Monday, 30 June 2008

Can GAFCON really help us in England?

For anyone who is breathlessly waiting for me to say something about GAFCON, I’m holding fire at least until after the meeting at All Souls tomorrow.

To be perfectly honest, I was far too busy and stressed (not least by doing my tax return) to pay proper attention to the deluge of data coming from Jerusalem during the conference itself. Similarly, I’ve read through the Statement, and liked what I saw, but I can’t yet see what it is going to mean for us here in England.

In America and Canada, there is clearly a division taking place which will probably end in overlapping jurisdictions, some of which for the time being will be recognised by some parts of the Anglican Communion and others of which will not.

The big problem for me with the Statement is not that it says anything bad, or leaves out anything good, but that all the good things it advocates are already, in theory, governing what we do in England — and yet here we are still in trouble.

So, for example, the Statement reproduces almost verbatim Canon A5 of the Church of England:

We, together with many other faithful Anglicans throughout the world, believe the doctrinal foundation of Anglicanism, which defines our core identity as Anglicans, is expressed in these words: 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. (A5 in italics).

Again, every Anglican minister in England has to make a Declaration of Assent to this understanding of the faith.

So why is it we have so many bishops, priests, deacons and even readers who seem to be coming from somewhere else entirely — some of whom have no idea in particular as to what is in the Thirty-nine Articles, and when they find out are often astonished, not least by the fact that the Preface says they are to be taken in their “plain and full meaning” which comes from their “literal and grammatical sense”?

The Articles are deliberately not meant to provide much room for individual interpretation, so why is individual judgement in matters of faith held up almost as the ‘fortieth Article’?

What this reflects, I’ve suggested before, is an ‘institutionalized dishonesty’ which unfortunately prevails in the Church of England, and which no number of defining ‘statements’ can address. If, as happens constantly, you are able to say that you ‘assent’ to what you palpably don’t believe what sort of institutional mindset does this create? Surely not a healthy one!

It has been said that the Church of England operates a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ policy with regard to homosexuality. I would suggest that this may be less harmful in the final analysis than its similar ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ with regard to doctrinal convictions. Personally I would far rather work alongside a person whose sexuality was a private matter of some obscurity but who believed in those teachings of the Fathers and the Councils of the Church as are agreeable to Scripture, than someone of whatever ‘sexuality’ who denied those Scripture-based beliefs privately, but didn’t own up to it.

Of course honesty in all areas would be far better still. But when you institutionalize dishonesty about doctrine it really doesn’t matter how ‘open’ you are on issues of sexuality.

John P Richardson
30 June 200

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  1. Hi John,
    do you accept all the 39 articles in their “plain and full meaning”?
    do you believe that those who do not should be either a) excluded from full communion within Anglicanism, or b) excluded from exercising positions of authority? (or neither!)


  2. Hi Sam,

    The short answer is yes, pretty much. The one I really do struggle with is number 39, "Of a Christian man's oath."

    However, the point of what I'm saying is not so much that everyone must believe the 39 Articles as that an institution which requires assent, whilst not in some sense clarifying the difference between assent and conviction has institutionalised a 'fingers crossed behind the back' approach to doctrinal declarations.

    We have most definitely shifted from a time when assent meant "assent to the truth of", yet this shift has not been openly acknowledged.

    Significantly, the grounds for such a shift were laid by John H Newman who wrote this very interesting, and clearly completely disingenuous, comment on the Declaration:

    "... its injoining the ‘literal and grammatical sense,’ relieves us from the necessity of making the known [Protestant] opinions of their framers a comment upon their text; and its forbidding any person to ‘affix any new sense to any Article,’ was promulgated at a time when the leading men of our Church were especially noted for those Catholic views which have been here advocated.” (Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles, 1841)

    This is quite extraordinary from a man of great intellectual rigor, for in the same sentence he says we can and should ignore the known opinions of those who wrote the Articles when we decide on the sense in which they should be read, whilst we can and should take into account the known opinions of those who wrote the Declaration itself!

    Thus whilst he wrote in the same essay, "it is notorious that the Articles were drawn up by Protestants and intended for the establishment of Protestantism" he went on to say that nevertheless, "it is a duty which we owe both to the Catholic Church and to our own, to take our reformed confessions in the most Catholic sense they will admit," adding "we have no duties towards their framers".

    This extraordinary piece of 'postmodernism' must, I think, be to some extent the reason for the situation the Church of England subsequently found itself in, with many clergy assenting to Articles with which they knowingly disagreed.

  3. "We have most definitely shifted from a time when assent meant "assent to the truth of", yet this shift has not been openly acknowledged."

    Not acknowledged where? It was pretty explicitly discussed at my theological college before we got ordained, when people raised questions about how far we had to 'assent to the truth of' the 39 Articles. We were taught that the new phrasing of the Declaration of Assent was explicitly drafted to do away with any sense that the 39 Articles had to be agreed with in toto, but they did have to be recognised as a major factor in the evolving Anglican tradition. It's that latter thing - the evolving Anglican tradition - which seems to be the real occasion for dispute.

  4. Hi Sam

    On the status of assenting to the Thirty-nine Articles etc, I was aware back in probably the 1970s that clergy were being allowed to 'assent' to the Articles without actually believing them.

    However, I felt then, and feel now, that this was an example of being disingenuous, rather than open and honest.

    By contrast, when I was interviewed by George Carey at St John's Nottingham in 1976, he asked me whether I had any problems with the 39 Articles, and I assumed he was hoping that I didn't - or at least not too many.

    To say that the Declaration of Assent means no more with regard to the 'formularies' than that I agree they have had a past role in the evolution of Anglican doctrine is to assert a truism as if it were a profound truth and, at the same time, to leave Anglican doctrine free-floating, detached from its historical roots except for a kind of backward glance and, as we have seen in North America, a fond wave of farewell.

  5. Some of us cannot except Article 3 in its plain meaning, since that cannot be established by the authority of Scripture. If I can't accept Article 3; then I don't accept that the 39 Articles are straightforwardly authoritative today; then it follows that I can't sign up to Gafcon (given JD 4).

    The only way to sign up to Gafcon for evangelical Anglicans who don't accept all the 39 Articles (and who don't order their worship according to the authoritative BCP; cf. JD 6) is to sign up by way of accepting the general thrust of Gafcon, but not its details.

    Pete Head

  6. Peter,

    I had to look up Article 3, which for the rest of us reads, "AS Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell."

    It is interesting that the Canons state, "The Thirty-nine Articles are agreeable to the Word of God and may be assented unto with a good conscience by all members of the Church of England" (A2).

    If "are agreeable to" meant "tell us exactly what we should understand by", I wonder why the Canon continues, "and may be assented to". Surely that should then read, "must be assented to"?

    At other points, however, the Canons describe the Prayer Book, for example, as "not repugnant to the Word of God" (A 3). This seems to be rather more fluid than "are agreeable to", but still neither is entirely dogmatic.

    This then raises the quite serious question of just what the Canons require us to believe of and assent to regarding the Articles - something Sam has addressed.

    The JD quotes Canon A5 almost verbatim: "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."

    This would seem to say (as I'm sure it should) that Scripture judges the Articles. Thus I would personally take it to be 'legitimately Anglican' to say that I am not sure Scripture teaches what Article 'n' seems to suggest.

    This would bring me into tension with Canon A2's "are agreeable to" (I would be saying it is not), but would sit OK with the same Canon's slightly more flexible "may be assented to" (I am, in this instance, not assenting).

    This would involve a degree of private judgement, but it would be rather different from simply saying, "I don't agree, even if what the Article says is what Scripture appears to say."

    Any thoughts?

  7. Hi John,

    I don't think the declaration of assent as presently used is equivalent to a 'farewell' - not least because it is grounded in assent to the creeds which are rather more important.

    What I would want to distinguish between is a) a liberal rejection of all possible historic formularies, including the creed, along the lines of Spong and his ilk, and b) an evolving understanding of what that tradition requires us to say today, as in 'proclaim afresh to this generation'.

    Having just had another brief glance at the articles, I think the only ones I'd quibble with are the ones that seem to have the doctrine of penal substitution in the background. That's because I see that doctrine as a good example of what evolves over time (another long discussion).

    I note, by the way, that lay presidency seems to be outlawed by the Articles ;-)

  8. Sam

    I suppose it depends whether the attitude to the Creeds by those who make the Assent with reservations about the Articles is allowed to be the same. I cannot see why it shouldn't - which gives me cause for concern.

    On the Articles and lay celebration, the key Article is, I think, 23 "Of Ministering in the Congregation". This forbids public ministry without lawful authorization, but the wording is very careful since it derives from earlier Articles agreed between Anglicans and Lutherans, and Luther, as I have observed, had a very different point of view.

    Cranmer himself was quite clear that 'ordination' was essentially about appointing someone, and that nothing was conveyed to the person through the rite as such.

    The 'lay/ordained' distinction is thus more blurred than might appear - or at least, is not what it was before the Reformation in England.

    Notice also, the Article does not specify that the appointing person must be a bishop.

  9. I suppose the word hovering in the background is 'authority'. That is, part of giving assent is, to my mind, about accepting things as having authority over one's work. So, assuming that the creeds are more authoritative than the 39 articles, it seems perfectly proper to require of ordinands a fairly explicit submission to the creeds as representing 'this is what we teach'. And so, if an ordinand with Spong-like views came along, it would not be right to ordain such a person.

    Rowan also says this, when he says that what is appropriate work for a theologian (pushing boundaries) is not appropriate work for a bishop (preserving unity). The conservative catholic nature of the latter is much more deep seated in him than the putatively liberal conclusions of the former - which is why the liberals were so disappointed by his leadership!

    However, there is some latitude here, simply because it is surely not just possible, but to be expected, that people can grow into the faith, and into an understanding of the tradition. I know in my own case that I have become much more conservative, eg on the resurrection, over time, including since being ordained. That could be because I have a fairly conservative view of authority generally, including on obedience.

    BTW on lay presidency, my understanding is that the Lutheran church doesn't accept lay presidency, is that right? Also, whilst I think there is such a thing as 'the grace of holy orders' I'm fairly content with ordination being fundamentally an 'appointment', ie a separation sideways for purpose, not an elevation upwards. In other words, I'm still a member of the laos, the people of God.

  10. Did Christ descend into Hell in the sense that he was temporarily divided from God?
    From Rachel

  11. Rachel

    Read Calvin's Institutes on this. I could tell you what he said, but it is much better to get to grips with him yourself.

    I think this link may work. Scroll down for the section on the descent in Hell.

    They are, incidentally, laid out in a pattern following the Nicene Creed.

  12. I think for clarity, tone, and substance, the CEEC statement of faith is excellent (and superior to Gafcon):
    It begins: "As, members of the Church of England within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we affirm the faith uniquely revealed in the holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, of which the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion are a general exposition. Standing in the Reformation tradition we lay especial emphasis on the grace of God - his unmerited mercy - as expressed in the doctrines which follow."

  13. These issues are depicted in papers prepared by customer writing specialists, so you can find them available online! Nice post - keep it up!