As near as I am able to determine, the first fellow in the procession is a minister in the Church of England. I infer this from his (Roman) clerical garb, from which I infer that he might also be sympathetic to the Tractarian (Anglo-Catholic) movement. The second fellow processing in is carrying asparagus. The third fellow is dressed as asparagus and the fellow accompanying him seems to have been transported from the crusades to keep them all safe. It is prosaic to explain what you are seeing with your own eyes but I add this in case you are unwilling to believe your senses. Yes, this really happened. Thanks to Jonty Rhodes (pastor of Christ Church Central Leeds, UK) for alerting us to this remarkable illustration of the necessity of what Calvin called “the rule of worship,” which we now describe as the “regulative principle of worship.”
Heidelberg Catechism 96 says:
96. What does God require in the second Commandment?
That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word (emphasis added).
In Belgic Confession art. we confess:
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says.
and in art. 32:
Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.
In Westminster Confession 21.1 we confess:
…But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.
In essence the rule of worship is the application of the second commandment to public worship in light of the formal principle of the reformation: sola scriptura. God’s Word is the alone magisterial (ruling) authority for Christian worship and the Christian life.
With respect to worship, we confess that the church may impose no practice upon Christians that is not commanded explicitly or unavoidably implied (WCF 1.6: “by good and necessary consequence”) by God’s Word. Holy Scripture nowhere commands nor necessarily implies the observance of “Asparagus Fest” and thus the visible church has no authority to observe it. In the Reformation, however, the Anglican and Lutheran communions adopted a different principle. It is sometimes characterized as the “normative principle.” According to that principle if something is not forbidden it is permitted. So, the Reformed tradition asks a different question about worship: What must we do? The normative principle, however, asks a different question: what may we do? Originally, these two principles led the Reformed to different practice than the Anglican and Lutheran communions. In our time, however, the differences are more difficult to see, which leads one to ask whether we are following our principle (“the rule of worship”) or the normative principle?
There is a second and less obvious issue at play here: Christ and culture and a corollary, the sacred/secular distinction. Asparagus Fest is apparently a big event in Worcestershire. Where I come from there are celebrations of corn, beef, and Nebraska football. Those are all good things but they do not need to be sanctified by the church. Corn, beef, Nebraska football, and even asparagus (for those who like that sort of thing), are good. They are not sinful. People are free to eat or not eat. They have no religious significance and they need it not. Here a distinction between that which is secular and that which is sacred is quite useful and even essential. Calvin and the other classic Reformed theologians made this distinction regularly to address just this sort of question. More fundamentally, the Apostle Paul made this distinction in 1 Corinthians chapters 8—11. Asparagus Fest is secular observance. If the farmers in Worcestershire are anything like the farmers I know, Asparagus Fest is a way to promote a local product. This is business not religion.
Nevertheless, people often want the church to sanction and sanctify their business or recreation or even their pets. The Anglicans and American Episcopalians have been known to hold services to bless pets. People want this because they want religious approval for their lifestyle choices and preferences or perhaps out of sheer superstition. They ask for this sort of sanctifying because they have an inadequate understanding of the distinction between creation (nature) and salvation (grace). Creation is inherently good. Neither one’s house, one’s pet, nor one’s asparagus needs to be sanctified by the church because one’s house etc is not unsanctified. Asparagus Fest belongs to creation, to culture, to nature and not to grace and redemption. It is secular, not sacred.
Historically, one result of the confusion of these two categories (sacred and secular) is that we lose the sacred. If everything is sacred, then, necessarily nothing is sacred. This is one reason why we consecrate the elements of the sacraments before we use them. Were everything sacred, then consecration (the formal act of setting them apart for sacred use) would be superfluous. What happens when we lose this distinction? We see people processing into church carrying asparagus.
The final thing to be mentioned is Christian liberty. When we observe the rule of worship, when we distinguish between the sacred and the secular, we preserve what Luther called “the freedom of the Christian.” Within the confines of God’s moral law Christians have freedom to do as they will in the common or secular sphere of life. In public worship, however, Christ exercises his sovereignty in a distinct way. Christ is Lord of all but he administers his sovereign rule in different ways. As touching one’s daily vocation, one is free to do whatever is not forbidden. No one may tell you that you may not serve your neighbor as a plumber. You may eat meat offered to idols so long as it does not cause your brother to stumble. Christ is Lord of the conscience (1 Cor 8:7). When, however, the church observes Asparagus Fest or otherwise confuses culture with worship (secular with the sacred), it impinges upon the Christian conscience because Christ has not authorized such an observance. Attendance to public worship is mandatory. Therefore the church needs to take special care not to obligate Christ’s people beyond that which he has authorized. The ecclesiastical observance of Asparagus Fest is an extreme example of the confusion of these categories and a prime example of what happens when we reject the rule of worship in favor of the normative principle.