By the late 1600s, ship owners and merchants began to gather regularly at Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop in London to discuss the latest shipping news. They would talk about the ships leaving port, and those overdue to return. And they would plan new ventures. To protect these ventures, various individuals would put up insurance on the voyage, signing their name under the amount they were willing to back. This is where the insurance term “underwriter” comes from, and where the famous insurance company Lloyd's of London got its start.
Since it’s been in operation for over 300 years, Lloyd's of London has some long-standing traditions. We like to think of business as pragmatic, and not given to holding on to unproductive practices, but even in the business world, there’s tradition. Since the late 1700s, Lloyd's has been recording the ships they’ve paid claims on in their Loss Book—and even today those losses are written in the pages of the book by hand, with a white feather pen. It contains the record of the 1912 loss of the Titanic, which Lloyd's had insured. The book—which is actually a collection of volumes—is on display in the company’s modern steel and concrete London offices, open to the day’s date one hundred years prior. It sits open next to another piece of company history, the Lutine Bell. The bell was recovered from another insured wreck that went down in 1799. It would be rung when news of an overdue ship reached the office—one ring for a loss, and two for a safe return.
Not being the business of underwriting shipping concerns, I find these traditions fascinating, but not very meaningful. That’s the thing about traditions—they have the most meaning for those that keep them. It’s important for the people associated with Lloyd's of London to make sure there are white feather pens available for the company clerk to record losses in the Loss Book. Even though there’s a more detailed and useful account of any incident recorded and filed electronically, it’s still significant for Lloyds to hold to this tradition. Visitors find it quaint, but for the employees and the syndicates of Lloyd's, it’s a lot more important than that.
When those first Christians gathered in the temple courts after Pentecost, when they broke bread together in each other’s homes, and when the Lord was adding to their number daily, they were beginning something new. There were a lot of the old Jewish traditions that they held to—these people were still practicing Jews, and the Temple rituals and the Festivals were still pretty important to them. But they had a new way of looking at the world that gave new meaning to their actions. And they had new rituals to enact, that would become the traditions of the church—the bread and the cup of the Communion Table were totally new at one time.
All tradition is most meaningful to those that keep it. Simple family traditions like gathering at Grandma’s for Thanksgiving every year, or waiting for Christmas morning to open presents, mean the most to the family—they aren’t as meaningful to those outside the family. Recording losses in the Loss Book by hand with a feather pen means something to the people of Lloyd's, but probably not so much to the employees of other companies. The traditions of the church may not be that meaningful to those outside the church. This goes for the significant ones—like the patterns of baptism or communion—and the less intentional traditions like the style of worship or the type of appropriate clothing for services. Which would be fine if we only cared about who was already part of the family. We would be able to instruct the existing members on the significance of the tradition, and then get about business of being who we want to be, holding to the traditions we want to have.
The difficulty comes when the Lord adds to our number. To be honest, a lot of what we might do in the church can come off like Lloyd’s Loss Book and feather pens and ship’s bells. What do we do with the traditions that seem quaint or off-putting or difficult to justify to people who may not find them meaningful yet? How do we instruct new family members on the importance of our patterns of corporate life, particularly when we’re not sure ourselves why we do what we do? Do we struggle like the early church trying to decide what traditions to keep (loving God with all we’ve got) and which to set aside (eating pork and not touching Gentiles)? Do our traditions serve us, or are we in service to them?
The purpose of the Lutine Bell was to make sure that everyone in the underwriting room became aware of the fate of a ship at the same time, and could respond appropriately. Since that can be done electronically now, and because the bell has developed a crack, it’s only rung on special occasions these days. The bell is making the transition from a ritual to a relic. Ringing it once had a purpose, and its sound was part of the traditional atmosphere of the Lloyd’s office. But it no longer serves that purpose. It is becoming part of the history of the company, part of the past. The Loss Book may become a relic, too. Or it may continue to serve some purpose—perhaps nothing more than forming a continuity between the present and the past. We as the church will also be called to evaluate our traditions—it’s inevitable. And some will be recognized as continually meaningful and purposeful, and others will start to seem like relics. But we will need to be purposeful ourselves, and embrace only what moves the Kingdom of God forward. Because that’s what has always been done by the people of God. It may be our most meaningful tradition.