One of the few things that’s clear about “Anglicanism” is that Anglicans can’t bring themselves to agree what it means. The mechanisms whereby Tudor monarch, parliament and archbishop acting together could impose any kind of doctrine on a divided church are long since gone and have never been replaced. History also proved that they were of strictly limited effectiveness, and very few contemporary Anglicans would see much biblical or theological justification for Henry’s approach to Church government.
Doctrinally, this has left the foundation documents of the Church of England somewhat stranded. The official position is this: first in Canon A5
The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.
In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.
Then comes the declaration of assent which each licensed minister, lay and ordained is required to make:
I … declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness;
These appear to agree on a gradation: Scripture is bedrock, the creeds are a distillation of that faith, and the Prayer Book, Ordinal and Articles are signposts to, or examples of, the said doctrine. That said, the phrase “historic witnesses” is generally taken read as a downgrading of those documents. One very conservative Anglican, on behalf of his equally conservative organisation, fulminates against the wording:
It ought to be plain to everyone that the Declaration has not stopped people entering the Church of England ministry who do not believe in God, nor those who do not accept the divinity of Christ, nor those who engage in or promote sodomy.
Clergy in the past were required to ascribe ex animo (from the heart) to the Articles, because they are a faithful exposition of the teaching of Scripture. But this modern wording merely says, that the Church has borne witness (past tense) to this faith in the formularies. (David Phillips, Church Society article accessed 08/10/15)
More than that, actual practice in almost every existing strand of Anglicanism rarely uses the Prayer Book for worship, very few of those who have been ordained have been ordained with Cranmer’s Ordinal, and the 39 Articles are not much used, as far as I can tell, in theological formation and education.
In what I expect to be an occasional series, I want to renew a conversation with the 39 articles, and bring contemporary readings of scripture and tradition into that conversation. I think that, like all Church tradition, they need to be treated more seriously than an historical anachronism. They are, even on their own terms, open to revision and reformation. Nobody reading them properly should be able to claim they should be excluded from semper reformanda (part of a Reformation slogan meaning “always being reformed”).
They belong also in a package with the worshipping life of the church, anchored as they are to the prayer book and ordinal. Turning to the articles alone, as though they were a complete and discrete confession of faith, seems to me unjustified both in historical and theological terms. They are much more like a series of boundary markers laid down in the disputes of the Reformation. Those disputes look different today, and many (most?) of our questions were not even on the horizon. Some of the boundary markers may need moving, some may be wrong, and some may need shoring up.
Exploring an historical root of Anglican expressions of faith, also leads into questions of renewing catechesis – that is, being serious about the teaching of the faith, and not just the sharing of faith. Catechisms have also got a little lost: as one of the Reform and Renewal papers noted at the start of this year: “The Catechism of the Church of England is an important but neglected document.” (Developing Discipleship GS1977). Neglected indeed, the present revised catechism (yes it does exist) appears nowhere, as far as I can see, on the Church of England website.
A long time ago, on a blog far, far away, I wrote a series on the 39 articles, no vanished into the ether (or possibly buried beneath the sands of Tatooine). One of the ways in which this series will, I hope, differ from that one is that I will be keeping some of those catechetical questions in mind. That seems to me one of the better reasons for engaging a particular snapshot of where Anglicans once thought both their core beliefs as well as their hot-button issues were in our formative past.
This series could take a long time: I don’t intend to post items frequently and I do intend to give each article at least one post to itself. So if you’re at all interested, stay tuned. Once I’ve got enough posts together, I’ll do an index page.
(The first in a series on the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion)