The article on the homilies, discussed last time, intrudes a little on the logical sequence. In many respects, article 36, the topic of today’s discussion, follows more logically from the thirty-fourth, which I suggested was flirting with Erastianism.
XXXVI. Of Consecration of Bishops and Ministers
The Book of Consecration of Archbishops and Bishops, and Ordering of Priests and Deacons, lately set forth in the tine of Edward the Sixth, and confirmed at the same time by authority of Parliament, doth contain all things necessary to such Consecration and Ordering: neither hath it any thing, that of itself is superstitious and ungodly. And therefore whosoever are consecrated or ordered according to the Rites of that Book, since the second year of the forenamed King Edward unto this time, or hereafter shall be consecrated or ordered according to the same Rites; we decree all such to be rightly, orderly, and lawfully consecrated and ordered.
What we can see in this article is perhaps the clearest statement of Anglicanism as a via media present in the articles. On the one hand it wishes to maintain against Rome that the ordinal contains “all things necessary” for ordaining men to the historic threefold ministry of the Church. On the other it wishes to maintain against Geneva (the Puritans) that there is nothing “superstitious and ungodly” in the rites provided.
The stubbornness with which Anglicans have clung to the threefold ministry (intensified after the Interregnum) has then and now been a cause of surprise and suspicion to many Protestants. More than most aspects of the English Reformation it has shaped and determined what is involved in the Anglican claim to be Catholic as well as Reformed. Looked at from Rome, the most baffling aspect of this retention of the orders (or at least the same names, claims and funny hats for them) is the combining of episcopacy with giving the Crown-in-Parliament a role in the lay governance of the Church. Noticeably (and for the first time in the articles) the lay authority of Parliament is mentioned as confirming the proper validity of the rites which confer the Church’s holy orders.
This role of Crown-in-Parliament has been in all sorts of ways theologically problematic, even when considered as a form of lay participation in church governance. It is hard to produce a particularly strong scriptural, traditional or reasonable case for such involvement of the secular authority. Yet at the time of the articles it was not only the dominant element in constructing and reconstructing the English settlement, it was also in practice the fundamental means by which the via media was established, maintained and enforced.
As the role of Crown-in-Parliament has become increasingly a barely noticed formality in England (and most Anglicans world-wide exist in provinces where it has no role at all) it is also observably true that the via media is increasingly hard to maintain. I cannot regret the slow passing of this theological oddity that gave secular power a role in the governance of the Church, although I certainly regret some of the consequences of its passing.
The twentieth century (plus a few years) saw the unpicking of the knot increase exponentially. The Church of England struck out to become a denomination, and Parliament preferred to see its (somewhat strained and artificial) Anglican identity become a vestigial appendage.
Over that period there have been counter-contributions seeking to create a coherent, distinctively catholic, yet biblical Anglican ecclesiology, where the orders that are this article’s topic are seen as growing out of the gospel. (I think particularly of the outstanding but now very venerable Gospel and the Catholic Church by Michael Ramsey.) There have likewise been those seeking to create an evangelical one, which have espoused a pragmatic approach to these orders. Neither approach has proved capable of convincing the other. Anglican ecclesiology remains contested.
This article reveals as much as any that underpinning all of Anglicanism’s more recent crises is a fundamental ecclesiological weakness, masquerading – and in the past even functioning – as what has arguably been its greatest pragmatic strength: establishment as derived from the Elizabethan settlement.
The slow disappearance of the creaking bonds of law, the passing out of memory of many of the constraints of history, and the almost complete localising of liturgy: these are arguably all part of this unpicking of the knot that should never have been tied in the Reformation’s forced marriage of crown and mitre. Their vanishing reveals how little either theology or charity holds the church together when they are gone.