We don’t sing those hymns at a mid week meeting; we only use Mission Praise! Sounds like a strange way to open a column on man-made religious traditions, but it will best summarise the dilemma which the modern Christian Church faces.
It was several months ago and I had been asked to prepare an order of service for a mid week service in a Presbyterian church.
I selected some rousing hymns from the Presbyterian hymn book, only to be informed that my selection could not be used - as it was tradition that only the songs from Mission Praise were used at the mid week service. Needless to say, I have not been asked to take that service!
Perhaps I should have written this column over the Easter period to remind folk of the true meaning of this celebration. But the island’s news agenda was dominated by the murder of my friend and colleague Lyra McKee by the New IRA and I was so numbed by what happened to Lyra that I simply could not write anything.
But knowing Lyra as I did, she’d be telling me to get back on the laptop and get the column done. So in a way, this column is a tribute to that friendship.
Lyra was a journalist who knew how to throw down challenges, especially to the Christian community.
We see a similar challenge in the New Testament when Jesus Christ deliberately refuses to wash His hands in front of the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 15, we find in the King James Version from verse 1:
Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem saying, why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders for they wash not their hands when they eat bread?
But he answered and said unto them, why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? …. ye hypocrites …. This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines and commandments of men.
The core message from Jesus in this passage is that some religious traditions, which are simply man-made, need to be challenged and changed.
There are some religious traditions which are vital, such as prayer and praise. But some churches have invented petty traditions which have earned these new rules the same status as Biblical law.
In rural Presbyterianism for many generations, the concept of owning a pew was a major factor, and woe betide anyone who sat in the wrong seat! I recall a conversation after an elder passed away, that another elder said: “Its my seat now!”
There was also the tradition of the grudge. I recall in 1978 witnessing a verbal slanging match between two elderly Presbyterian farmers. There didn’t at face value seem much to the row, but upon enquiring I was informed that the two farmers’ respective grandfathers had had a falling out in 1902 and the grudge had been passed through the generations!
If the Christian Church is to have a relevant place in modern society, then it may have to ditch some archaic man-made traditions, otherwise many places of worship will become nothing more than old-age comfortable cliques.
It may mean some churches, denominations and fellowships having to swallow some bitter medicine. For example, those places of worship which insist that women can only be admitted to worship if they wear a hat, or men must wear a tie, may have to amend their strict dress codes if they want to attract new members into their pews.
I noticed in one so-called ‘hat brigade’ church that many of the younger women were wearing fascinators rather than hats, berets or scarves. I wondered if this was a comprehensive two-fingered salute to the male-dominated rule of women having their heads covered at worship?
Even during my time in rural Presbyterianism, the traditional harvest service was dominated - not by thanking God for the summer harvest - but by the latest fashions from the womenfolk of the church; that Sunday morning harvest service was more like a catwalk than a church!
And in the modern Presbyterian church there is a debate quietly simmering between traditionalists who prefer their minister to wear clerical collars and robes, and modernists who prefer it when their minister wears just a shirt, tie and suit. Its amusing to hear the two rival camps try to justify their respective traditions using Scripture!
The real danger is that if such religious traditions are not challenged, then church membership becomes nothing more than a habit rather than genuine worship.
At the same time, some traditions do need to be maintained so that an atmosphere of respect is also kept in God’s House. The fine balance, and the essential challenge to modern Christianity, is how to make having a vibrant Christian faith attractive to a modern generation?
Perhaps an equally valid question may be - if such traditions need to be challenged, who will be brave enough to stick their heads above the parapets or the pulpits to suggest such changes?
Given the fate of some people who have tried to change the traditions of generations, it will take some very dedicated and Biblically sound individuals to pull off such ventures.
As a number of people have found out, the Christian Church can be a very unforgiving place for those who challenge man-made traditions.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s slot, Call Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, as part of the ‘At The Table’ show.