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In some respects, I suggest, the articles have almost always been out of date, fighting the battles of a very particular period in history, and yet never revised for changing challenges and different debates.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.

Discerning the body?

thismybodyFrom time to time it can be a little hard to see exactly what point any particular one of the Church of England’s articles is making. As short statements, they are relatively free of a discourse context. This is to some extent the case with the twenty-ninth article. Is it directed against an antinomian position, and seeking to reinforce the importance of moral behaviour for worthy reception of the sacrament? Or is it directed against strongly realist views of the sacrament, by stressing the importance of faith for worthy reception? (The title makes me think it is this latter.) Whichever of these be the primary force of the article, it also needs to be asked whether it ends up putting too much stress on the worthiness of the one who receives, and not enough on the grace that transforms. Continue reading “Discerning the body?”

Whose calling in an incoherent church?

A bevy of bishops, aka the Lambeth Conference

After their rather brief diversion into Purgatory, the articles return in number 23 to the organisation and ministry of the Church of England. (The arguments and debates of recent years may, of course, suggest to some that Purgatory is precisely where such questions have lead the Anglican Communion.)

XXIII. Of Ministering in the Congregation
It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.

This takes a stand asserting episcopē over charismatic authority. It is not sufficient for someone to feel they have a calling: that calling must be discerned, validated, and echoed by those who have authority. There do appear to have been some ambiguities in practice with the recognition of those ordained in non-episcopal churches on the Continent, and it is hard to know how much these represented particular theological positions, and how much practical ecumenical generosity borne out of a sense of common cause against the papacy. But, as far as I can ascertain, the preface to the Ordinal remained essentially the same (on this point, at least) in 1549 and 1552, despite the more Calvinist tone of the latter. In what follows I indicate the changes between 1552 and 1662.

It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Which Offices were evermore had in such reverend Estimation, that no man [1552 adds by his own private authority] might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined, and known to have such qualities as are requisite for the same; and also by publick Prayer, with Imposition of Hands, were [1552 omits were] approved and admitted thereunto by lawful Authority [1552 omits by lawful Authority]. And therefore, to the intent that these Orders may be continued, and reverently used and esteemed in the [1552 reads this] Church of England,* it is requisite that no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.
[*1552 reads for this last section: (not being at this present Bishop, Priest nor Deacon) shall execute any of them, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following]

In one sense, again, this shows the weakness of Cranmer’s earlier article on the visible Church. There is no easy way to relate what he says there to what is said between article and ordinal here. Here the universal Church stretches back in visible documented history that is “evident to all men” to the time of the Apostles, and the writing of the Scriptures. Here also Cranmer makes clear that he intends that “these Orders may be continued” and so stakes a claim for the Church of England to be a visible expression of this catholic Church in this realm.

Cranmer is reforming the church, not refounding it, and the visible organisation and transmission of authority through episcopal orders is intended to trump any claim to immediate authority granted solely through an individual sense of being called by the Spirit, having the true meaning of the Scriptures, or being authorised by a congregation.

One of the questions that taking this seriously throws up for today’s Church is the appropriate level of authorization for particular lay ministries. In theory, and in most places, the ministry of lay preaching is carried out under a similar pattern of diocesan discernment, training and episcopal licensing through the order of Readers, increasingly now rebranded and broadened into the category of Licensed Lay Minister. The ministry of assisting at the Eucharist and taking Communion to the sick is carried out through parochial discernment and training, and some degree of episcopal recognition or delegation of authority so to authorise. Those congregations that see fit to organize their own recognition of these ministries are not only going against article and ordinal, but have simply failed to take due note of these as ministries of the whole Church.

But there are a great many other ministries, some of which are still rare or patchy, such as evangelist, lay pastor / pastoral assistant, or those who share collaboratively in the leading of worship. Here there is no coherence in discerning vocations, offering training, or otherwise encouraging or authorizing these ministries from diocese to diocese. It is a strange way to honour either people’s vocations or the bishops’ responsibility for oversight. Not all (or even perhaps the majority of) ministries need episcopal licensing, some do. Others require perhaps a corporate assent, which would include the bishop’s general consent, and then specific and more local developments.

Then there are the widespread and common ministries of reading the scriptures in public worship and leading people in prayer, where, to be frank, parishes rarely seem to exercise much discernment about whether people have a calling (or ability) to do this (and I suggest both these ministries are more important than we often treat them) or are trained to do it. And obviously, one could add a great many more, but the principle of appropriate discernment, training and commissioning enshrined in this article for ordained ministry, is one that could profitably be extended, and made coherent for all — not least for the benefit of all those who have been on the receiving end of an incomprehensible reading, or a homily masquerading as prayers of intercession.

It is also at least arguable that the clash between this article on a legitimately authorised ministry, the earlier emphasis on the visible church in a congregation that proclaims the word and ministers the sacraments, and the theologically concealed (and ill-founded) but ever-present reality of a national church, is in large part to blame for the incoherence currently affecting the Anglican Communion. The confusion in Cranmer’s ecclesiology is at least as responsible as new readings (or misreadings – take your pick) of scripture for the current situation where some priests feel they can choose their own bishop, and some bishops feel they can exercise authority in whichever diocese they want to.

(Not that I would minimise the problems of American cultural imperialism, and the exporting of their internal culture wars, nor the ambitions and egos of those who like to portray themselves as champions of orthodoxy.)

It is a stunningly awful practical illustration of the inability Anglicans have had to make a workable theological system out of Cranmer’s inconsistency, and an indictment of the Church of England’s inability to do what, I think, I have repeatedly argued was necessary, but may now have become impossible: to revise these articles coherently with fresh readings of scripture, and due attention to traditional ones. Relying on the British Empire and a form of common prayer in Tudor English to disguise major fault-lines has proved to be no substitute for a coherent ecclesiology.

A confusion of councils – high level messy church

It’s time after my long post-Brexit grief-induced silence to get back to the blog. I want to push on with my series on the Anglican 39 articles, and get it finished within the next month, if possible, so I can move on to other things.

This means we resume on the third of a mini series within the articles dealing with the Church and authority. One of the most bizarre features of the twenty-first article is the implicit contradiction between the emphasis on scriptural authority at the end, and its opening statement on the place of princes in calling church councils. Oddly enough, my Bible seems to omit the information that Claudius or his procurator summoned the Jerusalem Council. It is a sign of some of the confusions over authority that Cranmer resolves but poorly. Continue reading “A confusion of councils – high level messy church”

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.

Continue reading “Still confused about the church?”

Looking for the Church?

House of Peter ay Capernaum
Traditional site of Peter’s House in Capernaum, showing evidence of being converted over time into a church

Back in the day when Robert Runcie was archbishop of Canterbury, he addressed a conference of evangelical Anglicans (NEAC 1987) In that address, he challenged them to review and renew their ecclesiology. While he certainly had grounds for doing so, he might equally have challenged himself and many other Anglicans. If evangelical Anglican ecclesiology has sometimes looked non-existent, then liberal and catholic Anglican ecclesiology has tended to be promiscuous in its borrowings from the patristic period and contemporary Roman Catholicism. Much of the problem can be traced back the hopelessly inadequate nineteenth article introducing the section on the Church. Continue reading “Looking for the Church?”