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Details matter: Against ‘adiaphora’

This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter
Isn’t generally heard, and if it is it doesn’t matter,
matter, matter, matter, matter, matter,
matter, matter, matter, matter, matter!

Gilbert and Sullivan, Ruddigore (used in the film version of The Pirates of Penzance)

The refrain has been around for a while: “In what is essential, unity; in what is doubtful, liberty; in all things, charity.” A quick web search suggests its complicated history as a sort of pre-Internet “meme,” and this early Lutheran catchphrase has taken on a life of its own as a slogan for well-meaning ecumenists.

The notion of adiaphora, or matters of indifference, makes a strong appearance in modernity, perhaps most notably in Lutheran and Anglican contexts, though it does so almost entirely in relation to questions of worship and church governance rather than in theology proper. My modern Church history colleagues might provide a more comprehensive analysis. For the moment I am content with the suggestion that our near-universal distinction between “essentials” and “non-essentials” (or, sometimes, doctrine and discipline) is relatively new.

New, and toxic.

Details matter. As one 12th-century commentator put it, in the mysteries of the Church “there is nothing idle.”[1]

Not everything is equally important, and I take Paul Nesta’s recent point about becoming too obsessed with minutiae, to the exclusion of weightier matters. This post is not a simple rebuttal of his piece earlier this week; it was written some time before then.

Using the wrong blessing over incense or making the sign of the Cross in the wrong direction are not the same order of error as a deacon purporting to celebrate the Eucharist or a priest misconstruing Trinitarian doctrine or a local synod declaring new and aberrant interpretations of the Catholic faith. Still, everything matters; nothing is wasted; nothing is idle.

Adiaphora can be a justification for division, a balm for guilty, schismatic hearts, weak medicine for charitable souls. As a general term, it may be useful to note that some disagreements matter more than others. But it is useless as an actual description of how to categorize those disagreements. Can everything really be categorized as either “necessary” or “doubtful” in absolute terms?

In the context of the traditional Latin rite, it is, rubrically, no less “necessary” for a priest to keep together the index finger and thumb after the first consecration than it is “necessary” to say the words of institution: neither of these are matters of indifference, even if one matters more.

In the context of contemporary Protestantism, all such ceremonial actions are considered “indifferent” — except when they’re not. To put on pontificals and celebrate solemn Mass in a nondenominational megachurch would make these adiaphora suddenly significant: it would become essential for them to be absent.

Is it essential or necessary that I wear a traditional alb and amice or that I wear the stole crosswise? I am supposed to say: No, of course not, this is a matter of ceremonial indifference. Yet suggesting that ceremonial variation in this case will not invalidate or profane the Sacrament is not the same thing as saying that it should be a matter of indifference. It is essential to wear the traditional vestments and wear them in the traditional way precisely because we have not made up this way of wearing them; this detail is something we received and did not choose, something that suggests that the liturgy we celebrate is not simply ours but that of the Church Catholic.

Then I am supposed to say: This is not a question of salvation! (After all, everything “essential for salvation” is “contained in the Old and New Testaments,” according to the vows I took at ordination.) But why, I wonder, can a small liturgical gesture not be a matter touching on salvation?

I do not imagine that making a traditional gesture saves me or damns me any more than I imagine that feeding the poor saves me or that praying “the sinner’s prayer” saves me. God saves me; that is the “content” of the Old and New Testaments. But is it so difficult to imagine that our participation in that salvation, our consent and our cooperation, our remaining attached to Christ (John 15:5), is not merely a legal question, or a moral question, or an abstract theological question, but a geographical question, so to speak — an entire orientation of the body and the soul to the person in whom is our life and health and being?

If such is the case, I do not accept the arbitrary assertion that some things matter and others do not, or that the priority of one thing over another at any given moment creates an eternal, all-or-nothing division. Everything matters, even if everything does not always matter in the same way or need to be asserted in the same way.

Returning to the refrain, I am not arguing that we remove any category for reasonable difference in the Christian life, creating an oppressive monotony in life and worship. Yet I think our regular, knee-jerk assertions that almost everything except the Creed is adiaphora do great damage to the unity of Christian witness as well as to the integrity of Christian life.

A concrete example of a different kind: I live and work at a boarding school, and one of the biggest complaints we hear from students concerns our many rules. We have a demerit system and work squad and a disciplinary council and an honor council. The rules can seem trivial and even oppressive: Check-in times before bed. Detailed dress codes. Greet faculty when you see them on campus. Ask permission to leave the table at formal meals. Stand when a teacher enters the room.

A lot of these rules are quite small and, in an institutional and cosmic sense, “not touching on salvation.” Our school will not crumble to the ground if students do not stand for me when I join them at table. A boy walking through the hallway without a blazer does not presage the end of the world.

But this does not mean that the rules are not essential or necessary; it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. They matter because they’re small, because they’re designed to get students into the habit of being sensible, polite young people oriented to the good of others. And, to be honest, some of the kids who might be inclined to get into trouble in “essential” things (say, with drugs or sex or cheating), find that they are naturally prevented because the “indifferent” things are enforced with such enthusiasm.

Small habits matter, especially when combined with a concern for “weightier matters” (cf. Matt. 23:23).

When the details slip, when they cease to matter, so do the important things, in the end. The category of non-essential, non-salvific things in the Church has become an ever-hungry, self-important monster, demanding an ever larger domain.

Sometimes it seems that the only remaining “salvific” concerns for mainline churches are assertions that certain things do not matter, such as ceremonial, doctrine, and, most obsessively, marriage, sex, and sexual difference. We have, in effect, relegated our salvation to a narrow part of ourselves that no one, including ourselves, ever really sees. Here is the apotheosis of being spiritual but not religious (and likewise religious but not spiritual).

How then can we be saved? I have long been haunted by Sam Wells’s assertion in God’s Companions (2006) that the mission of the Church is to make the whole world a Eucharist; I am also struck by how similar this point is to Paul Nesta’s conclusion to his recent piece, on how the whole world might be a service of Benediction.

But part of what that entails is, surely, a concern for the details. The ablutions aren’t so much about saving the Body and Blood from profanity as they are about saving all profane things for their holy calling. This world, the world of specific crumbs of bread and drops of wine, is the one that Jesus entered. And the Eucharist is the Church’s model for how everything in the world matters, how nothing is wasted. We need to speak and act like things matter.

Therefore, it is no idle talk to wonder about things like orientation in worship, as some of my colleagues here have recently done (herehere, here, and here, as well as this TBT from The Living Church). It may be that the direction of a priest at Mass will not in itself fix all problems or destroy all souls, but that doesn’t mean that it is a matter of indifference. We need conversations about small things sometimes as much as we need them about large things. We need to learn, as Mark Clavier recently suggested, that there is much more complexity in human thought than the trading of strongly worded indifferent opinions.

Everything can matter, everything can be discussed, everything can be disputed — even taste — and it is our inability to have serious conversations about small things that cloud our discourse about big things.


[1] “Notate singula mystice; non enim est hic quidquam otiosum.” Speculum de mysteriis ecclesiae, Col. 335D in Migne’s Patrologia Latina, vol. 177.


  1. Great article. I’ll bet you could predict that we Western Christians make the sign of the cross backwards. I’ll bet that almost all Eastern Orthodox would want us to keep making it backwards, though, as that is our received tradition. Not so for the filioque though.

  2. Another approach was taken early by Anglican theologians. It was a realisation that breaking down all theology and religious practice into essential and non-essential parts was an oversimplification. We learnt pretty quickly that once something is declared non-essential it is abandoned. Richard Hooker distinguished between the esse and the bene esse: those things that are respectively essential to the church and are for its wellbeing. Rather than adiaphora, something that is of the bene esse, while not being essential, is beneficial. In the 20th century, an additional term was added: plene esse refers to something that is of the fullness of the church. It sits between the two others. It means we can look at a Baptist church and see it has the essential elements of a church, but has rejected as adiaphora those things that are of the plene esse, the fulness of the church. Thus, salvation is possible in that place, but it is a faith that’s impoverished.

  3. You very sensibly added “rubrically” to your comments on the celebration of the mass. S Thomas Aquinas clearly says that that there are things that “sunt” aut “non sunt” “de necessitate sacramenti”:

    “Si tamen sacerdoti probabiliter constet se aliqua omisisse, si quidem non sunt de necessitate sacramenti, non aestimo quod propter hoc debeat resumere immutando ordinem sacrificii, sed debet ulterius procedere. Si vero certificetur se omisisse aliquid eorum quae sunt de necessitate sacramenti, scilicet formam consecrationis, cum forma sit de necessitate sacramenti sicut et materia, idem videtur faciendum quod dictum est in defectu materiae, ut scilicet resumatur a forma consecrationis, et cetera per ordinem reiterentur, ne mutetur ordo sacrificii.”

    Summa Theologica, III q. 83 a. 6 ad 5

  4. If anything can be disputed, then anything can be asserted, including the proposition that some matters are trivial and that law-givers who turn such matters into matters of law should be ashamed of themselves.


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