Not exactly the finished articles

BCP 1559I began this series just short of a year ago, and I have been intermittent in my pursuit of its completion. It seems reasonable, however, to attempt to draw some threads together.

The Anglican Communion is clearly in a parlous state at present, and there are a variety of current reasons for that. However, blogging my way through the 39 articles has brought home to me some of the ways in which today’s problems have their roots in the past. There are two particular aspects I want to note by way of concluding the series, before ending with some positive affirmations.

The first is that except for the fairly light revisions reducing Cranmer’s forty-two articles in 1552 to thirty-nine by 1571, the articles have been largely stranded in the past. Cranmer’s original work represented the high-water-mark of Calvinism in the Church of England. Somehow the church managed to live with most of his 1552 Prayer Book and the greater part of his formulation of the articles, long after the tide had receded to a far more moderate Calvinist position.

In various ways the retention of episcopacy, the Elizabethan and Jacobean battle against the Puritans, the survival of the cathedral tradition, the routine of a daily liturgy of set prayers that also incorporated readings from the deutero-canonical books, and very noticeably the trauma of the Interregnum all combined to offset that Calvinism with something much more self-conscious about its (small-c) catholicity. (Yet only with a small “c”. The creation of a national Protestant island identity has outlasted Christian Britain, and survived in the anti-Europeanism that we have seen intensify in recent months.)

In some respects, I suggest, the articles have almost always been out of date, fighting the battles of a very particular period in history, and yet never revised for changing challenges and different debates. In legal terms, the articles are now downgraded to historic formularies (although it took a long time to so) and clearly one among others. This is the preface to the declaration of assent required of all clergy:

[The Church of England] professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.

It honours them, but this is far from a ringing endorsement of their present value. In practical terms, most lay Anglicans are fairly unaware of them. If asked about what statements of faith are used by Anglicans, most would be more likely to answer in terms of either the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. (Nowadays, with the disappearance of Matins and Evensong, probably only the Nicene Creed.)

The articles themselves, of course, strongly suggest their own reformability by the place they give to scripture, and the statements they make about the possibility of error even in ecumenical councils. Unfortunately, no-one found a way to reform them in practice, however needed or desirable such reform might have been. One thing I believe I have shown in my examination is that there is no group currently in the Church of England that really upholds the articles in their entirety, however much some small conservative evangelical groups claim so to do.

This lack of an agreed mechanism for, or possibility of, reforming the articles (and perhaps thereby making them a useful set of boundary markers for the contemporary church’s thinking and practice) leads into the second problem that seems to occur again and again. There is no really coherent ecclesiology in the articles, whether that be working out the relationship between congregations and the catholic church, or the eschatological nature of a divine society in human and historical institutional form. The Holy Spirit gets short shrift in the articles. Assertions about a national church are hardly well-grounded theologically, and depend on a mix of misapplied Old Testament typology and a pragmatic obedience to the monarch as the only alternative to papal authority.

The role ascribed to the Crown-in-Parliament becomes in practice a fig-leaf for covering diversity and calling it comprehensiveness. But once Parliament admitted first Dissenters and then Roman Catholics, its role as a lay assembly of the church gathered round the chief lay minister of the Realm could no longer be upheld with any integrity even by the most romantic, Erastian or imaginative Anglican. The question of where authority resided had always had an inadequate answer, but then even that inadequate answer was exposed as a fiction.

Furthermore, this model was not fully capable of export, although it appeared to function within the British empire about as well as it functioned at home. But in the USA, with its democratic traditions, lay votes were far more powerful than anywhere else, and its polity was far less episcopal than its name suggested.

By contrast, in the newly reshaped post-imperial cultures of Africa, even among evangelicals, bishops have attained a power, status and authority that would embarrass many an ultramontane Catholic. (That confusion worse confounds the dialogue of the deaf between many Anglican bishops today.) It seems clear to me that what Anglicanism needs most is a vast amount of ecclesiological work, that actually tries to address some of these many inherited problems.

Having said all that, you may be wondering whether there’s any point to being an Anglican after such an indictment. But if my trawl through the articles has revealed what I see as significant problems, it has also helped me clarify where I think the strengths lie.

  • Its doctrinal statements exist in the context of a worshipping church, and more of what it believes can be found in how it prays than in abstracted arguments.
  • It shows a commitment to rooting itself in the scriptures guided by the scriptural reasoning of the patristic era especially, but also tradition more generally.
  • It tends to distrust absolute commitments to inerrant truth and absolute authority, even if it achieves this both through and at the cost of muddle and mess.
  • It is necessarily particular, and if that has proved to be a real problem in its concept of monarch and national church, it is nonetheless essentially committed to genuine inculturation.
  • The now outdated model of Crown-on-Parliament still bears witness to an essential role for lay people in the governance of the church, which is always balanced by its commitment to episcopacy.
  • Wherever possible, it is a both-and church, and not an either-or one, however confused and confusing that can sometimes be.

There may be many occasions when the grass looks greener on the other side of the Tiber, but in the end I think that short list reflects something more of who I am. It is perhaps the character of Anglicanism which resonates with me. But it is, I think, a changing character in a very swiftly changed and changing society, and perhaps that makes the development of good ecclesiology a more urgent task.

4 Replies to “Not exactly the finished articles”

  1. Oops. Somehow this got posted in two versions, with an earlier draft appearing later. On that now deleted draft, Wyn Beynon commented:
    “I enjoyed this a series a lot, not least because I agree with you ~ mostly!. An interesting aside is to wonder about the place of the 39 articles in other Anglican Churches. Certainly in Wales, which effectively ditched the BCP in the 1970s, the 39 Articles are just a bit of history. I guess the same is true in Scotland. On the other hand the Gafcon Churches very clearly recover the 39 articles and place them prominently in that heterodox mishmash, the Jerusalem Declaration of 2008. But maybe that’s someone else’ PhD!” (Wyn, please feel free to add it again as your comment!)

    1. Arrggh! It posted before I was finished, and now I can’t edit it. My spelling and grammar isn’t as bad as the comment implies. I hope you got the gist: I enjoyed the series!

  2. Thank you for this series of on the 39 Articles. I have found them illuminating and interesting. Like you I think they are a political and historic document from another age and context but I can’t see any institutional body likely to spend energy reviewing them. As you say, they are very specifically English and don”t export well. I like your bulleted list of strengths.

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