Still confused about the church?

In my previous post in this series, I suggested that the nineteenth of the Thirty-Nine articles mired itself and succeeding Anglican generations in all kinds of difficulties by appearing to define the Church in terms only of a visible church, tied to city localities or congregations. This view scarcely coheres with Cranmer’s and his successor’s actual practice, which was to regard the visible church as the national church. This is implicitly reflected in the twentieth article, read alongside the actual provision of rites and ceremonies to be imposed uniformly as a nation.

XX. Of the Authority of the Church
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

This continues to multiply confusion, by placing the cart before the horse. Cranmer would have done much better (in his own terms) to start where the article ends, in exploring the Church’s authority as “a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ” and then move on to more specific issues involved in the exercise of that authority. That would at least have given the article some coherence.

In fact, even this doesn’t really go far enough back. Thinking about the church’s authority really needs to reach back into the gospel narratives, and the fact that the church exercised authority before and during the collection of “Holy Writ.” (Likewise, even on a conservative reading, the call of Israel predates its scriptures.) The church has authority to proclaim the good news, to go to every nation, to baptize and teach, to heal and reconcile, and to share the life of the Spirit. That active authority to carry out the mission of God precedes organizational authority, the settling of controversies, and the adjudication of what makes for right worship, all of which are fundamentally subservient to the church’s nature as a sacrament of the kingdom of God, a visible sign of the mission of God, and an embodiment of the gospel.

That is, in a sense, what is also problematic about the idea of particular beliefs being of “necessity for salvation.” Right doctrine and practice is necessary for the church to be the effective vehicle of God’s love embodied and offered in Christ. The church needs to work at reflecting, embodying and teaching truth in order to carry out its Christ-given mandate to draw people into the life and love of God. But the idea that particular doctrines are necessary for salvation regarding individual belief is too easily misstated. Yes, right belief should help someone live the kind of life to which God calls us, though there seems to be a degree of evidence to the contrary. But no-one is saved by right doctrine, but by the God right doctrine should help us encounter.

The decreeing of rites and ceremonies points in fact to the role of tradition as an authority, and Cranmer’s liturgies, in any area where a major Reformation controversy is not in play, actually point to an attentiveness to the authority of  a past worshipping tradition, where, for Cranmer, it does not come into conflict with (his reading of) Scripture.

Likewise, in settling controversies, the voices of the Fathers, especially Augustine, also come into play for him as for the magisterial Reformers. The way in which the article simply starts with the Church’s power (which is primarily the power of the sovereign and bishops, here – and most certainly not the individual congregation of the previous article) makes it sound almost arbitrary, rather than a sifting of the past in the light of present readings of scripture. Again, what Cranmer says is not actually what Cranmer does. The binding of the BCP and Ordinal together with the articles demonstrates this, and leads to a concomitant necessity of reading the articles in the context of the worshipping church, and not in isolation.

Again, although I’m aware I’m not at this point offering a coherent alternative of my own, it does seem to me that the lack of cohesiveness between these articles on the church, and the lack of rigour in setting out an all too brief reaction against particular controversies of the day, is a serious problem. The failure to address it in less polemical times than either Cranmer’s or ours is part of the backdrop of present Anglican difficulties.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)