Tradition: What to pass on, and what to let go

We can think of tradition as something to cling to, or as something that holds us back. But from the perspective of the church, tradition is a living stream that relates us to our Christian forbears and steadies us for what lies ahead.

Literally, tradition means what is handed on. This is a process we all participate in, as we deliver what we have learned as followers of Jesus to those who are going to take our place in the future. This is a tricky project in a world that is changing so quickly. The church no longer enjoys automatic credibility in the public realm, and is itself changing so quickly that it is hard to know what to pass on and what to let die on our watch. And even the truths we wish to convey may require a fresh look and a new approach.

Here are three traditions that run deep in our church, each of which merits renewed attention.

The Book of Common Prayer

As the Episcopal Church begins to contemplate a revision of its Prayer Book, it is worth considering why our tradition values an element of uniformity in its worship. In some ways uniformity goes against the grain of American culture, with all its emphasis on individualism and autonomy. But Anglicanism has always insisted that following Jesus entails the acceptance of life together in Christ, even when we disagree. That’s why the breaking away of certain groups of Episcopalians over the ordination of women and, most recently, the ordination of openly LGBTQ persons, was so shocking. Many of us thought that our commitment to a common life would be stronger than the temptation to jump ship. I admire the bishops in our midst who have not agreed with these changes but have not left. At our best, we are a church that maintains unity even when unity is strained.

I serve on the church’s Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, which has been charged with considering possible paths toward a revision of the Prayer Book. In that capacity I have received a lot of email expressing fear that a church wide dialogue about revision will simply fuel more division. That is an understandable fear, but I believe our tradition’s grounding in common prayer (and to fellowship especially in disagreement) means we can debate how we worship, and in so doing can revitalize our commitment to common prayer.

Apostolic Succession

This is a teaching central to Anglicanism, but seldom spoken of these days. According to this teaching, duly consecrated bishops maintain an unbroken line of descent from the apostles. What does this really mean?

It is hard to say whether bishops constituted a distinct order of ministry to begin with. “Bishop” (in Greek, episkopos) simply means overseer or supervisor, and in the New Testament episkopos and presbyter (Greek for the elder, from which we get the word “priest”) seem to be interchangeable terms. But by the second century episcopacy had emerged as a distinct ministry of care for all the ministries of the local flock.

Then, as the church continued to spread rapidly across the Roman Empire and beyond, bishops came to be seen as a link between the local church and the wider body. Thus, apart from their role as leaders in the local community, they were expected to embody the local community’s connection to the universal church and thus its fidelity to the Gospel. So the office of bishop became associated with guardianship of the faith and the preservation of Christian unity.

This is why, very early on, it required three bishops to ordain a new bishop: this rule helped to ensure that the new bishop was accountable to something larger than the local diocese. (To this day this is true.) The idea was that, if a bishop were ordained in a way that was accountable to the larger church, it would ensure continuity of sound teaching and the strengthening of bonds across regional divides. This was the whole point of “apostolic succession,” as it came to be called: a church committed to being connected to its origins and therefore accountable to the whole body of Christ. This is what being Episcopalian is all about: not being special, not being separate, but being about the unity that all Christians are called to in Jesus Christ.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral

In 1886 the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church wrote an open letter to all Christians, professing their willingness to unite with them, forsaking all denominational traditions if these four principles (which they considered to be essential to the Christian tradition) were adhered to: (a) the authority of the Old and New Testaments; (b) the Nicene Creed; (c) baptism and holy Eucharist and (d) the historic episcopate, as locally adapted. This statement was affirmed two years later by the Lambeth Conference (a worldwide meeting of Anglican bishops convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury). Both documents are printed in the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 876-878.

This courageous and visionary call to unity is a prime example of what it means to be truly traditional. On the one hand, we must be clear about what has been handed down to us, and out of that treasure, what is essential and what is not. That is to say, we must be fierce guardians of absolute truth, and willing forsakers of what is not absolute, even if it means shedding cherished parts of our identity. That is scary and hard. It is no wonder that we have not yet been able to follow through with what we said in 1886.

The difficulty is not simply our fear of loss if we open ourselves fully to traditions that differ from our own. It is also our perennial hesitancy to claim the traditions and teachings that bind us most deeply to Jesus and to the universal church. The authors of the Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral dove deep for their own time, naming the core of the Christian tradition as they saw it. Can we do the same? On that bedrock we can dare to change.