Things change, that is a rule of nature. How then can the Church stay the same? The answer to that lies in its Divine origin. It remains Christ’s Church; its message remains what it has been from the beginning – repent of your sins and turn to Christ through whose redeeming blood you are saved. That is the mission, and the Church must pursue it; that was Christ’s commission to his followers; it was, it is, and it will be until he returns again in glory. That is not the same as saying the Church has not changed since then. The list of developments is impressive.
We know St Peter was married, as were many priests. There was always a strain within Christianity which thought the unmarried state the best possible one, but mass celibacy would have seen the Church die out pretty quickly. Laity, and clergy, married. Not until the Middle Ages did clerical celibacy become the rule. It would be equally easy for it to cease to be the rule in the Latin Rite Churches. When, as is sometimes the case, people say “but how would a priest also support his wife and children?” one is tempted to ask why it is assumed the wife would not be able to bring in her income? That said, a thoughtful traditionalist would also point out that this development is no panacea to the lack of vocations; the Anglicans have had a married priesthood since the Reformation, and they are suffering from a want of vocations. In an era when presbyteries built for several priests and deacons are often occupied by a single priest who rattles about the place, a married priesthood might serve some useful purposes, but to see it as an answer to the crisis in vocations is to indulge in wishful thinking.
The earliest Christians knew, all all Christians do, that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, they knew Jesus was God and that the Father was God. They had no cause to reason through what the eye of faith revealed. But those who lacked it would resort to Scripture and, misreading it through their own want of faith, would say things which the Apostles had never said, It was through the process of disputing such things that the doctrine of the Trinity came about. The Creed itself was in one sense new – it had not been said in the earliest Church, but it was the perfect model of thoughtful traditionalism as it chimed perfectly with what had always been believed.
The same is true of the Canon of Scripture. As we see from The Acts of the Apostles, the first evangelists did not preach from the Bible, and it is highly unlikely that any Apostle ever read what we now take for granted as the “New Testament”. But we know from Tradition that the churches which had received Paul’s letters kept them, made copies and circulated them; the same is true for St John’s letters, although, as with St Peter’s, their circulation seems to have been more limited. St Paul wrote of traditions received orally and in writing, and that reflects the reality of the early Church. But by the second century there were texts in circulation which purported to be Apostolic, and by the third century there were a great many more. Tradition tells us what nothing else can, which is that there were only ever four Gospels accepted as Apostolic; similarly, most of the letters we accept as Paul’s were accepted through tradition – as, in the end, were the Catholic Epistles and the Apocalypse of St John.
So here, too, we see what looks like a great change. In St John’s day there was no New Testament, by the 320s there was, hence the legend that it was Constantine who ‘selected’ the texts. This is nonsense. The emperor simply ordered many copies of the text accepted by the Church to be made. Once again, we see how the Church has always proceeded by a mixture of tradition and thoughtfulness. When some bishops accepted false texts, their fellows would set them aright.
It is one of the falsest of the false charges brought against the Church that she shrinks from the exercise of reason. She asks only that human pride should submit itself to exercise that reason with the voice of posterity ringing in its ears, that we proceed with humility and acknowledge we were not the first and will not be the last here. But it stands, as it always has, resolutely for the unshakeable truth that Jesus is God, that he died for our sins, was resurrected, ascended into Heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead. It does not insist anyone believe these things if they cannot (although in the past it has), it simply says that if you do not, then it knows of no way you can be saved.