Change clearly isn’t as good as a rest

Two thousand years of experience teaches us that churchgoers have never reacted well to change of any sort. And nowhere has this been more apparent than within the Anglican Communion.

In the 16th century, the replacement of liturgical Latin with English was by no means greeted with universal rejoicing. Nor was there unbridled joy when, in the 17th century, the venerable Coverdale Bible was supplanted by the new fangled King James Version.

There was similar turmoil in the 18th and 19th centuries as hymns edged out psalms, traditional vestments replaced the Geneva gown, and the instrumental anarchy of the “parish choir” gave way to the magisterial discipline of the pipe organ.

The 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer bears eloquent witness to the lay people’s stubborn resistance to change. The lections are taken largely from the King James’ Version of the Bible, but the psalms are not.

The Gospels and much of the Old Testament in the King James Version followed the Coverdale Bible quite closely. The psalms, however, did not. And for more than 300 years—right up to 1979—churches echoed to the sonorous tones of the Coverdale Psalter.

If there is any lesson to be learned from this, it is that should it prove necessary to institute changes in the church, it is essential to do so very slowly, with great care and with an absolute abundance of Christian charity and understanding.

Needless to say, it is a lesson that has been entirely lost on the folks who, since the 1960s, have been promoting a program of far reaching change that has radically altered the face of Anglicanism both here in America and in England.

Change, helter-skelter, has been rushed after change. Liturgical revision, the abandonment of ancient doctrines, and a major departure from the church’s traditional understanding of the authority of Holy Scripture: hardly had one change been instituted than the next was upon us.

My recent reading included an article by somebody advocating the abandonment of the Nicene Creed in favor of some cutting edge formula or other. As it turned out, I found the writer’s arguments singularly unpersuasive, but that doesn’t matter.

Even if I thought them valid, I would nonetheless have found them objectionable on the grounds that they would simply fuel further disputes.

Had the sound and fury of the debate engendered a mighty powerful spiritual and moral awakening, the proponents of rapid change might have been justified in the self-styled “reformers’” strategy. Had the turmoil swiftly abated, having inflicted no lasting damage, they might have been able to argue persuasively that their haste was justified.

But the fact of the matter is that their strategy has been an unmitigated failure. Church membership in America has fallen by more than a third, and even more precipitously than that in England.

In view of the unhappy consequences of all this turmoil, one might imagine even the proponents of change would see the wisdom, temporarily at least, of dropping the subject of change in the interest of promoting harmony.

That, I fear, is mere wishful thinking. Harmony is that last thing on the mind of the “reformers.” Their goal seems to be to stamp out, as ruthlessly as possible, even the faintest vestiges of dissent.

The utter lack of kindness and understanding shown to those who disagree with them goes far in explaining St. Paul’s unpopularity in the church today. His contention that charity is the paramount Christian virtue is clearly quite out of step with the times. GPH✠

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