The Blessed John Henry Newman wrote “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Change is constant. When Gilbert and Sullivan wrote that ‘every boy or girl born into the world alive is either a little liberal or else a little conservative’, they were recognising an innate difference in how humans react to change: for some it is a fearsome thing, to be resisted; for others on that part of the spectrum, it is an inevitable thing, but needs managing, preferably by those of a conservative disposition, to prevent it doing too much damage. As one gets to the side of the spectrum where it is to be welcomed, one finds those who presume it is good and for the best, but do not want to go too far and too fast, through to those who think the faster and the more radical the better. The one constant in all of this is that change happens. The optimistic liberal will see the good things and emphasise them, the pessimistic conservative will see the bad things and bemoan them: in all of this ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are in the eyes of the beholder.
Christianity, as an historical religion, has faced these stresses and strains for longer than any other institution. We see from the very beginning tension between the ‘men from James’ who disapproved of what Peter and Paul were doing in not insisting that Gentile converts ate kosher and got circumcised. Visions to Peter, and the Council of Jerusalem sorted that one, but we see in John’s epistles arguments over whether Jesus was really God, and if so, how. It was those sort of arguments which made the question of authority important, and which had led modern commentators like Ehrman to argue that what we call orthodoxy was, in fact, simply the creed of the victors. It was certainly that, but if believing certain things is essential to our salvation, it was also more than that.
The older churches, not unnaturally, will give weight to tradition that newer ones do not – hardly unexpected if the latter have none. Inspiration by the Spirit is easy to claim, but in the absence of widespread healing miracles or other signs of Divine approval, the rest of us try to gauge by the yardsticks Christians have used for many centuries – but we are conscious that those yardsticks themselves are the product of change. We have no idea what St Polycarp would have said if he had been asked to express his belief in the Trinity. We do know what many Middle eastern Christians said when asked to believe in the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ in 451 – they cried ‘heresy’ and ‘Nestorianism’; like the much earlier schism over the dating of Easter or the day that was the Lord’s day, many of the early splits were the product of traditionalist insisting on not departing by a word from the traditions they had received: ‘hypostasis’, was, like ‘Trinity’, a word which appeared nowhere in Scripture or in the writings of the early Fathers. Both words were, their proponents argued, ones which expressed concepts implicit in Scripture – but that, their opponents, argued, was the sort of thing anyone could say to justify innovation.
Latterly – and in terms of the history of global Christianity, the last four and a half centuries in the West are just that – the splits have been the other way, with the Roman Catholic Church defending what it inherited against those who wanted change. Many of the things Luther and the reformers wanted were perfectly reasonable, and some have come to pass, but those in charge of the Church saw them as much as a threat to their power as to orthodoxy. But on both sides of the Reformation divide, change has continued – and will. With the exception of the Taleban, no religious group in the modern world has succeeded in setting the clock back.
But no Christian can be a conservative who fears change, because we believe in change – the change that God’s Spirit creates within us, transforming and changing us – to be redeemed is to be changed – so Newman was right.