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Article 34 — Of the Traditions of the Church

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Posted by James Taylor, 7 Apr 2017

James Taylor explores what the 39 Articles say about tradition and uniformity.

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.

Article 34 tackles the question of uniformity of traditions in the Church, drawing on what has already been established concerning the authority of Scripture (Article 6) and of the church (Article 20). The parallel of “Traditions and Ceremonies” in the first sentence with “ceremonies or rites” in the last, makes clear that the “Traditions of the Church” this Article is concerned with are those of practices, not of doctrines: those “ordained only by man’s authority” and not by the authority of Scripture.

The Articles have been clear and firm on essential doctrine. But equally clear and firm on the boundary to what is essential. Scripture is sufficient, but not exhaustive. Here, beyond that boundary, in the land of non-essentials—things on which we may differ—Article 34 gives us principles for navigation.

Before we discuss the principles and their value for today, however, it is well worth us noting the two ‘non-negotiables’ this Article gives us, even as we set foot in the land of non-essentials. The first is the concern that “nothing be ordained against God’s Word”—taking us right back to Article 6. For the English Reformers, Scripture is paramount. Our doctrine is established by Scripture and our practice is to be held up and examined in its light. Practice that is found to be contrary to Scripture is therefore wrong, but we cannot immediately rule-out a practice which is not contrary to Scripture.

The second non-negotiable comes at the end of the Article, “that all things be done to edifying.” The language here is most likely from 1 Corinthians 14:26 (see also Romans 14:19) where, addressing what happens when God’s people meet together, Paul insists that everything that is done must be done for the purpose of “building up.” So, when considering an aspect of our life together and whether to ordain, change or abolish a particular practice, the Church must decide whether a course of action will build up believers in their relationship with God.

Commenting on this Article, W. H. Griffith Thomas concludes that “we are neither to adhere obstinately to anything ancient simply because it is ancient, nor rashly to introduce anything novel because it is new. In everything connected with ceremonies or rites the ruling principle of spiritual edification is to be kept in mind.”

So on the one hand our practices must not go against God’s word, and on the other hand they must be for the building up of God’s people. Of course this leaves us with lots of freedom: how much water we use for baptism, how many passages of Scripture we read in a service, how frequently we gather for the Lord’s Supper, what posture we should assume when praying in a service, what a minister ought to wear, and so on. But Article 34 helps us further, providing us with two principles for navigation.

First, that “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like.” The Church does not have to take the same approach to a given area of practice at all times and in all places. It is perfectly acceptable to reach different conclusions in different places or at different times. Context matters and so long as the Church is not acting contrary to Scripture and is acting for the building up of God’s people, different contexts may lead to different conclusions when it comes to practice.

In its original context, this principle was to justify change in practice against the objections of Rome. With the growth of the Church amidst increasing fragmentation across Europe,  the Reformers insisted on the right of each national church to make its own decisions on matters of practice.

Second, individuals must not “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,” that is, practices which have been properly established. The Book of Common Prayer statement ‘Of Ceremonies’ takes us again to 1 Corinthians 14 and Paul’s exhortation that “all things be done among you in a seemly and due order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Our Article takes Paul’s concern seriously, hence the open rebuke due to anyone who opposes a properly established practice.

What of this Article’s value today? First, whilst certain revisionists seek to assure us that some “accommodation” within our practice does not change our doctrine, it is vital for us to insist that in our practice as well as our doctrine, “nothing be ordained against God’s Word.”

Second, whilst the word of God never changes, we are reminded that tradition is always contextual and we must not lose sight of the priority of the edification of God’s people in our own time and place.

Third, in our era of world-cities and multiculturalism we may well have questions over the legitimacy of practice being determined by the national church. But in our era of individualism and consumerism, this Article surely has great value in calling us back to “due order.” Whilst the Reformers oppose the uniformity of Rome in this Article and give us various reasons for variety in practice, there is no suggestion that we should embrace difference merely to be different. Might it not do us—and the watching world—good if, where we can, we stand in line with those who have gone before us, maintaining the “common order of the Church”?

James Taylor is the Associate Rector of the Parish of St Helier, Jersey, and lives in the most southerly vicarage in the British Isles. His chapter on "Sticking with it: Believing in the Church of England" can be found in our book, Positively Anglican.

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