Saturday, September 1, 2012


RCL Proper 22B (Thematic)
2 September 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  Deuteronomy 4.1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1.17-27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
            It was during my final year in seminary that Michael Ramsey, the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, came to spend the early months of the autumn term with us.  We eagerly awaited his promised seminar on Anglicanism.  He was, after all, the one-hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury, a friend of Pope Paul VI and the convener of the 1968 Lambeth Conference.

            At some point during the seminar, Bishop Ramsey was giving a very sympathetic treatment of John Calvin’s influence on the Anglican tradition.  Now Calvin was a French, later Swiss, reformer whose teaching and ministry gave rise to what we now know as the Reformed churches, one of which is the Presbyterian Church in Canada.  Now Bishop Ramsey was known to be a ‘high church’ Anglican and the Presbyterians have, at times, been vocal critics of the ‘high church’ tradition.  So we were surprised at his obvious appreciation for some of Calvin’s theological insights.

            One of my classmates asked a question that clearly expressed his (and our) surprise.  Bishop Ramsey responded, “Most great theologians are betrayed by their successors.  Their teaching becomes an ‘-ism’ and their followers ‘-ists’.  Things can quickly go downhill.”

            What Bishop Ramsey said is at the heart of today’s readings from the Scriptures.  Our traditions are meant to be life-giving, but we must be wary of uncritical traditionalism and overly-passionate traditionalists who can rob tradition of its vitality.  Traditionalism and traditionalists run the risk of becoming proponents of an ‘either/or’ fundamentalism.  Life-giving tradition always challenges its followers to walk a path of ‘either/or’ discernment, a balancing act between faithfulness and innovation.

            Let me give you an example.  Over the course of the last fifty years Anglicans in North America have seen two significant changes to our worship life.  The first is the restoration of holy communion as the regular Sunday service.  I will be sixty next year and I can well remember growing up in a congregation whose Sunday worship life was

  • Morning Prayer on the first and third Sundays,
  • Holy Communion on the second and fourth Sundays and
  • Ante-Communion, the Communion Service without those elements necessary for Communion, on the fifth Sunday.

For the majority of Anglicans in Canada and the United States this is no longer true.  Whether the ‘early’ or the ‘later’ service, the eucharist is the norm.

            The second change is the admission of all baptized Christians, regardless of their age, to communion.  When I was a boy, only those people who had been confirmed by a ‘real’ bishop, that is, Anglicans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics, were permitted to receive communion.  Adult members of Protestant churches who regularly received communion were excommunicated and lumped together with Anglican infants and children.  It was a practice that elicited criticism from the mid-nineteenth century on and eventually, by the 1970’s, the bishops of the Anglican churches in Canada and the United States opened communion to all the baptized, regardless of age and regardless of church affiliation.

            The supporters of these two changes, and I am one of them, argued that the Christian tradition challenged Anglican traditional practices.  But what we had not reckoned on was the changing demographics of North American society and our churches.  Fewer and fewer people were being baptized, whether as infants, children or adults.  Many visitors to our churches were among this growing group of unbaptized people.  Our move to the eucharist on every Sunday and our welcoming of all the baptized to the table were merited, but we still ended up excluding some newcomers from full participation in our worship.  What should we do?

            Some congregations have argued that, since Jesus ate with everyone, we should open the table to any one who wanted to receive communion, whether they were baptized or not.  Other congregations have argued that, since communion is a sign of one’s commitment to share in God’s mission begun in Jesus of Nazareth, only those who have committed themselves to this mission through baptism should come to the table.  Still other congregations are uncertain.

            So the Primate has struck a task force to look at this question and I am a member of it.  Later this month I am off to Toronto for a face-to-face meeting with an eye to having some recommendations for our General Synod in July of 2013.  There are many angles to this question, but certainly the chief question is whether hospitality is a more important criterion than commitment to God’s mission in determining who is welcome at the table.  What is tradition and what is traditionalism?

            In the meantime, dear friends, we have our own role to play in the on-going tension between tradition and traditionalism.  In two weeks’ time we celebrate ‘Back to Church’ Sunday and we shall do our best to welcome old friends and new to our worship and to our grounds.  One of the ways we are reaching out is a video, now posted on our website and on Youtube, which I shall be showing you shortly.

            I thinks that the questions and hesitations expressed in the video about being involved in the life of the Christian community we call church are really questions and hesitations arising from the traditionalism that has sometimes obscured the tradition, the way of Jesus which still has much to say to and to offer our society and our culture.

            Let us hope that those who come into our midst find the tradition alive and well here, so that the seeker might find the help, home and hope God offers here and everywhere where the tradition of Jesus is followed.  Amen

1 comment:

Angus Stuart said...

Great sermon, Richard. Regarding who can receive communion: Do this in memory of me. Don't recall Jesus said anything about having to be baptized - or any other condition. Just a thought. (Not that I'm advocating Biblical literalism, of course, but still...)