My seminary had a church fair where local churches would set up a booth and new seminarians could walk around the room and view church options in order to decide where to visit. It was like any farmer’s market if you simply replace cabbages with congregations. I remember being bothered at the fair and not just by the obvious problems of church as consumer product.
It bugged me that all of the folks at the booths were apologizing for or distancing themselves from their tradition and denomination. Most churches were vaguely named things like, “New Life Community” and “Grace Fellowship” and “Boston Life Church” and when I’d ask what denomination the church was in they’d say, “Well, we’re Baptist but we’re not really Baptist. We don’t care about being Baptist” Or “technically, we’re Methodist but you don’t have to be a Methodist. We’re, you know, just a loving church.” It’s not that this kind of denominational ignorance –and I mean that in the literal sense of ignoring something- is surprising. For certain situations, I think it may even be advisable. In the post Christian context of New England, churches should invite all under the banner of Christ not squabble over denominational distinctives. But this wasn’t a fair for the general public. This was a fair for seminary students.
We were taking systematics and ecclesiology. In my church history classes I was learning about people who literally died to be able to be Baptists. And people who died (or unfortunately killed) to be Presbyterians. And here these folks were talking to wannabe ministers saying, “Well, we’re just a church. We don’t have a tradition.”
A seminary professor of mine used to say, “every one stands somewhere so know where you stand and pivot from there.” What he meant is that all people and all churches are part of a tradition. Even the newest, most individual, most expressive First Emergent Church of the Super Cool Hair comes from a long line of presuppositions and men and women who thought, prayed, sought God, made mistakes, corrected, overcorrected, and lived lives. And by long line I mean thousands of years.
The point is that tradition matters and that you have one whether you know it or not. In the past month a close friend questioned all the ‘ritual’ in my church asking didn’t Jesus die to get rid of all that? But her church, though a ‘low’ church, is just as ritual laden. It comes from a particular Western democratic, individualist tradition. It’s worship is fraught with methods and choices that seem to her a given -the way “true worship” is done, but is no more of a given than using a censor in an Orthodox church or a Quaker silent meeting or a slain in the spirit kind of service or Lessons and Carrols in an Anglican cathedral.
The question is not if we’ll have a tradition but whether we will understand it, know it self-consciously, and embrace it as our own. Doing so helps us to better identify our blind spots, but it also allows us to more fully embrace worship. We recognize how we worship an eternal, omnipresent God in our little traditioned moment of finite (but deeply valuable) worship. Understanding our worshipping tradition invites our imaginations into a story that proceeds us and will continue after us.
That is why we need books about specific traditions of Christian worship. And that’s why I, as an Anglican clergyperson, want to be able to hand someone an accessible book that explains our tradition: our stories, ritual, way of worship, assumptions, blindspots, and beauty. I want to tell them, “I’m so glad you asked. We’re Anglican. Would you like to know what that means?”
That’s part of why we gave to Thomas McKenzie’s Anglican Way project. Because we get asked about Anglicanism a lot. I have a lot to learn about Anglicanism myself. And he is the perfect teacher. He’s our friend and an amazingly gifted preacher. But more importantly, he knows the breadth of his tradition from his lifetime of experience in Anglican churches of all sorts. He’s a clear and inviting writer. And he cares about tradition as a means to more fully worship Jesus. Not the other way around.
So, give him money. Let’s get this book published. I need it. And the church needs it. And the fair at my seminary needs it. So, let’s do this.