Why do churches like this one, and so many others today, fight so strenuously over tradition, only to give up their tradition a generation later? The answer is that they aren’t fighting over traditions. They are fighting over accretions. People confuse accretions with traditions, and this confusion leads to worship wars.
Adrian van Kaam, a Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer with whom I studied in the early 1990s, describes a tradition as the body of wisdom and practices that the church passes down from age to age. It connects us to the Holy. It binds us in faith with all who have come before us. According to van Kaam, we cannot be intentional about connecting with the Holy through our practices until we are able to distinguish between what is accretional and what is foundational to a tradition.
In its original meaning, an accretion is a buildup of sediment atop a rock formation or within water or soil. The sediment is not the foundation. It is the dirt, sand, or eroded minerals that accumulate over time. We confuse this junk with a foundation because it often either surrounds a foundation or is infused in it. When it comes to religious and spiritual practices, accretions are practices that build up around a tradition and become the ways a tradition is embodied in any day and age. For example, singing to God in worship is a foundational tradition. The songs we sing, which change from era to era, are the accretions. So singing is foundational, but whether we sing classical hymns, gospel, Taizé chants, a cappella psalms, or contemporary songs, they are all accretions. Instrumental music in church is foundational, but the use of an organ is accretional. While pipe organs date back to the eighth century and have been used in cathedrals and churches for centuries, they really only came into widespread, common use in the United States between 1860 and 1920. Thus, they are part of our musical accretions, not our musical foundations.