XX Of the Authority of the Church

Article20Anglicans are often seen as strange by others (an themselves also at times), Catholic and Reformed, and never seeming quite sure of exactly what it is that holds us together. One wit in history described Anglicans as ‘a divers group of people loosely bound together by a prayer book’. Of course the subject of what Anglicans believe is not as new subject and has probably be a subject of discussion since around 1536 when Thomas Cramner composed the ten articles. The Thirty Nine Articles where compiled under the direction of Matthew Parker (+cantab) in 1563 and finalised in 1571, and enshrined and published in the Book of Common Prayer 1661/2.

The inception of the Church of England (I accept that there is a good argument to place this in the first century) as we know it was seen in the edict of Henry VIII, announcing that the Pope had no temporal authority in the English Realm. This was quite a different debate to the reformation in European cities, and had to do with the need for economic reform and Henry’s conviction of a sacred responsibility to produce a male heir. For some parts of history Clergy were required to ‘subscribe’ tot he articles, and today clergy in England are required to ‘affirm their loyalty to the 39 articles and other historic formularies’. Anglican Clergy on the rest of the world do not.

The are often jokes made about the 39 articles, especially in Catholic circles, and the relevance to the contemporary is sometime questions. Some Evangelicals try hard to make them a confession of faith much as the ‘Westminster Confession of Faith’ is used by Presbyterian congregations, however that is pushing it too far. The Church League publish the thirty nine articles on their website, though in truth I suspect that many of their members would struggle with some of them.

That having been said they are part of the historic tradition of faith that Anglicans have inherited and maybe even are worth a look now and again. Article 20 is an interesting case in point and perhaps more use should be made of it on both sides of the house.

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, yet, 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.

So taking it step by step.

  1. The Church has power to decree rites and ceremonies
  2. The Church has authority in controversies of faith
  3. The Church can not ordain anything contrary to God’s word written
  4. The Church can not expound one place that it be repugnant to another.
  5. The Church is witness and keeper of Holy Writ
  6. The Church should not authorise anything against Holy Writ
  7. Besides what is in Holy Writ the the Church cannot require any thing to be believed as necessary for salvation.

And so in plainer speak

The Church can decree its own liturgy, and can rule on matters of faith: but not against the Bible, nor can it read part of the Bible in a way that makes no sense of another. The Church, keeper of scripture, is duty bound to be bound by it, nor can it expect any more of it’s members.

Obviously some reflection comes to mind.

Not the least of which is that the Book of Common Prayer was endorsed by the Convocations of York and Canterbury in 1661 and by the House of Commons and the House of Lords and received Royal Assent in 1662. Since then it has been known as 1662, where as if Article 20 was seriously considered it should be referred to as 1661.

Another is the notion of the dynamic tension which seems to characterise Anglicanism at many points, be it between Bishops and Synods, Bishops and Deans, High Church and Low Church. Catholic and Reformed, Word and Sacrament, Scripture and Tradition, Faith and Reason, Priest and People, Parish Council and Rector, …. We seem to have, and if we don’t we set them up, dynamic tensions everywhere. Of course the strength of this is that at no point is their an absolute authority.  On the one hand that leaves us without the apparent comfort of certainty, and on the other grants to us all the freedom and the responsibility to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.’

There is, even in the article itself, this dynamic tension expressed, where at one moment we speak of ‘God’s word written’ immediately followed by how we are to expound the scriptures. In point of fact this is not especially different to the ancient rabbinic tradition that required two witnesses, one from the law and one from the prophets  to establish anything, though it may represent a more encompassing development from that starting point.

The Anglican Church has typically dressed itself in Authority, and worn it loosely.

      1. Bible
      2. Testaments
      3. Creeds
      4. Councils
      5. Centuries of the Fathers

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