Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Thirty-nine Articles and the Church

(Ed: In an effort to keep the ball rolling on the subject of Anglicanism as a theological system, I thought I'd reprint the following, which was a talk given to an evening meeting of our own congregations a couple of years ago.)

That the Thirty-nine Articles were designed to benefit both the church and the state by settling religious disputes is evident from the Royal Declaration of 1562:
Being by God’s Ordinance, according to Our just Title, Defender of the Faith, and Supreme Governour of the Church, within these Our Dominions, We hold it most agreeable to this Our Kingly Office, and our own religious Zeal, to conserve and maintain the church committed to Our Charge, in Unity of true Religion, and in the Bond of Peace; and not to suffer unnecessary Disputations, Altercations, or Questions to be raised, which may nourish Faction both in the Church and Commonwealth.
That is the Anglican ideal, based on the model of church and state conceived at the English Reformation. There are to be no disputations, altercations and questions. Instead there is to be unity and the bond of peace, in state and in church.
The nature of the Church
But what is the Church? Article XIX tells us:
THE visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
Notice first, the reference to the visible Church, as distinct from the invisible Church. The invisible Church is the company of faithful believers known only to Christ. And indeed the Westminster Confession of 1647 began its definition of the Church there:
The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect ... [emphasis added]

But of course the membership of the invisible Church is known only to God, and the Articles leave that aside, concentrating only on the visible. And what is visible is the preaching of the Word of God and the ministering of the Sacraments according to Christ’s commands. Where you have those, you have the Church.
Church and diocese
But here we hit a modern political issue. In his book The Anglican Understanding of the Church, Paul Avis, who is a very influential writer in these matters, denies that Article 19 means that the local congregation is the fundamental unit of the Church.
He argues from the fact that the Latin version of this article refers to a coetus fidelium — an assembly of the faithful — which he says refers to “a national church made up of dioceses” (p77). He concludes,
The ‘local church’ in Anglican ecclesiology denotes ... the community of word and sacrament gathered, governed and led by the bishop. For Anglican ecclesiology , the ‘congregation’ in the strict sense is the diocese. (Avis op cit)
Not unnaturally, this conclusion has made Avis very popular amongst bishops, but whilst Avis is right in saying that the Article has a wider view than the local congregation, he is, I would argue, wrong to say it is the diocese.
Particular and national churches
The reason I believe he is wrong is because the Articles themselves don’t think of the Church in this way. The critical Article is 37, Of the Civil Magistrates, which says this:
THE King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain ...
The administrative boundary of the Church, within which its spiritual affairs are ordered, is not the diocese under the bishop, or even the province under the archbishop, but the nation, under the King, under God. Then, just as the civil administration is broken down into smaller units, so is the church’s administration broken down into dioceses and parishes. As Thomas Cranmer himself wrote,
The ministers of God’s word under his majesty be the bishops, parsons, vicars, and such other priests as be appointed by his highness to that ministration: as for example, the bishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Duresme, the bishop of Winchester, the parson of Winwick, &c. All the said officers and ministers, as well of the one sort as of the other, be appointed, assigned, and elected in every place, by the laws and orders of kings and princes. (‘Questions and Answers Concerning the Sacraments and the Appointment and Power of Bishops and Priests’ in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, Ed J E B Cox [Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1846, reproduced by Regent College Publishing], 116, emphasis added)

Insofar as the word ‘local’ means ‘belonging to a particular place’, the smallest place the Church of England recognizes where the Word of God is preached and the Sacraments administered to the people of that place is thus the parish, not the diocese. In fact the Word of God is never preached to the people of a diocese, nor are the sacraments ministered ‘diocesanly’.
The understanding of the ‘particular’ Church as essentially national is seen in the second part of Article 19, which refers to Churches where, it would be presumed, the pure Word of God is not preached and the Sacraments not duly administered:
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
The same thing is also reflected in Article 34, Of the Traditions of the Church. This explicitly recognizes that because of the variations in customs according to time and place
Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ...
According to the Articles, therefore, it is the national boundary which defines the organizational boundary of the Church.
And this is because the Articles work from a very specific understanding of society. According to the thinking behind the Articles, as shown in Article 37 Of the Civil Magistrates, authority in society devolves from God to the monarch and then to the other instruments of government. Indeed, this understanding, at its application, might arguably be seen as the Church of Englands unique contribution to the Reformation.

In essence, it is Romans 13:1 applied to the maximum: “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Paul Avis calls it an Erastian paradigm, on the basis, as he puts it, that “it gives the state a rĂ´le in spiritual oversight.” But Erastianism is generally thought of as a secular state controlling the Church, and that is not at all what the Articles have in mind. What they envisage is a godly Prince (Article 37) controlling both state and Church for the promotion of godly, Christian, living.
Without a doubt the arrangement between Church and State in England has become Erastian, and (almost) without a doubt the Church of England will eventually be disestablished. But we must not accuse the Articles of something they don’t in fact contain.
However, the relationship between Church and monarch envisaged by the Articles has massive implications for authority within the Church, which is the subject of Articles 20 and 21.
Article 20, Of the Authority of the Church, says first of all that the Church “hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies”. But remember, this would apply on to a ‘particular or national Church’. It is not an individual power — that is denied in Article 34, because, in a godly state, the individual does not have such authority. That can come only from the monarch. So, according to that Article, if the individual does presume to “break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church” it not only offends the order of the Church, it challenges “the authority of the Magistrate”.
Authority in the congregation
And remember, again, according to Article 37, the authority of the magistrate is the monarch’s authority. However, the same principle applies to authority within the Church. The authority of the Church’s officers also derives from the monarch, as we can see in Article 23 Of Ministering in the Congregation.
This takes some unpacking. First, it says,
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.
Notice, first of all, what this doesn’t say. It doesn’t say “Only priests have the power to celebrate communion.” The important word here is ‘lawful’ — it may be possible, but it is not lawful to preach and administer the Sacraments unless you have been lawfully called.
But who are we to recognize as lawfully called? The second part of the Article gives this answer:
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.
The lawfully called are those who have been called and sent by people who have been given public authority to call and send.
But who are they? The Articles do not say the bishops. In fact, the words bishop, priest and deacon are remarkably rare in the Articles and entirely absent here, where we might expect to see them.
The simplest and most obvious thing for Article 23 to have said would have been,
It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of public preaching or ministering the sacraments in the congregation, before he be ordained a deacon or priest by a bishop.
That is what happens in practice, so why is the language of Article 23 so convoluted? The answer is that we are talking about the authority of the Church, not the nature of the ministry. And at the back of this is actually the Lutheran, which was simply this:
Concerning ecclesiastical orders they teach that no man should publicly in the church teach or administer the sacraments unless he be rightly called. (The Augsburg Confession)

But of course for Luther, the local congregation could rightly call someone to the public office of teaching and administering the sacraments. Moreover, for Luther every Christian was able to do this by merit of being a Christian. The issue was only how someone might rightly be authorised to do it publicly, in the congregation.
The Anglican Articles started life at a time when the Church of England and the Lutheran churches were in negotiations to see if they could reach an agreement. And even after these negotiations broke down some features of Lutheran theology were allowed to remain, and this is one of them. Public ministry in the congregation is allowed to the person who is properly called. In England people who do the calling are the bishops. But who gives them not just the ecclesiastical office but the public authority to do this? The answer is, the monarch. It is the monarch who has the power to confer public authority on the bishops lawfully to call and send ministers into the Lord’s vineyard, because all public authority comes from the monarch.
We see this in the Homily against Rebellion which says this:
[Christ] and his holy Apostles likewise ... did forbid unto all Ecclesiastical ministers, dominion over the Church of Christ.
The important word there is dominion. According to the homily, Christ refused dominion over the Church. When the people came to make him king he fled because his kingdom was not of this world.
By contrast, though, God has,
... constituted, ordained, and set earthly Princes over particular Kingdoms and Dominions in earth ...
So dominion belongs to the monarch. But the monarch may delegate lawful authority to the officers of the Church, just as he does to the magistrate. And so the bishop, as the King’s officer, is given power to call and send ministers. But it is a limited power — limited by the fact that it depends on the monarch for its lawful authority in the public realm.
General Councils
This limitation of authority, though, is most spectacularly seen in Article 21, Of the Authority of General Councils, where it says this:
General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes.
The reference to General Councils is those councils of the Church whose deliberations can be seen as binding on the whole Church, not just the particular or national church.
But the thinking behind the Article is very cautious about this, not least because such Councils can’t be guaranteed to get it right, as the second part of the Article says. So the authority of General Councils of the Church was limited in two ways. They couldn’t prescribe anything contrary to Scripture, and they couldn’t meet without the approval of the godly Princes, because those Princes had the responsibility for governing the national Churches under them.
The function of the Church 
So what can the Church do in its own right? The answer is, proclaim the Word of God, guard the faith and administer the Sacraments.
To do this Article 24 says the language used in the congregation should be one that the people understand. (Incidentally, contra Avis, the clear understanding here, when it talks about "public prayer in the Church", is that the Ecclesia is actually where people physically gather to hear God’s Word, to pray and to receive the Sacraments.)
It is allowed in Article 32 that bishops, priests and deacons may marry as they judge it will better serve to godliness.
Article 33 lays down that the Church may excommunicate people until they are received back by someone with appropriate authority.
Article 35 gives approval to the Homilies, which provided ready-made teaching material for those that couldn’t prepare their own.
Article 36 recognizes that the forms of consecration and ordination found in the Ordinal from the time of Edward VI are effective and lawful. The duties of a minister are laid out in that Ordinal. The details of Christian living are to be worked out in the day-to-day life of the Church. It remains only to remind ourselves that the Church, according to the articles, is made visible where there is true preaching and administration of the sacraments.
That is not only where the Church is, but that is where the Church is most visibly.

John P Richardson
31 October 2009

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  1. John,

    I would like to post your entire article on my weblog Anglicans Ablaze and at a future date post it one or more of my other websites. Is that agreeable with you.

    Robin G. Jordan

  2. Robin, would you like to post a few paragraphs and link here for the rest? That's what I usually do on Anglican Mainstream.

  3. John,
    For Anglicans Ablaze that would work but for the other websites I would like permission to reproduce the entire article with appropriate credits.

    Robin G. Jordan

  4. Robin, in that case just do whichever seems easiest. It's fine by me.

  5. John,
    Thanks.Much appreciated.
    Robin G. Jordan

  6. It was posted at VOL, or, and, unsurprisingly, as of tonight, 6 November, not one comment.

    Reformation theology is but a "nice to have, long as it's not central...sssh!!!!"

    Normally, at VOL, one gets the usual 10-15 reappearing.

    Curious absence of comment. Oh, I guess it's not surprising after all.

  7. Rev. Richardson:

    When posted last night, I went to sleep thinking perhaps the above post could be read to imply that your article was impoverished, that is, that that was the reason for non-response at my favourite site, VOL.

    Not at all.

    The sense was: the Articles and Reformation is over--over here in the US--and is not important to the Americans. Or, to the degree that it is, it's one of the plates among several other delicacies.

    Ergo, no surprise here.

    Same thing is happening to Ashley Null's article on Cranmer.

    And, so it goes.

  8. Reformation, that's exactly what I thought - and what I guessed you meant. In the USA, the 'Anglican' church has long since backed down on the Reformation - note the name change from the Protestant Episcopal Church (PECUSA) to first ECUSA then The Episcopal Church.

    I meant what I said to apply most specifically to the Church IN England, as well as 'of'. (Though it's a shame I can't get the Septics on board as well.)