Worship wars, and the ‘simple people’

We don’t usually think of the Roman Catholic Church as suffering from the kind of worship-wars which have so often disrupted Evangelical churches.  After all, the Pope and the Magisterium exercise a firm control, and the freedom of individual priests and local parishes is carefully circumscribed by innumerable detailed Canons. 

It was fascinating, then, to discover from Elio Guerriro’s recently translated biography of Pope Benedict XVI, that Romanism, too, has had its fair share of liturgical innovators; and as Archbishop of Munich, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and finally as Pope, Joseph Ratzinger was well placed, and well qualified, to evaluate their impact. 

Originally a loyal supporter of the reforms proposed by the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger quickly realised that, although the Council had introduced only minor changes, these had been sufficient to encourage a widespread impatience with all liturgical tradition; and what troubled him was strikingly similar to what was happening within Evangelicalism. There was, he noted, an exaggerated mania for change, a passion for arbitrary experimentation, a determination to adapt the Church’s worship to contemporary taste, and total indifference to the need to offer a theological basis for innovation. 

But what struck me most was Ratzinger’s observation that the real victims of changes in the form and order of worship were ‘the simple people.’  He wasn’t referring to simpletons, but to people of the type of Zechariah (Lk. 1:67ff.), Anna (Lk. 2:36f.), Joseph and Mary: simple believers who steered a middle course between the Legalism of the Pharisees and the Liberalism of the Saducees, and who kept the faith of Israel alive during the decades of apostasy.  These were the people Jesus at one point described as ‘the poor in spirit’ and at another as the ‘weary and heavy laden’: those who, in contrast to the ‘wise and prudent,’ had received Jesus as the promised Messiah, and by doing so had shown that they were not governed by contemporary taste. 

Today they are represented by the people who for years have found comfort in the church, whose places at public worship were never empty, who supported her with their widow’s mites, and who attended to the multifarious tasks on which the life of every congregation depends. Above all, they are the people, who year after year, looked forward to Sunday worship as the highlight of the week, longing to hear the Scriptures explained, longing to join in the singing of familiar psalms and hymns, and longing to share in the Lord’s Supper reverently administered; and longing, too, for a day free of labour, when they could forget the ugliness and pressure of the daily workplace and sit meditatively in a place filled with simple beauty and precious association (like, ‘Where Bill Anderson used to sit’).  We speak, remember, of the simple people: not cool, and not woke, but sinners saved by grace.

These are the people, Ratzinger reminds us, who with sincere and humble hearts have entrusted themselves to the church’s care, and her primary responsibility is to nourish their faith till the day they die. But instead, he laments, many of them fall victim to an ‘avant-garde clergy’ whose primary concern is no longer to minister to the simple ones, but to adapt the church to changing times; and the problem is by no means confined to Romanism. 

I’m not going to descend to particulars.  ‘Avant-garde’ and ‘radical’ vary from tradition to tradition.  What would be radical in a Roman Catholic Church might not be radical in a Protestant one; and what might be avant-garde in the Free Church might not be avant-garde in a Baptist one.  But everyone who is pushing for liturgical change must ask himself the following questions:


  1. What is the theological reason for the change?
  2. What is the probable collateral damage?   For example, will an elder who has served the church for perhaps fifty years find himself the victim of constructive dismissal because he cannot support the changes?
  3. Can you control the revolution?  Once you sanction the use of instrumental accompaniment, are you prepared for drums?  Or an orchestra?
  4. Above all, what is the benefit to the ‘simple people’?