Article 34 on the traditions of the church is another excellent example of the application of sola scriptura among the formularies of the English Reformation. It addresses the issue of the uniformity of ceremonies in the church through what has already been established in article 6 on the final authority of Scripture, of the nature of local church in article 19 where the “pure Word of God is preached” with the sacraments administered according to Christ’s ordinance, and article 20 which establishes the limit of its authority to conformity with the Scripture.
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 has a longer history than most of the Thirty-nine articles. Its life begins at the center of the Reformation of Europe. The first paragraph is drawn from Cranmer’s notes on the Augsburg Confession as well as the Thirteen Articles, article 5 on the nature of the church. Cranmer wrote the Thirteen Articles in 1538. They were discovered among his papers in the early nineteenth century. Written when Cranmer was still Archbishop under Henry VIII, it demonstrates how he already set the reformation in England as part of the wider Protestant Reformation. So, it is no surprise that Cranmer’s article 5 has language similar to article 7 of the Augsburg Confession.
The church is the assembly of the saints in which the gospel is taught purely, and the sacraments are administered rightly. And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere. As Paul says [Eph. 4.5-6]: "One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…" [The Augsburg Confession Latin Text Article 7 p. 43].
Notice also the similarities with article 19 on the nature of the church. The worship is to state clearly and in detail, leave no room for doubt, that it is the gospel of Christ alone that is proclaimed. We bring nothing in sacrifice, save our souls and bodies in a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.
Our Anglican forebears always recognized a Christian tradition, but only a tradition that is based upon or derived from Scripture, and not one that equaled or surpassed it. The reason is simple, the goal of Scripture is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Mediator. Traditions, rites, and ceremonies must therefore be measured according to Scripture's purpose and aim. The need for such a measure is equally simple — the continuing presence of sin in the believer that required God’s grace to reveal himself to us. Christianity is a revealed religion. It is dependent upon God’s Word so that we may worship him with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12.28-29).
Cranmer knew how easily tradition might be corrupted by human sinfulness in human-made additions. The lesson of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:4, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”) was not to deny the Lord God, but to represent him according to a fallen human understanding. Reformation according to the Word of God must necessarily strip away human conceit. As Cranmer reminds us in his 1548 work, "Of Ceremonies, Why Some are Abolished, and Some Retained" still found in our 1662 Book of Common Prayer:
This our excessive multitude of Ceremonies was so great, and many of them so dark, that they did more confound and darken, than declare and set forth Christ's benefits unto us. …Furthermore, the most weighty cause of the abolishment of certain Ceremonies was, that they were so far abused, partly by the superstitious blindness of the rude and unlearned, and partly by the unsatiable avarice of such as sought more their own lucre, than the glory of God, that the abuses could not well be taken away, the thing remaining still.
As the article’s last sentence confirms, the traditions and ceremonies pass through the grid of the sole measure of Scripture, “so that all things be done to edifying.” The article’s language alludes to Of Ceremonies use of 1 Corinthians 14. Article 34 in the same way takes Paul’s concern seriously, hence the open rebuke due to anyone who opposes an established practice that makes our Savior clear. Our practices must not go against Scripture because it is only by God’s Word that God’s people are built up. In other words, Anglicans must take care not to isolate edification from its fountain, the Lord Jesus.
Article 34 thus confirms Christian liberty but only on the condition of this godly and what one might call a “gospel-chastened” conscience. Decisions concerning worship in the amount of water used in baptism, where the font is placed, what, if any musical instruments are played, how many passages of Scripture are read, how frequently we gather for the Lord’s Supper what type of bread, what color wine, what posture we should assume when praying in a service, what vestment a minister ought to wear as a sign of his office are continually tempered by the question, “Is the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ clarified or obscured by the practice?”
If there ever were a time for a fresh review of article 34 among North American Anglicans, it is now. I am often called to review new local parish liturgies drafted by Anglicans who have never actually officiated an Anglican service before. What I find is how an uncertain but very keen new minister will press into the order just about every liturgical possibility apart from the proverbial kitchen sink. The result is a turgid and confusing product that hinders edification of the body because the Lord Jesus himself is obscured. The 2019 ACNA Prayer Book is a retrograde step along similar lines. From the vantage point the historical formularies provide, begs this question: is the gospel understood clearly at all among Anglican ministers today? If we believe what we pray, one could conclude not at all.
There is a reason why the instructions in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer are so spare. It is because its rites are simple, not simplistic. It’s simple because its goal is singular: that the Lord Jesus Christ is glorified. Christ, who is the gospel, is clearly set forth and explained in both its content and the structure of its rites and ceremonies. Do we truly think that we have a clearer grasp of the harm of rites and ceremonies than our Anglican forebears who spent a good portion of their lives under their weight?
When asked by a new member why candles were not used in the worship at our parish of All Souls, Cherry Hill, I ask them to search through the prayer book rites of Morning and Evening Prayer, then The Order of the Ministration of Holy Communion to find them. They returned later, puzzled. “I couldn’t find them mentioned.” I smiled, “Indeed. That’s because they’re not there. But the Lord Jesus Christ, is.”
Henry Jansma (@HenryJansma) is rector of All Souls Anglican Church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and canon theologian for the Missionary Diocese of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America East.
For previous articles in this series, see here.