Stale Expressions of Faith?

39_ArticlesOne 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)

5 Replies to “Stale Expressions of Faith?”

  1. Good stuff Doug. There’s no one or simply definition of Anglicanism, as you say, except, I like to suggest, as an imagination, a way doing things that doesn’t necessarily lead to convergent conclusions, but is the working out the shared methodology- scripture- tradition – reason, prima rather than sola scriptura, holding catholicity in tension with reformation, real presence and lex orandi lex credendi being candidate concepts for this participation in a journey …… I look forward to more on the 39 articles. I wish I had the ability and the space to look at the BCP as a subversive document, as I think it just might be!

  2. Doug, I hope to follow these reflections, though I might also be hit and miss.

    I am not surprised that David Philips hates the Declaration, but I think it is correct. As you say, it would be impossible to pretend we lived in that historical context, as David seems to imagine.

    But he does point up something important: that the Church continues to ordain people who, to one degree or another, simply don’t subscribe to Anglican doctrine. And this is a problem.

    The mistake on both sides here is to fail to realise that ‘bear witness’ is a powerful and significant theological category–indeed, a central category for Scripture’s own self-understanding. It doesn’t mean we need to sign up to all the theology of the articles; but it does mean that we need to see ourselves on a faithful trajectory to that which the Articles set us on.

    I think there is a real problem for people who essentially say ‘Actually the Reformation was a mistake, and we really believe in Rome—but they wouldn’t let me marry and don’t have a very good pension scheme’ which does appear to be what a good number go Anglicans in effect say.

    (I feel another blog post coming on…)

    1. Hi Ian, I shall look forward to the conversation, although this series is going, in all truth, to be fairly hit and miss as well!

      Your idea of trajectory is an interesting one, but I’m not sure it quite works. There’s a bit more of an element of pendulum swinging in there, historically, I think, and if we’d followed the trajectory the Elizabethan settlement would have given way to a full on Puritan congregationalism, I suspect.

      I’m a bit less sanguine than you are about agreement on what the phrase “Anglican doctrine” actually signifies, and I sometimes think that for every pseudo-Roman there’s a pseudo-Pentecostal, and nowadays probably with the latter outnumbering the former. For both, if they don’t normally use Anglican liturgy (and as far as I can see they don’t much do so), how can they share Anglican doctrine (whatever exactly that is)?

      1. Random thoughts….

        Doctrine is the problem. So let us, like the mystics, dump it, and do theology instead.

        What’s the definition of a definition? Does a definition always close down, can’t it open up?

        Do we need Anglican doctrine? Marx (the German Archbishop, not Groucho or Karl) made an interesting point at Synod on the Family last week – that we too easily confuse doctrine with theology. I’m not sure Anglicanism (I would defend the term!) was ever quite as interested in doctrine as it was in theology, and the recent (in Church History terms anyway recent) loss of the centre of the CofE to a poorly articulated and increasingly confused and fracturing evangelicalism has skewed the argument towards “correctness”, when Anglicans were always more interested in “process” or “participation”. Of such is paradox made!

        The other issue is the confusion of the term “Anglican” with “Church of England”. Richard Hooker, the base line for Anglican “process and participation” always had the Puritans especially in the person of Walter Travers. And it’s still the same. We, like them, are one Church split over whether Grace is available to all (Hooker & Anglicans) or just to the elect (Travers and Alpha Christianity (come on, read the small print in Gumbel’s Questions of Life))

        So I’m wanting to say, yes there is a coherent thing call Anglicanism, and the Pilgrim course beautifully articulates that coherence (Leader’s Guide p23-24) which is a description of an imagination, a process and a participatory theology that sits light to doctrine. That puts Anglicanism in a trajectory that takes it towards Mysticism. And that can only be good news!!

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