The Rule Of Worship, Christ And Culture, And Asparagus Fest

This is not a Monty Python sketch. Click on the image to see the original tweet from Worcester Cathedral (UK). What you see above is part of the celebration of “Asparagus Fest” in Worcestershire.

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.

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  1. RSC,
    The OP notwithstanding “They ask for this sort of sanctifying” further, because they either don’t understand justification or are not justified by faith alone in Christ, if not both. They have a real or residual sense of guilt about being creatures and doing creaturely things and they need some magic therapeutic joojoo and sacred religious mojo to make it all good. Hence the need to have it “blessed”.

    Of course the same objections in principle against asparagus feasts are also made against certain religious feastdays as in, for egs. Gillespie’s Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies. While they have long been a bone between the presbyterian and reformed, the URCs to their credit do not require them, but do allow them.

    [“People want this because the want religious approval for their lifestyle choices and preferences or perhaps out of sheer superstition.”

    The Grammar Nazi has been notified and future violations will entail a visit in person from the same.]

  2. I can’t remember where in Italy or France this is, but there is a specific celebration of truffles where even the tithe/offering is in truffles. Big money business that is, considering that truffles are bought and sold like the mob’s dealings in the U.s..

  3. The red and white liveried ‘crusader’ with red cross on white background on his clothes and shield (the national flag of England – not to be confused with the Union Flag of the United Kingdom, which incorporates it) is doubtless representing St George, the so-called patron saint of England (who has no connection with England, however, but supplanted King Edmund as ‘patron saint’ of England at the time of the crusades). It was St George’s day on April 23, which is also the start of the British Asparagus Festival, hence all this nonsense.

    • Well, it used to be. The Protestant “dog” collar was white all the way round. The tab collar used to be reserved for Roman priests. The older evangelicals in the C of E never wore the tab collar.

  4. Veggie Tale worship.

    Here in America, we commit “Veggie Tale worship” every time we add culture to Christ.

  5. It seems Worcester Cathedral is able to provide for the whole family; Veggie Tales and Monty Python!

    Your observations about the ‘characters’ made me chuckle, Dr Clarke. A friend used to refer to the garb as wizardry…

    As an aside, although slightly related, I wonder if you would perhaps help me with something. When you state: ‘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.’ How are we to think about the likes of bible studies and times of fellowship/missionary update meetings. As a caveat I do not disagree with your statement.

    Thanks for bringing this to our awareness and for writing the article.

    • Andrew,

      Sabbath day worship is on a different order than any other gatherings. I doubt that the church has authority to discipline a member for not attending a bible study or a small group. Such things are beneficial but they don’t have the warrant of Scripture and for that reason were not practiced in the Reformation. The small group/bible study, especially when led by laity, is a creation of the Pietist movement. They are not the “due use of ordinary means” that we confess in the Westminster Standards. The preaching of the Holy Gospel and the administration of the holy sacraments and prayer (HC 65) are the means of grace.

  6. Thanks Dr Clark for your graciousness and patience in taking the time to respond. Many thanks for that, this has been my growing understanding (thanks to much of what I read here and other similar resources). There is often much pressure in reformed churches that we really ought to be at these meetings. Whilst no discipline is exercised, often there is a lot of guilt-tripping of “less committed” believers. I suppose this frees us up for family / private worship, fulfilling our callings in life, and getting to know our neighbours.

  7. If one may be permitted a gentle correction in regard to clergy vesture–
    The wearing of the cope in collegiate churches and cathedrals was never abrogated at the Reformation and the cope generally replaced the chasuble at the Communion in those foundations, thereby signifying a departure from a Roman view of the eucharist as sacrifice. Far from being a Romish vestment, the cope, in the Church of England, was a sign of a Reforming attitude. The white surplice remains the canonically required vesture of all Anglican clergy and neither it nor the cope signify any particular Anglo-Catholic inclination, both being worn universally in cathedrals by clergy of widely varying churchmanship.

    (Note that although the 1552 Book of Common Prayer does prescribe the surplice only this Book was never fully promulgated throughout the Church of England and was repealed shortly after its inception by Mary I in 1553. The Prayer Book of 1559 restored the previous arrangements. Thus, one may contend, the Reformed Church of England always in practice retained the use of the cope and surplice and attached to them no especially Romish significance, regardless of what some individual Reformers may have contended.)

    • Evan,

      I appreciate your gentleness but as to the history I disagree. I am glad that you wrote, however, as it gives me an opportunity to highlight the differences between the Reformed and some Anglicans on the nature and implications of sola Scriptura. The position you outline here goes back to the 1540s and the Vestarian/vestments controversy. There were Anglican bishops who held your view, that the priestly vestments (and not just the preaching robe—more about this in a moment) were adiaphora. Hooper initially refused to be ordained while wearing the surplice and rochet. He objected (to Ridley) to being made to look like a priest. The pro-vestment party said that there should be no controversy because they are adiaphora. It is true that Bucer and Vermigli consented but only on pragmatic grounds. They did not want to risk the English Reformation over vestment. The dissenters objected, however, “if they are adiaphora, why are you seeking to impose them against conscience?” Round it went. The pro-vestments party did not respect the magisterial authority of Scripture. The dissenters lost the argument politically but not theologically.

      As a matter of fact, the Protestants shed the priestly vestments (cope, surplice etc) very early. Luther created what became known, somewhat ironically, as the “Genevan robe,” the plain black preaching robe, in the 1520s. It was a modified academic gown. It was this that was worn by virtually all the Reformed in the 16th, 17th, 18th, and well into the 19th centuries among the non-conformists and among the conforming Puritans in Great Britain, in Heidelberg, in Zürich, in Strasbourg, in Geneva (of course), and among the French Reformed ministers. They did not wear the cope, the surplice.

      I’ve seen Laud’s vestments. They were quite ostentatious and in stark contrast to that worn by the Reformed.

      I’m with Hooper, Cartwright, Perkins, Ames et al. The prevailing Anglican position was an indicator of a problem re sola Scriptura. The vestments controversy was (among other things) a factor in the language adopted by the Westminster Divines on sola Scriptura and the limits on ecclesiastical authority in the Directory for Publick Worship (1644) and in the Standards.

  8. But any form of worship apart from that which is revealed to us in the Holy Scripture is idolatry.

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