And yet these groups throw fits and claim to be “slain in the spirit,” which nobody has ever been. They employ “holiness standards” that would have been Puritan to their own parents, and think they are traditional! They find out that the deacon beats his wife, and blame her for it! Of course, if anybody gets caught doing something beyond the pale, he can just “get saved” again and avoid getting caught next time. And yet these people think – are dead convinced! – that they’ve resurrected an older, purer way of life. The one we never forgot. The one that declares them, among other things, Montanists.
Children who grow up in these environments almost always abandon religion. Where do you think upset feminists come from, anyway? Christian homes with strong, loving father figures? And we’re at fault, because we don’t shout to the hills that time-tested Anglicanism provides stability, sanity and an ethos that wasn’t made up by some Loony Toon! This insanity couldn’t go on if America were still largely Anglican. For all the problems we’d have, fanaticism and made-up customs would not be among them. We know that hysteria is not the love of God, but a lack of composure. We don’t allow zealots to make up “rules.” And everyone should know, no matter how indoctrinated, that one who mistreats women must be dealt with by the laying on of hands. I don’t mean the kind in the Ordinal.
Top-down imposition of a list of rules or “holiness standards” isn’t healthy. Communities just don’t develop that way. Ironically, we need to be more extreme than that. We must advance the churchmanship of catechumen’s manners, or they will either resort to outsiders for help, or make up ALs that communicate a distorted message. Teach Christian doctrine without, say, table manners? As easily explain the Canon of the Mass to one who has never heard of the Last Supper. A Christian revival can only occur if it is accompanied by a revival of all customs that form the Christian language, including healthy, sane habits for everyday life that people are desperately seeking, but nobody teaches. And if we don’t take charge, what takes our place when we’re extinct? The New Apostolic Reformation? Something more terrible still?
We learn language at school. Not only English, but the everyday habits of life and mind that socialize children. Yet the ignorance of our society simply beggars belief. I can’t begin to explain to you how far it has progressed, so I will instead provide some anecdotes.
I’ve been a substitute teacher and a professor’s research assistant. In other words, I’ve faced the challenge of teaching people who know nothing to start with. My students don’t realize that High School Musical is a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.” Many are so culturally illiterate that they don’t know what a “minister” or “denomination” is (they can’t pronounce the last one). They don’t know what a Shakespeare is for, or where to get spare parts.
And that’s just the college students.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my kids. I think that if we care about them, instead of just being angry at how little they know, that teachers can make a difference with them. But the public school system can’t teach anything for fear of lawsuits. If it could, students would still learn just enough to pass class and forget everything over summer. They have no higher duty to be an informed person. No worldview that teachers may legally advocate can compel them to excel.
Further, less than a decade ago, it was possible to dismiss violent students from the classroom. Now, if teachers restrain sadistic bullies whose mental disorders are classified as “disabilities,” we’re potentially guilty of child abuse and discrimination. Increasingly, good teachers are retiring early or committing suicide over this stuff. A lot of people don’t want me to tell you that. Your kids won’t learn how to behave or reason in an environment that toxic. I don’t care how you raise them. For that reason, we must invest in alternative education. Now. If it’s too expensive, so is the survival of Anglicanism. We just have to deal with that.
If you know a public school teacher, thank her for her service. Buy her Starbucks. I respect the profession. But the center didn’t hold.
 The first vernacular translations of Scripture usually helped to standardize local dialects into the languages we know today. Until that point, even people from neighboring villages sometimes had difficulty communicating.
By this point, I hope you get where I’m coming from. Our culture is so destabilized that people are starting to seek answers again, but some of the “vendors” of truth are hacks and charlatans. If we don’t reach inquirers first, some maniac will reach them instead. It’s already happening. The Catholic Church of this land must act.