This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 34 states:
XXXIV. Of the Traditions of the Church
It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever through his private judgement, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.
Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.
This Article shows us something of the essentially conservative nature of Christian faith and practice: that is, that change occurs as needed, never for the sake of change itself. Uniformity is not required across the globe nor throughout history, but locally, uniformity (or rather, unity) is extremely important, as the New Testament demands (Acts 4:32, Ephesians 4:1-3, Philippians 1:27, 2:2, 1 Peter 3:8). Part of this is to worship with “one voice” (Exodus 24:3, Romans 15:6), which can only be done when all the worshipers are on the same page – in agreement of what to say, when to say it, and how to express it!
Article 34 captures this biblical mandate succinctly by first debunking the myth that everything is to be absolutely identical in all places at all times – all may praise God in their own language, and the exact manner of “Traditions and Ceremonies” need not be the same in every detail, indeed they cannot be! Some parts of the world do not have adequate clean water (or are too cold) for full immersion baptism, some languages demand different turns of phrase in their spoken liturgy, cultural references shift over time. The basic requirement underlying Christian liturgy given here is that “nothing be ordained against God’s Word.”
What Article 34 then goes on to address is the willing and purposeful violation of the Church’s local or regional rules of liturgy. Martin Luther observed, when writing about the significance of common worship, that although we have “freedom in Christ” (Galatians 2:4, 5:1) we are also subject to the “bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). The English Reformers maintained the historic commitment to clear liturgical standards: the Book of Common Prayer. Although the majority of other Protestant traditions also established their own forms of the common liturgy, few today have maintained those standards, sacrificing the “bond of peace” for a radically individualized “freedom”. This Article, therefore, stands as a corrective witnesses for us against the “spirit of the age,” calling us to reinforce our commitment to understanding and using this gem of our tradition, our common worship, the Prayer Book.
But of course, the commitment to common liturgy and the warning against those who defy it are not mere legalistic statements; these aren’t rules for the sake of having rules. As Article 34 lists, there are several reasons why authorized Church traditions are to be kept, and the liturgy ought to be adhered to (assuming they are not repugnant to the Word of God). First, they are established by due authority, and Christians are taught again and again in the Bible to respect our leaders, elders, or pastors. Second, they cause offense toward the whole Church and especially its “Magistrates” or leaders. This, too, is a grievous sin according to the teachings of the New Testament. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, rejection of the Church’s common practices and liturgies “woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren”. This is one of Saint Paul’s particular concerns in 1 Corinthians 8, where he urges believers who think themselves mature to accommodate those who are “weaker” in the faith. The liturgy is a means to an end – a tool by which we worship God in more perfect unity. One may think oneself capable of worshiping in a manner “better” than the liturgy prescribes, but out of deference to the greater Body of Christ one is to submit in humility and love.
Article 34 ends much like how it began: noting that human rites and ceremonies may be changed by proper authority. It notes the ones “by man’s authority” because aspects of worship are mandated in the Scriptures directly, such as Holy Communion, Holy Baptism, the reading of the Word, the preaching of the Word, and common prayers. No one has authority to do away with things like these. But for the additions we make to these, and the forms and structures they take, the Church may change them as and when needed. The final instruction is that such changes are to be made “that all things be done to edifying”. Notice this is not a provision for “preference” or “experimentation” or “spontaneity” or “fresh reimagining.” Many curious innovations have cropped up over the past century under such guises, none of which are strictly biblical values for worship.
Our liturgies are to be edifying, biblical, and true. Individual styles and emotional tones are secondary matters that cannot be allowed to control the shared liturgy. It is impossible for any worship service to be “all things to all people.” Rather, the liturgy is one thing, for all people. We learn to find our place within the rhythms of the liturgy, just as we learn to find our place in the work and narrative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not follow Christ on our own terms, neither do we worship Him on our own terms. That is why we worship with a set liturgy, codified in a Book for all to see, use, and share.