Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Anglican Orthodoxy: the ‘Top Five’ questions?

In the light of recent developments, and further to my own suggestions on this blog, I have been wondering how one might reasonably and responsibly examine the orthodoxy of Anglican ministers or candidates for ministry.
In the spirit of the lists compiled by Rob Fleming, the hero of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity, I have come up with my ‘top five’ issues, all taken from the Thirty-nine Articles.
This is a completely serious suggestion, by the way. When our Benefice was recently interviewing for a new vicar, although I was (rightly) not allowed a vote in the final decision, I was allowed to question the candidates and to give my reflections. Amongst other things, therefore, I asked each of them for their take on Article VII, ‘Of the Old Testament’.
Rather than looking for ‘yes or no’ answers (“Do you believe in the resurrection?”, “Duh, yeah!”), it is better to allow people to show their ability in handling theological issues, so I would give an opportunity to respond to a statement, not simply to say whether they agreed with it or not. It is also important to have a limited list, and therefore it is impossible to cover every topic.
Nevertheless, I offer the following as Anglican statements of doctrine with which it would be perfectly reasonable to expect Anglican ministers to show some familiarity and conformity. You may wish to suggest alternatives. The only requirement is that if you add one in you must take one out.
So here are my ‘Top Five’ questions to establish Anglican orthodoxy. Try them yourself, or try them on your vicar (or bishop!).
Give your response to the following statements (adapted from the 39 Articles):
1.         “Christ ... truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of people.”
2.         “Original Sin ... is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man ... whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil ... and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.”
3.         “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine.”
4.         “Holy Scripture doth set out to us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.”
5.         “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.”
What one would be looking for in the answers would be, amongst other things, an absence of ‘nuancing’. The Declaration attached to the Articles in the Book of Common Prayer says that,
... no man hereafter shall either print, or preach, to draw the Article aside any way, but shall submit to it in the plain and full meaning thereof: and shall not put his own sense or comment to the meaning of the Article, but shall take it in the literal and grammatical sense.
Obviously they were wise to people ‘hedging’ their responses even in those days!
The more, therefore, someone’s answers show that they are, as we now say, ‘comfortable’ with the Article, the more we can be similarly ‘comfortable’ with them — and, I suggest, vice versa.
 John Richardson
13 July 2010
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  1. 1. Amen! He is my only comfort in life and death. And this does not contradict effective atonement.

    2. A perfect description of me.

    3. Yes, yes, yes!!! Shame the Jerusalem Declaration left out the "only".

    4. Which is why we should be gently and lovingly seeking the conversion of those of other faiths.

    5. Which is why women should be neither licensed as lay readers, ordained as presbyters, nor consecrated as bishops, why faithfulness to scripture and the Anglican tradition means that we cannot recognise the authority of a female bishop, and why those of us who are ordained cannot consider our oaths of canonical obedience ("in all things lawful and honest") binding if a female bishop is appointed over us.

    Stephen Walton, Marbury

  2. 'Obviously they were wise to people ‘hedging’ their responses even in those days!'

    Except of course the people 'hedging' back in those days had rather more to lose than those who do it today; the stakes were rather higher.

    Whilst I agree on the need for commitment to orthodoxy (I'm a Catholic!), even so the demand for un-nuanced assent always evokes in my mind that same meanness of spirit that in previous ages had the hangman's rope to enforce it. Clearly that is not where we are now, and I have great sympathy for the battle you're trying to fight - but then one must wonder if the CofE, 'by law established', who in any case chose to pronounce for itself upon what constitutes the orthodox, won't be forever vulnerable of being hoist by its own petard for precisely that reason. Fill the Church with people who maintain that female clergy are entirely consistent with Scripture and the faith, and all you have left is contradiction and counter-contradiction; who is right and who is wrong takes something of a back-seat, because in the end it is the raw numbers that will decide.

  3. The first 4 are about salvation. I think you need to include Article 2 on the person and natures of Christ. So I would have to relegate original sin as I think an acknowledgement of actual guilt is more important than an understanding of original sin.

  4. Michael "the stakes were rather higher" - and hotter.

    The point of what I am arguing is that I doubt many Liberals could do very much with these statements except hedge around with them, and therefore they would show that in the end they are not really that committed to the Anglican faith, even though many of them have a passionate love for the Anglican order.

  5. David, you could get around the first point by simply adding back what my elipsis leaves out from Article II, which is the words "very God, and very Man".

    However, on the issue of original sin, you will find that this is much more revealing than simply asking people if they believe we are actually guilty of sin now.

    Again, perhaps, my first elipsis here omits too much, but the crucial words missing are these "[Original sin] standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) etc ..."

    It is the exclusion of Pelagianism which matters here.

  6. William Fisher13 July 2010 at 14:02

    As a non-Anglican I find that the following thoughts occur to me:

    (1) Why stop there? Should a general edict be made to all bishops and clergy of the Church of England that any who do not believe each and every one of the Thirty-nine Articles “in the literal and grammatical sense” should forthwith resign their orders? If such an edict were issued and universally obeyed, what percentage of Anglican clergy would (at a very rough guess) remain?

    (2) Are all laypeople in the Church of England obliged to believe each and every one of the Thirty-nine Articles? If the answer is “yes”, should it be made clear that any who do not are no longer entitled to regard themselves as members of the C of E? If the answer is “no”, does that mean that you have a two-tier system, where some beliefs which are obligatory for the clergy are optional for everyone else?

    (3) I ask here purely for information. I believe that it used to be the rule that every new vicar/rector, after his induction to a parish, was required on a Sunday shortly after his induction to read out all the Thirty-nine Articles to his congregation and to declare his assent to them. Is this still the case?

  7. Surely the only sensible answer which would mean that the man was invited to pastor the congregation would be, to each of the five:

    "But of course! What else could be the case?"

  8. "The Offering of Christ once made in that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone"

    covers most of the ground in your first 4 points.

    I wonder if there are any of the articles we could do without - perhaps the Book of Homilies, Church Councils and Civil Magistrates?

    As to what the person in the pew should believe, we should be instructed by the Catechism

  9. Ha ha! I am Dominic as well; not the Dominic above, although I often enjoy his contributions, and this one in particular.

    What stuck me about the first four as I thought through how I would answer them was that they give such assurance - full atonement, corruption that directs me to the next point, Christ's righteousness and then the exclusive and certain gift. Not necessarily the central point, but it emerged out of each of them.

    And that led me to a second thought - I would want a minister to be more than "comfortable"; the more I mulled them over, the more I was excited, delighted, just smiling as I talked. And that's what I'd want my minister to be. Maybe it's not "natural" in an interview situation, but I'd want him to be preaching to me - (and perhaps then remember himself, and carry on more composedly). If the content of what he said was accurate and coherent, that would be a good sign.

    (Come to think of it, I remember doing something like that once - but I wasn't appointed...)

    Dominic Webb

  10. Can you please post the relevant passage of the Anglican ordination vows (with reference to the adherence to the 39 Articles) for the benefit of those not so familiar with these things?!

    Most ministers I have heard making reference to the 39 Articles do not appear to have regarded them as the defining statement of the Anglican faith but rather an important historical landmark in the development of the Anglican faith. I was wondering how typical this view was, or whether it simply reflects a liberal minority?


    Iain McColl (Bristol)

  11. 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.

    The ordination of women bishops can be seen as being at odds with, or, to put it another way, is "repugnant" to the plain words of 1 Timothy 2:12.

    And yet others would say that forbidding the ordination of women bishops, or even just adopting special arrangements regarding women bishops runs contrary to the plain words of Galatians 3:28.

    What to do in such a situation? I'm sure we'd all agree that all of us are fallible, and cannot know with absolute certainty when we are wrong and when we are right. Are we to keep attacking each other, matching one quote from the Bible with another, matching one moral argument against another? However strong our convictions feel to us, we should never let ourselves be fooled into thinking that there's no way we could possibly be wrong, because that would be to presume infallibility.

    So maybe it would be appropriate at this point to mention that part of Article XX that you missed out:

    The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith

    Are you as big a fan of that part of the Article as you are of the bit you quoted?

  12. Iain, the relevant bit is below. I think there is a widespread view that the Declaration can be taken to mean the Articles are, indeed, just some kind of historical landmark.

    I personally don't think this is how the Declaration actually reads, nor do I think it is a view consistent with the spirit of making such a Declaration in the first place.


    1(1) The Declaration of Assent to be made under this Canon shall be in the form set out below:


    The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It 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. In the declaration you are about to make will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?


    I A B, do so affirm, and accordingly 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; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorised or allowed by Canon.

  13. James 67, I am fan of all of the Thirty-nine Articles.

    Having said that, there are clearly 'core' issues in the Articles - the denial of some of which would mean one was simply not a Christian - and 'peripheral' issues, some of which are historically contingent.

    So, for example, I don't think when Article XXXVII says, "It is lawful for Christian men at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars," this has the same theological significance as Article I's declaration of faith in the Holy Trinity. (Nor, I am sure, did Thomas Cranmer.)

    Nevertheless, on a contentious issue - Christian pacifism - the Articles do take a view, and an honest Anglican who disagrees with that should at least acknowledge the point.

    When I was being interviewed for admission to St John's Nottingham by one George Carey, he did ask me my views on the Thirty-nine Articles. I am glad he did, and I am glad I had read them.

  14. "What one would be looking for in the answers would be, amongst other things, an absence of ‘nuancing’." I recognise the tendency to equate "nuance" with "lack of evangelical faithfulness", as I am often the victim of it. I tend to think that absence of nuance would reflect an absence of thoughtfulness in relating the teaching of Scripture to the articles.

  15. Peter, perhaps what I should have said is the degree of nuancing is the thing to watch. Outright denial is, I think, more of a problem - and the 'death of a thousand nuances' would be also be a worry.

  16. I'm sure this wasn't your intention, John, but this sounds like Anglican McCarthyism. 'Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the nuancing party?'

    Every response to scripture is always nuanced in some form. Do you use a translation? It will be nuanced to a huge degree, because it relies on people making choices about words.

    This post expresses the typical conservative evangelical desire for groupthink: the only un-nuanced view of scripture is my view of scripture. My experience in an Anglican church is that everyone has a nuanced view of scripture to some extent. The idea that all the people sitting in the pews and listening (or not) to the sermon are of the same mind is rubbish. We shouldn't confuse silence with agreement.

    And let's not forget that the 39 articles were drawn up in a society that saw nothing wrong in burning people at the stake for their adherence to scripture. I'd call that fairly nuanced wouldn't you?

    Like I said, I'm sure that's not quite what you meant. And I understand your frustration. But I'm not sure an attempt to impose orthodoxy in this way is the answer.

    (And apologies for my ungrammatical abusing of the word nuance!)

  17. My five that every minister and layman would have to swear to - on pain of excommunication - would be:

    1. AS Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed that He went down into Hell.

    2. GENERAL Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes.

    3. THE second Book of Homilie … we judge them to be read in Churches by the ministers diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.

    4. The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death for heinous and grievous offences.

    5. It is lawful for Christian men at the commandment of the Magistrate to wear weapons and serve in the wars.

  18. Murray, thanks for your contribution. Here are my own responses. Not too much 'nuancing' I hope:

    1. This is in the "Apostles'" Creed, which clergy affirm in the Declaration of Assent. The Reformers gave different understandings of it - so room for 'nuancing' here with the tradition - but the phrase itself is repeated in churches worldwide every Sunday.

    2. This raises important and interesting questions about the relationship between the church and the state following the 'legalisation' of Christianity and the calling of the 'ecumenical' councils. A fruitful discussion could be had, though it is not central to Christian doctrine.

    3. The note on the homilies has to be read in the light of the rubric in the Communion service: "Then shall follow the Sermon, or one of the Homilies ..." One could usefully discuss the idea of Communion without a sermon or homily.

    4. Where the realm retains the death penalty, Christians may indeed be punished with death. The old medieval practice of having two legal systems - one for laity and one for clergy - was not a good idea.

    5. Pacifism may be an option for some. It is not a requirement for all Christians.

  19. Hey John, thanks for your response. I highlighted these as probably the five phrases that are included in the Articles that are at least questionable or, in the case of Article II, downright pernicious and false outside of Elizabethan England.

    I hope that Anglican Christians in Nazi Germany or Mugabean Zimbabwe or Communist China would be able to deny that they weren't able to form a council to decide matters of their Church without the "commandment and will of [their] princes".

    I am glad that I have been able to agree that the Articles are part of the history of the Church of England and that they have (in part) borne witness to Christian truth. It would appal me if they were made into a universal "soundness" shibboleth.

  20. We have a Chelmsford here as well, and I have spent much time in it, as my father and grandfather lived just over the border in Westford. Tangent, that.

    Nick, I am curious how you would respond to the Christian charity of my tone if I were to dismiss your comments as "typical liberal" evasions. In fact, I am curious enough that I shall try:

    "Nick displays the typical liberal evasion of our retrospective knowledge that the dishonest McCarthy turned out to be more correct than his even more dishonest critics, and conveniently omits to mention that those who do not subscribe to even the creeds, let alone the 39 Articles, frequently disguise this with evasive nuanced responses about the faith." There, how did that sit, then? Doesn't it seem a bit, er, inflammatory and ungenerous?

    As to nuance, Richardson's request that candidates respond to the articles, rather than simply answer yes or no, gives them an opportunity to expound with true nuance, showing their command of the concepts in particular situations and making general observations applicable to our place and time.

  21. AVI, I thought that John was after acceptance, rather than ability to grasp concepts.

    "What one would be looking for in the answers would be, amongst other things, an absence of ‘nuancing’."