Tradition is the democracy of the dead

From the latest weekly letter from Anglicans Online:

We have watched with interest and not a little confusion as Anglican parishes, dioceses and perhaps provinces in some parts of the world have appeared to adopt a plebiscite-based model of church affiliation in recent years. We would like to see all people able to worship freely according to their conscience. We also understand that church history shows us an important model of government and decision-making in the conciliar process during which bishops cast votes for or against critical doctrinal definitions. None of this adds up to a strong case that plebiscites are the normal decision-making process for breaking or establishing relationships of ecclesial communion, and this is because we live in a tradition that accepts and is guided by Tradition. In G.K. Chesterton’s memorable words, ‘Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. […] Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’ We search in vain for examples of plebiscites in church history; as far as we know there are none to be found, but we hope you will let us know about them if you know better.

Chesterton’s famous quote cuts in many directions, but it reminds us that the churches in which we worship, and the dioceses and provinces in which they are situated, are things we have received in trust and hope to pass on in trust. Aside from the absence of an impartial monitor for the plebiscite-like votes that have taken place of late, we also lack the crucial participation of that ‘most obscure of all classes’ and an honest commitment to honour legitimate outcomes. Even taking all these things into account, we hold onto hope that there may be some way of resolving what seem from our limited perspective like intractable problems and disagreements. The knowledge that plebiscites are likely not a route to such a solution does not mean that there can be no solution.

Read it all here. More about the quote from Chesterton at the American Chesterton Society. The quote comes from chapter 4 of his Orthodoxy.

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