The Secker Society



By Gerry T. Neal

Tradition is that which is handed down to us from those who have gone before. In the broadest sense of the term that would include anything that we have received from our predecessors. Ordinarily, however, we use the term in a more limited sense, referring to the non-material part of our heritage: ideas, beliefs, customs, manners, stories, songs, and ways of doing things.

Tradition is vital to human society and civilization. It is the lifeblood of multigenerational social groups such as the family and community. It allows these groups to have collective identities which endure the passing of the generations and gives them far greater meaning than the mere facts of biological descent or proximity in location. It is also the means by which we build upon past achievement. Without tradition, without the ability to pass on our knowledge and experiences to those who come after us, each generation would literally have to re-invent the wheel for itself. Tradition is undervalued and under appreciated in the broader society of our modern civilization and its individualistic culture. Tradition is no less essential, however, for this lack of appreciation.

If tradition is important for the human family, which has a biological basis, how much more important is it for the Christian church, whose generations are connected to each other not through biological descent but by a common faith?

The church’s basic message – the Gospel – is a tradition: it tells how God gave the sinful world a Saviour, His Son Jesus Christ, how that Saviour died on the cross for our sins, and how He rose triumphant over death on the third day. When the church brings that message to the nations of the world in the present we call it evangelism; when she passes it down within herself, from generation to generation through the ages, we call it tradition. They are two sides to the same coin and the one is no less important than the other.

Of course the gospel is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of tradition in connection with the church. We are more likely to think of the church’s traditions in terms of her doctrine, theology, rules, ethics, clerical hierarchy, liturgy, music, prayer, and styles of worship. These things too are part of the church’s tradition.

Some parts of the church’s tradition are of direct divine origin, like the gospel message. The Holy Scriptures are described by the Apostle Paul as having been “given by inspiration of God” (II Tim. 3:16) which is the way the Authorized Version translates a Greek word that literally means “breathed out by God”. They are, in other words, the written Word of God. The Scriptures – which include the gospel message and are direct revelation from God – are the most important part of the church’s tradition: the standard by which the rest of the tradition is to be held accountable.

Other parts of the church’s tradition are the church’s own worshipful, collective response to God’s revelation of Himself, in the Scriptures, and ultimately in Jesus Christ. While it is important that these be subordinate to and in accordance with the Scriptures, it would be a terrible mistake to think that these are themselves unimportant or that the church would be better off without them.

There is a tendency, in some Protestant circles, to dismiss all church traditions that are not found in the Scriptures themselves and to regard Christianity as a private faith: an entirely personal, one-on-one relationship between the individual believer and God. While this is in part an attempt to honour the warning of Jesus in Matthew 15, against using man made tradition to nullify the commandments of God, it is also an accommodation to the individualistic and self obsessed spirit of the age – an accommodation that is itself unscriptural.

Christianity is a corporate as well as a personal faith. According to the Apostle Paul, in baptism believers are united with Christ and with one another by the Holy Spirit, forming a body of which Christ is the head. The church is that body. If the church is the organic body the Scriptures say it is, then its response to God of faith and worship must have a collective as well as a personal element. For this collective worship to be something in which many or all generations of the church share, it must be passed down as tradition.

The Anglican Church’s historical and, well, traditional approach to tradition is more in line with what Jesus actually said. Instead of insisting that all pre-Reformation church tradition that could not be shown to be explicitly commanded or taught in Scriptures be rejected she took the position that all pre-Reformation church tradition should be allowed, subject to the approval of the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities, unless it could be shown to be explicitly forbidden by Scripture or clearly contrary to Biblical doctrine. Taking this position brought her opposition from more radical English Protestants, who wanted a more thorough reformation, and it is in defending her position against both these Puritans and the papal doctrines she rejected as unscriptural that the core elements of her own Anglican tradition were developed.

This brings us to another important distinction regarding church tradition. Some church traditions belong to the entire Christian church. Others belong to specific churches in a particular place. This distinction is based on Scriptural usage. Sometimes the New Testament refers to a particular church, identifying it by the city such as Corinth or the region such as Galatia, in which it is located. Other times it refers to the church as the organized body of Christ, wherever it may be found. As early as Ignatius of Antioch (disciple of the Apostle John), writing in the first decades of the second century, the Greek word katholikos – from which our equivalent "catholic" is derived – was used to identify the church, when the entire church was meant. The word means universal or, perhaps more precisely, whole.

Those parts of church tradition which are of direct divine origin belong to the church as a whole, to the catholic tradition. Even those epistles in the New Testament addressed to particular churches, such as the churches in Philippi or Ephesus, were included in the canon of the New Testament because their message was regarded as inspired revelation to the catholic church.

The parts of church tradition which were formulated by the church in response to divine revelation are divided between the catholic tradition and local traditions. The truly ecumenical councils, i.e., those which represented and speak with the authority of the undivided, early catholic church, which defined orthodox Trinitiarian and Christological doctrine and condemned such heresies as Arianism, Sabellianism, Apollonarianism, and Nestorianism – these belong to the catholic tradition. So do the ecumenical Creeds, Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian, in which the faith of the catholic church is confessed. The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, on the other hand, belong to – and are binding on – the Anglican Church alone.

The Anglican Church, meaning the Church of England and her sister churches in the worldwide Anglican Communion, can claim both the catholic tradition and her own particular tradition, as her patrimony. A patrimony is an estate inherited from one’s father or ancestors. It is helpful to think of a church’s heritage of tradition in such terms because it suggests the idea of a legacy, the present management of which we are entrusted with as stewards, for the sake of those to come after us.

To say that the Anglican Church can claim both the catholic and the Anglican traditions as her patrimony ought to be a truism, something so obvious that it goes without saying. Furthermore, every church ought to be able to make the same claim, with the appropriate local tradition substituted. Unfortunately, "what ought to be" and "what is", are seldom the same thing in this world. The communion of the various churches within the catholic church has been broken several times over the centuries. When the Greek and Latin churches excommunicated each other in the eleventh century, each side claimed the whole of the catholic tradition for herself. When the Reformation took place in the sixteenth century, the church of Rome again claimed the catholic tradition exclusively for herself and those churches in communion with her while the more radical Protestants renounced their claim to the catholic tradition altogether.

The Church of England did not renounce her claim to the catholic tradition in the Reformation, nor can Rome legitimately deny her claim. Her fellowship with the church of Rome was broken when, in the Acts of Supremacy of 1534 and 1559, the civil authorities of England removed her from the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome. In doing so, they reformed the church that already existed in England. They did not start up a new church from scratch. The Church of England, after the Acts of Supremacy, remained in organic and organizational continuity, with the church she had been while under the papal jurisdiction before the Reformation, and with the early, undivided, catholic church. Nineteenth century High churchman William Palmer gave the perfect illustration of the relationship between the early, catholic church and the Anglican Church when he described the former as the tree of which the latter is a branch. This makes her claim on the catholic tradition as part of her patrimony somewhat more legitimate than most other Protestant churches, which cannot claim the same degree of organic continuity.

Whatever else might be said about the circumstances in which the communion between Canterbury and Rome was dissolved, they allowed this organic continuity to be preserved. Another positive consequence of the same circumstances was the more conservative character of the English Reformation in comparison with its continental counterpart. The work of the men like Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker who actually reformed the church, developed her English language liturgy and drew up her Articles of Religion, could be described as a process of refinement which made that which was precious in the catholic tradition shine all the brighter for the removal of impurities.

In the Articles of Religion the Pauline and Protestant doctrine of justification is affirmed and such blatantly unscriptural Roman doctrines as supererogatory works are condemned. Before this, however, the essential content of the catholic faith is affirmed in the first five articles and the classical forms in which that faith was confessed, the three Creeds are affirmed in the eighth.

It is the Book of Common Prayer, however, that is the sterling example of how the English Reformers applied Protestant principles to produce a refined version of the catholic tradition that is distinctly Anglican. It is a compilation of the various essential elements of the catholic tradition of liturgy and ritual. The calendar of the liturgical year, the two main liturgies of the divine office and the Eucharistic sacrament, the Psalter, are all there, along with the rites for other services such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The order for Holy Communion follows the traditional structure in which the liturgy of the Word precedes the liturgy of the Eucharist and includes Cranmer’s translations of all five of the Ordinaries. Everything is refined in accordance with the Reformation principle of the primacy of Scripture explained by Cranmer in the preface to the original 1549 edition. The seven hours of the divine office, for example, are condensed into Morning and Evening Prayer, with a lesson guide which, if the rubrics prescribing that the office be said daily were followed, would take the church through the Scriptures yearly, and the Psalter monthly.

The result is a liturgy which is respectful of tradition but emphasizes the supremacy of Scripture. Like the church for which it was composed, it is both catholic and reformed and is thus an indispensable element of the patrimony of the Anglican Church.

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