The Ecclesiastical Butterfly Effect

What happens when someone makes a seemingly insignificant change in the Church? What happens when a butterfly flaps its wings on the other side of the world? Who knows?–and that’s really the point. Who are you to think that you can do anything you want with the traditions that have been, by definition, passed down from the saints of previous ages (traditio)?

Can you do things? Can you change things? Of course you can, but that’s not really the question. The real question is, should you? Perhaps you think that you can change, remove, add, or replace something without any noticeable effect on the faith of the people. What’s the problem with a liturgical, ritual, ceremonial, or political change in a particular, individual congregation? Whom does it really affect? The fact that the question can even be asked is the most vivid illustration of my point: you have no idea.

You might be able to put colloquial words into a restatement of the Nicene Creed and everyone in your congregation might know very well what the meaning is. What happens when everyone in your congregation dies and their children and their children’s children mistake the new words for a changed meaning? Yours is the only congregation that made the change; where can your children go to find out what was really meant? It is undeniable that eventually the very doctrine of the Creed will change.

Of course, this principle applies to both additions as well as subtractions. Regardless of how the music has changed in the Divine Service, it is historically demonstrable that the words have changed very little (even if their order has). The propers in the service are very much the same as when they were first written.

Does this mean ecclesiastical paralysis when it comes to churchly rites? Of course not. We are free in the Gospel to do what is most expedient to the proclamation of that Gospel. That presupposition, however, is not freedom to do whatever we want. I know this might be a radical concept in an era of “liturgical” anarchy, but could it possibly be that the reason the parts of the liturgy have been in use for so long is that they are the best vehicle for the Gospel? (I know, I know, it couldn’t be.)

Most importantly, this is simply a plea to think carefully before we do anything. Ultimately, we cannot know how our actions will affect future generations, but we should at least consider it. Are the changes we make, whether in liturgy or elsewhere, for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, or do they have other motives (e.g., to draw people to the Church; to replace some archaic item, the original purpose of which we have no idea; to entertain, etc.)? For God’s sake (literally), think!