Traditions Old and New
A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
24th October 2008
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Being old is neither right nor wrong. Being new is also neither right nor wrong. Therefore being either a conservative or a radical is silly. It is neither right nor wrong to want to preserve the past or explore the latest innovation.
Every change brings with it consequences, foreseen and unforeseen. What was a good innovation in one year can be a disastrous failure in another year. The reforms that address one problem can create ten other problems just as large. The failure to reform a problem can also create ten other problems just as large.
We are not sovereign over the future. We have to cast our bread upon the water and trust God in his sovereignty to bless our endeavours. Some changes are our attempts to obey, or sadly to disobey, God. We cannot expect him to bless our disobedience.
The kings of Judah often brought innovation into the religious practice of the nation. Generally they adopted the idolatry of the nations around them. This was in direct disobedience to God. Some kings obeyed God's word and removed the idols of their forefathers. God condemned the generations who accepted idolatry just as he blessed subsequent generations who destroyed their father's idols.
One piece of traditional home-grown idolatry was the worship of the serpent that Moses made in the wilderness. In 2 Kings 18:4 we read that Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” The divinely appointed symbol of salvation in Moses' day had become an idol of false worship in Hezekiah's day—it had to be destroyed.
In the Reformation the leaders of the day had to work out what to change and what to retain. With some things it was easy, because the need to change screamed out. But falling for the temptation to change everything led to some terrible follies and abuses.
It was the wisdom of Thomas Cranmer, which guided the Church of England through the Reformation changes. He did not accomplish all that he wanted to do. However, in 1549 he laid down some principles upon which he was working.
These were originally published as the Preface to, and as concluding notes of, his first Prayer Book. They can now be found at the front of the Book of Common Prayer as two short articles entitled “Concerning the Service of the Church” and “Of Ceremonies, why some be abolished and some retained.”
Cranmer's basic principle was that everything should be done to please God by setting forth the Gospel of Christ in order to edify God's people. This is what church going is about. This is the core business of church.
From this basic principle he then wrote about human ceremonies—especially what to dispense and what to retain. In summary he said:
- The Bible must be consistently read in Church in a way that is clear, accurate, thorough and understandable.
- Everything must be understandable—so everything must be organised in a simple, uncomplicated way and conducted in the everyday language of the people.
- Ceremonies are to be minimised because of the nature of Christ's gospel. The gospel is not a ceremonial law like the Law of Moses. In the Gospel of Christ we serve God in the freedom of the Spirit.
- Remove all that is untrue, uncertain and vain superstition.
- Remove all things that darken and confound the people of God rather than enlighten them by declaring Christ's benefits for us.
- There are some human customs that are edifying and necessary to retain good order and discipline.
- Those customs that are retained are only customs and, unlike the scriptures, can be changed later.
- Not all customs started for good reasons but even those that did will over time degenerate and need to be changed. False customs that were originally winked at will grow into intolerable abuses
- Those who would reform the church must seek to please God rather than to please either the conservatives or the radicals. They should not act on their own authority but seek to work with others. (For Cranmer this involved having a national church that acted uniformly.)
- Customs should not be universal and unchanging. Each nation or period of history should conduct church in the way that they see pleases God by building up his people into godly living without error or superstition.
As we constantly look to reforming ourselves, and our own congregational life, it is important to bear Cranmer's sage advice in mind.
There is no reason to retain or to dispense with some custom just because it is old—anymore than there is any reason to embrace something because it is new. What pleases God is that we put forward the Gospel of Jesus clearly so that His people can understand His ways and respond in obedient faith. We meet to build one another in the gospel and in so doing build the church.