The Church Year: What it is not.

Andy Jones reported on this article on another blog which is very critical of observance of the Church Year (Christian Year, Liturgical Year)–you can tell he’s going to be critical from the second sentence, as the author feels the need to put Ash Wednesday in scare quotes. The author’s chief point is a familiar one, more than a familiar one, a cliché, in Reformed circles: he believes that observing the Church Year “binds the consciences” of worshipers and violates the “regulative principle” of Scripture.

Reading his article, and others like it (and I’ve heard this same line of reasoning many, many times over), I wonder if those who have no connection to the Christian Year have any idea of what it is and what it is not: if they know what in the heck I do each week.

In short, I do exactly what you, non-liturgical, non-Church-Year pastors, do, to wit:

  • I pick out what Scriptures will be read. The main difference is that we read a good deal more Scripture in a liturgical service than you do in a non-liturgical one. Each week we have an Old Testament Lesson, a Psalter selection (which may be read or sung in unison, responsorially, or antiphonally), an Epistle Lesson, and a Gospel Lesson. Each of these is usually at least eight verses long, and often they are much, much longer. The typical “Reformed” services I’ve been in only have a 2-3 verse “sermon text”, followed by a 45-minute sermon. If I’m going to bind people’s consciences, I’d rather do it with God’s Word than man’s word. Sure, the Scriptures I choose each week are usually from a lectionary, but not always. During the “green” seasons of the year, I depart from the lectionary texts to preach through books of the Bible, verse-by-verse. But while we’re on the “binding consciences” and “regulative principle” subject, where are we commanded in the Bible that verse-by-verse expository preaching, as is practiced in most Reformed churches, is the way to go? The Reformed community has enshrined lectio continua. It is a tradition of the Reformed churches: it is not Scripturally mandated. Furthermore, when you, as a pastor, decide to spend the next year and a half preaching through Romans, aren’t you binding your congregation’s conscience by doing so?
  • I pick out the hymns. I imagine most PCA pastors pick out the hymns or other songs to be sung in worship each week. In some churches, maybe the choir director picks out the songs. The only difference is, I choose hymns based on the overall theme of the service, a theme which is set by the Scriptures that will be read in the service. So the Scriptures come first, and the hymns are chosen to complement those Scriptures. Usually, the middle hymn will be a metrical setting of that Sunday’s Psalter selection. We have metrical Psalters in the pews (alongside the 1990 Trinity Hymnal) for this very purpose. How many non-liturgical PCA churches make regular use of a metrical Psalter, something that should be part and parcel of the Reformed tradition? If you are not choosing hymns according to the lectionary texts, then you are choosing them to complement your sermon, most likely. Either way, aren’t we all binding the worshipers’ consciences? How can we get around this? Should we let everyone sing whatever he/she likes, all at the same time? Should we have a poll each week and sing the songs that get the most votes? But then, won’t we be binding the consciences of the people who don’t like the songs that get the most votes?
  • I write a sermon, give it a title, and preach it. Wait, you do that too, don’t you? And you expect people to listen to it, right? Aren’t you binding their consciences by expecting them to listen to your words? Shouldn’t we do like the Quakers do and all sit around, waiting for someone to receive the Inner Light and stand up and say something? But even then, won’t that be binding the consciences of those who don’t stand and speak?
  • Periodically, we change the colors of the antependia (pulpit and lectern scarves), the Communion Table Runner (alas, a church which is celebrating Communion weekly ought to have a frontal or superfrontal, with a Fair Linen atop that: the Communion Table Runner is really for use in churches who do not have Communion every week. They cover the table with this item on the “off weeks” so it won’t remain bare), and the Banners. We change out the flowers, too. They tend to die after a while. Are we binding consciences by making people look at purple for a few weeks, then white for a few weeks, then green, etc? We’re simply beautifying the worship space. Do you have flowers in your church? Who picks them out? Let’s say you have calla lilies one week, and suppose I visit your church and I hate calla lilies. You’re forcing me to look at those things. You’re binding my conscience. (BTW calla lily fans, don’t be hatin’: I don’t have a problem at all with calla lilies. It was just an example.)

If this is what the Confession of Faith means by “binding the conscience” then we are all, to use a theological term, in deep doo-doo. We can’t plan and carry out corporate worship without making decisions about what will be read, what will be sung, and in what order. If we apply the definition of “binding the conscience” that those who oppose the Church Year use, then we will not be able even to ask people to stand to sing a hymn: it would bind the consciences of those who don’t want to stand or who don’t want to sing. That can’t be what it means, can it?

Of course it can’t. And those who argue against the Church Year from this basis know it can’t mean that. They never apply that principle in the same way to themselves. They know they can’t. If you simply don’t like the Christian Year, just say so. Don’t hide behind this “binding the conscience” argument.

Here’s what the Confession has to say on the subject:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

The Confession here is speaking to those who would declare something a sin that Scripture does not say is a sin, or requiring something of someone as a “holy obligation” that Scripture does not require. Thus, with reference to worship, Scripture says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” It does not say, “Celebrate Christmas on December 25th, or thou shalt surely die.” So we as church leaders can encourage parishioners to be in attendance on Sundays, except when Providentially hindered. We can even admonish them if they neglect to do this. But we can’t tell people it’s a sin not to celebrate Christmas, or Advent, or Lent, etc.

So what about these “extra” services, such as Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, that occur on days other than Sundays? Those in the Reformed world who oppose the Church Year would say we are “binding consciences” by “requiring” these days. I can’t speak for anyone else, but our Session isn’t requiring attendance on Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Christmas Eve, any more than we’re requiring attendance at any Wednesday evening prayer meeting (but it sure would be nice to see more of you there!) or adult Sunday School (ditto about seeing more of you there!). No one’s going to get in trouble or come under discipline for not coming to prayer meeting. However, on Ash Wednesday, we had about half our regular Sunday morning crowd in attendance, far more than we usually have in attendance on Wednesdays. Why? Did we guilt people into coming? No. We simply made the service available, and we invited them. And they decided to attend. Of their own free will. That’s not binding anyone’s conscience. Not in my book.

I wonder if the people who put forth this sort of argument have any understanding about what it is that the writers of the Confession were objecting to when they wrote this “liberty of conscience” section. It certainly wasn’t to worship that is done “decently and in order,” to choosing Scriptures, hymns, etc., for worship (and we’ve already seen that that’s what it’s all about). They were opposed to holy days of obligation.

Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church states that on Holy Days of Obligation, “the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”

So a holy day of obligation is a day that, while not a Sunday, the Roman Church requires its members to treat as if it were a Sunday, in terms of requiring attendance at Mass and requiring refraining from work, etc. Are we doing that? Are people in the PCA who observe the Church Year to any degree, or any Protestants who observe the Church Year to any degree, making any non-Sundays into holy days of obligation? I don’t know of anyone who is. That’s what the Confession means by binding the conscience: elevating the traditions of men (which, admittedly, is an apt description of the Church Year, as well as of lectio continua) to the status of Divine commandments. Thus, it also refers to such things as calling drinking, dancing, and smoking sins, when Scripture does not.

The typical Reformed arguments against the Church Year “work” when they are leveled at Rome’s holy days of obligation, but not when their intended target is other Reformed (or Protestant in general) Christians who observe the Church Year.

I could give many, many reasons why I have grown to appreciate and advocate the celebration of the Christian Year, but that would take a few posts all its own.


About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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5 Responses to The Church Year: What it is not.

  1. Jeff Meyers says:

    Great post, John. Nice and succinct! I like it.

  2. dwc says:

    Well said. I have followed this thread of discussion from Sean’s site, through the comments and links from there. Pretty much all he said cannot hold water and I had actually asked my pastor this question several years ago and he fired back the whole binding the conscious thing…I didn’t say anything, but was thinking “hmmm, howso?”

    I’m hopeful more PCA/Reformed churches begin to claim the tradition and heritage that is ours by using the Church Calendar ( some, all ) and walk with Christ throughout the year.

  3. cancerman says:

    Come on and admit it. You are a secret papist waiting to take us back to Rome.

    Wait, it’s not the 16th century any more. My mistake.

    Carry on.

  4. Pingback: Notes on Worship

  5. Pingback: Liturgical Calendar: About those colors … | Know Tea

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