As an Anglican Priest, I’m often asked where in the Bible some Anglican worship practice is commanded. The assumption is that we should only do what the Bible expressly commands us to do.
The thinking goes: If the Bible doesn’t say to burn candles, then we shouldn’t burn candles. If the Bible doesn’t tell us to wear vestments (ceremonial robes), then we shouldn’t do so. If the Bible doesn’t say to read Scripture aloud every Sunday (BTW it does), then we shouldn’t do so.
The Regulative Principle
This way of thinking is technically called the “regulative principle.” It is the idea the one of the reasons we have the Bible is to that it can “regulate” all of our worship.
The problem with the regulative principal is that there aren’t too many places in Scripture that were written to tell us exactly how to worship. We know from the Old Testament that God is very interested in how we worship. We learn there that beauty and symbol and learning are all part of worship.
But we also know that Christians are not required to copy the worship of Israel, even though their worship informs ours. Yet we are the Church in a new covenant.
And when we turn to the New Testament, we find some very basic instructions. Read Scripture out loud (ironically many churches that believe in the regulative principle don’t obey this clear command). Pray together for the Church, for the leaders of the world, for the needs of the world, and give thanks. Sing hymns and spiritual songs. Collect offerings. Preach and teach. Receive the bread and wine of the communion table. Baptize.
We don’t have a place in the entire New Testament, though, where detailed instructions are given. It just isn’t something that anyone was doing in writing at that time. Later, the early church was growing and spreading, and needed to figure out how to worship, leading to the Didache, a first century manual for worship.
But the Bible itself really isn’t a manual with detailed instructions for worship. So if we tried to only do what is in the Bible, we’d miss out.
Don’t miss out!
We should not miss out on the beautiful wisdom of the rites and practices passed down to us from our Mothers and Fathers in the Faith.
Paul himself hit on this when he wrote to the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter”
There are spoken traditions that have been passed on for 2,000 years and there is the written canonical tradition of Holy Scripture, inspired and authoritative. Scripture is the final authority, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lesser authorities. The tradition of worship is just such an important and reverend but lesser authority.
The Normative Principle
So the regulative principle doesn’t work if you want to honor and retain the tradition. Instead, you need the Normative Principle.
The normative principle is the idea that we should retain the worshipping traditions that have been passed down to us from our spiritual ancestors. In fact, we are obligated to do so out of respect for them, their Faith, and their wisdom. Our Christian Faith has been “passed down” to us. Not just the doctrines, but the practices too.
But does that mean that we should do everything that has ever been done in the Christian worshipping tradition?
That’s when the Normative Principle comes to our rescue.
Simply stated, the Normative Principle is the idea that we should retain traditions that have a long history, wide use, and are not forbidden or contradicted by Holy Scripture.
Anglicans love this principle. We will do what the Tradition has passed on, we will honor it, we will see it as an authority, but we will always see it as under Scripture. Scripture can override it.
The only thing we Anglicans add to the normative principle is the idea of Patrimony. This means that there are various families of tradition that all connect back to the early church. However, each has a “patrimony” or a way of doing things. The Anglican Patrimony is the tradition of worship that came from England, starting mysteriously even before Augustine of Canterbury was sent by Pope Gregory to evangelize in the 6th century. Augustine used a processional cross, carried through the city, to do the first act of Anglican evangelism by worship and that kicked off the Anglican way. Our patrimony grew in England and then was reformed during the Reformation period, ultimately retaining the basic catholic structure, but infusing it with Reformational truths from Scripture. It then spread across the world and developed into an international tradition.
The Reformation redirected our attention back to the purpose of much of the ritual of our worship, and we shed many forms and practices that did not conform to Holy Scripture.
Anglican came to see that worship forms us as believers in Jesus. It turns our hearts toward God and our fellow humans. It is a set of practices and a cycle of time that surround and shape us around the Gospel.
The Liturgical Movement
And in the last century, the Christian world (well, the Western Christian world), Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, experienced something called the Liturgical Movement. For the most part this started out as a liturgy nerd fest, with scholars, archaeologists, liturgists and clergy working on trying to discover how the early, united Church worshipped. This all spilled over into Vatican II and affected most of the churches in the world. In our case as Anglicans, it led to international English versions of the liturgy that are reflective of the Anglican heritage, but also incorporate a more ancient approach too.
So What is the Core Tradition of Christian Worship?
You can start with Pliny the Younger, a Roman ruler, who wrote in the 1st century that Christians gathered, sang hymns, worshipped Christ as a god, and pledged to do good to others.
You can also look to early church writings such as the Didache and the writings of Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Hippolytus. You’ll see a lot of variety, and you’ll see some things that we’re glad we don’t do today. But you’ll see a pattern of vesture, Sunday eucharist, light, processions, bowing, kneeling, (lots of arguments about kneeling), chanting, and a cycle of time (a calendar) that is developing right away. There is no hint at all for almost 1500 years that the Bible had to command something for it to be done. The assumption was that a tradition was being discerned and passed along.
You will also enjoy reading the diary of the 3rd century nun Egeria. She travelled to Jerusalem, and journaled everything she saw the Christians there doing in worship. Processional crosses. Reading of the Gospel. Gathering for Eucharist. Reading Scripture aloud. Lighting candles. Blessing the people.
No one would claim that Anglicans worship in the exact way the early church did. In fact, even the early church didn’t worship in exactly the same way in different locations around the Roman world. However, the outline and basic ritual of our worship reflects how most Christians, in most places, have worshipped. And we love that.
So Why Do We Do That?
So Anglicans believe that we are trying to worship the way the Early Church did, as well as how the churches of the Middle ages worshipped, and the churches around the world today. But we don’t just patch together traditions here and there based on a whim. We use our Anglican patrimony to guide us. We practice Christian worship in the Anglican way, subject to Holy Scripture as the ultimate authority.
Worship is Not An Exact Science
At the end of the day, no church knows exactly how to structure worship. There is no perfect exact way. Jesus showed us this when he taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. He said not to try to be heard for your many vain repetitions. In other words, there is not a magic formula of words (or ritual) that will open up God’s heart to us. Its already wide open. He loves us. Our worship is about entering into his presence through Christ, not about finding hidden keys or perfect rituals to get into it.
We love our brothers and sisters in the Baptist, non-denominational, and Presbyterian worlds. And other worlds too. We respect the desire to uphold Scripture, and we share that desire with them. We just think a bit differently about how Scripture grounds and informs our worship, and about the place of Tradition in our process of discernment.
And we love our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends too. We just have a related but different patrimony, and we value the insights of the Reformation in informing our sense of catholic worship.
What it all boils down to is seeking to obey Scripture, honor our past, and worship him in Spirit and in Truth.
Greg is the founder of Anglican Compass (previously known as Anglican Pastor). He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.