“We’ve always done it this way.”
We hear that said in the church from time to time. On the one hand, this statement captures some of the truth of the church’s connection with history and the past. Christians have always celebrated the Eucharist and always tried to follow Jesus. The church tries to communicate what can be described as eternal truths. On the other hand, a term like “always” frequently gets you in trouble. As you start to delve into Christian history it becomes stunningly clear how much things have changed over time. The liturgy in the year 100 and the year 1000 and the year 2000 are all drastically different. The role of bishops has changed. The church has made changes in the way it views slavery and more recently women and gay people in the ordained ministry.
Change in the church is often a painful and difficult process. I remember working in a parish when it was decided to move the reading lectern because it was blocking the view of the altar. The conflict and raw emotion churned up was really quite amazing. I think that one of the dynamics was that if you made the change (moving the lectern) you seemed to be saying that it was wrong or dumb to have had it where it was positioned originally. A change can feel like a put down or insult to the way things used to be.
A 16th century theologian to the rescue! Richard Hooker was a great Anglican thinker who, in 1594, wrote:
“The Church has authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both may do well.” (Laws, Book 5.8.2)
He seems to be saying that, guided by reason and the Holy Spirit, the Church should make changes. And that this is not an insult to the past. It just is that, in the past, they did things differently.
Unfortunately, some branches of the Christian Church still don’t get this 400 years after Hooker was writing. We pray for the church to continue to make changes faithfully and for the right reasons.
This post is also a plug for my upcoming forum on Anglican History this Sunday, February 15 at 9:30 am :
How Did We Get Here? The History of the Anglican and Episcopal Church.
Our English roots and experience in colonial America helped form our branch of the church. Join The Rev. Mark Stanley as we look at the crucial events and key people that created The Episcopal Church of today.
—The Rev. Mark Stanley