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Angela Tilby: Traditions matter, for the sake of unity

20 January 2023


SOME years ago, at a talk for a Churches Together annual meeting in west London, an old friend of mine began by asking how many people in his audience began their Christian life in a different church tradition from the one to which they now belonged.

He spoke as a living example of such movement. Raised a Baptist, he had served as a Baptist minister in England and in the Caribbean, before becoming a minister in the United Reformed Church. Then he became an Anglican. Ordination in the Church of England followed, and he is now a bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Each step was an expression of a lifelong exploration of what it meant to be a Reformed pastor. In his URC days, he once visited me when I was recovering from an operation. The prayer that he offered on that occasion seemed to come from the deepest wells of Reformed and Catholic Christianity, unconsciously internalised and gathered up over many years. This is what tradition does, and why it matters. He is a living example of holding it all together. This is why he would never suggest that he was not a true minister of word and sacrament before his episcopal ordination, nor that episcopal ordination was a mere legality. Two things can be true at the same time.

When I was in the BBC Religious Broadcasting Department, I and my colleagues worked with a common-ground ecumenism that was biblical and credal. It involved a general acceptance of a kind of pan-Protestantism, expressed through clergy dress, and recognisable patterns of worship. Where Roman Catholics fitted into this was more problematic, but those who joined our team generously took on the common ethos and contributed to it with grace and sensitivity.

This common ground has now disintegrated. Churches today tend to be dismissive of history and doctrine while obsessed with an interiorised sense of ethos and identity. This is why many dismiss robes and liturgy as unimportant, while being obsessed with gender and sexuality. As my friend put it, we have separated the “outward and visible” from the “inward and spiritual”, and this is fostering a damaging new sectarianism, often based on a sense of grievance.

The most sinister aspect of this is denial. The Church of England seems to get energy and purpose not from common prayer, but by banging a drum on divisive issues. It invests vast sums in new worshipping communities, while trampling over its own rules about ministry and order. These strategies implicitly divide body and spirit, outer and inner, friend and foe. That is not what the Church does or should be. The paradox is that it is our very formalities, our habits, our rules, and our histories that enable us to manage our differences and proclaim the faith afresh in each generation.

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