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 Issues | Thirty-Nine Articles | History

Articles of the English Reformation

There had been disquiet in England regarding the role of Rome for over 500 years.   It was Henry VIII who took the decisive act and asserted Royal Supremacy to restrict the interference of Rome.   However, as is well known, Henry's primary motivation was his own selfish interests.


Henry remained staunchly Catholic in his doctrine but recognised the spreading influence of Protestantism and gathered around him various Protestants including Thomas Cromwell and of course his Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Henry desperately wanted to bring Philip Melancthon, the Lutheran, to England, but he never succeeded.


Like most monarchs Henry's great concern was to keep unity. He therefore fostered a creative tension between the Protestants and the conservatives led by the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner.


During this time various sets of Articles were produced.


The Ten Articles 1536

In 1536 a Committee, under the auspices of Henry drew up the Ten Articles. This was a statement of the old ways, but with some openness to the new whilst specifically excluding extreme Protestantism. This demonstrates perfectly Henry's own views and religious policy.


The Bishop's Book 1537

The Ten Articles were replaced the following year by a book entitled, 'The Institution of a Christian Man'. It was propagated by the Bishops, under Archbishop Cranmer, but never had the authority of the King, Parliament or Convocation. Hence its popular name, the Bishop's Book.


It consisted of an exposition of the Apostle's Creed, the Seven Sacraments   (so-called), the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer and the Ave Maria.   It also included two of the ten articles on Justification and Purgatory.   Although this may not sound revolutionary it was actually a significant step in the process of reform. Cranmer was slowly but surely pushing ahead.


The Thirteen Articles 1538

In 1538 Cranmer arranged a meeting of three English and three Lutheran scholars. This is a clear sign of Cranmer's hope of an international agreement between Protestants.   They drew up Thirteen Articles but these were never published and the text of them was only discovered two or three centuries later.   Their text shows a clear link between the Lutheran Augsburg Confession and The Thirty-Nine Articles.


The Thirteen Articles were not authorised because at this time Cranmer was losing ground to Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester.


The Six Articles 1539

The ascendancy of 'Wily Winchester', as he became known, is demonstrated in the Six Articles of 1539 which undid much of Cranmer's gentle reforms.   They enforced transubstantiation, Communion in one kind, clerical celibacy (Thomas Cranmer had been married for some time, although he kept this quiet), monastic vows, private masses and private confession.


King's Book (1543)

The final significant statement in the reign of Henry was a book entitled 'The Necessary Doctrine and Erudition fro any Christian Man.'   This was a revision of the Bishop's Book, but it was a step in the direction of reform, rather it went back to the old ways.   It became known as The King's Book.


By the time Henry died in 1547 although the Church of England had made a clear break it remained substantially Catholic in doctrine.   Henry had allowed some latitude towards Protestantism but towards the end of his life many of the reforms had been undone.


Edwardian Church


Although only 11 when he became King Edward VI was very definitely Protestant.   His father, Henry, had allowed Thomas Cranmer to surround young Edward with Protestant advisors and protectors.   By now Cranmer himself had also moved to fully Reformed position and he lost no time once Edward was King in pushing ahead with a breathtaking reform of the Church.   This caused considerable resentment and open rebellion in parts of the country.


In the light of this it is surprising that nothing more happened with the Articles. Cranmer himself had a set of short articles he required new appointees in his own Diocese to sign but he did nothing nationally.    There have been various attempts to explain this, but the most natural is that Cranmer had his sight set much wider. It was known to be his vision to call together a general council of all the Protestant leaders.


He eventually wrote to the German and Swiss reformers making this proposal and suggesting that England under Edward was the safest place to meet.   By and large the responses were not as he hoped.   Mostly those he invited were fighting battles at home and could ill afford to be away. As the unpromising replies dribbled in Cranmer decided that he could no longer wait in the hope of some internationally agreed articles.


In 1551 Cranmer was commanded to draw up a Book of Articles of Religion.   In 1552 he laid before Council a series of 42 Articles, heavily dependent on his own earlier articles, but also, as later became clear, also on the 13 Articles of the joint Lutheran Anglican consultation.


It is these 42 Articles that are the substance of the Thirty-Nine Articles. There are differences amongst historians as to whether the Articles were actually approved by Convocation - that is the gathering of Clergy but the arguments are too complex to enter into here.   It does appear that they were ratified in 1553, just seven weeks before the death of Edward.


With Edward's death Mary came to the throne which lead to the restoration of Catholicism and the persecution of Protestants.   Cranmer himself was burnt at the stake and his prayer book and articles became defunct.


Elizabethan Church


The reign of Elizabeth brought further change.   By and large she took the Church back to the middle years of the reign of Edward.   Cranmer had produced two Prayer Books; the first (1549) was a half-way house whilst the second (1552) was much more reformed.   It is said that Elizabeth herself preferred the 1549 book but it was the 1552 book that was reinstated with some small, but significant changes.


Again, at first, nothing happened about the Articles.


The Eleven Articles

In 1561 a series of 11 Articles were introduced.   These were clearly intended to break with the reign of Mary but consciously avoided many of the contentious issues of the day.   The Clergy were required to accept them on being admitted to their benefices and they were to be read publicly twice a year.


The Thirty Eight Articles

In 1563 revision began of the 42 Articles. It would take far too long to list the changes made.   The work was largely done by Archbishop Parker.   It is possible to see some influence on the finished product from the reformed Confession of Wurtenberg.

Four articles were omitted, four new ones introduced and a further 17 changed, four of them fairly dramatically.


When they came to Convocation it was decided that three further articles were no longer needed because they attacked Anabaptist views. There were thus thirty-nine articles.


However, shortly before they were published Article 29 was omitted hence the 1563 Articles were Thirty-Eight in number.   The common belief is that Elizabeth herself had Article 29 struck out because it asserts that those who do not have lively faith do not receive the body and blood of Christ in Communion. Elizabeth, like her Father Henry had a more catholic view of the sacrament.


This aside, in several other respects these Articles were more Protestant than the earlier Forty Two Articles of Thomas Cranmer.   However, they were also less definite on certain points leaving more room for diversity of opinion.


The articles were not approved by Parliament and remained low key. It is thought that Elizabeth was fearful of the consequences of them being seen to forcefully as the faith of her Church.   In 1870 the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth, and it may have been this that led her to send the Articles to Parliament.


The Thirty Nine Articles

Bishop Jewel of Salisbury was given the task of reworking the Articles and although this was mostly very minor the missing article, number 29, was reinstated.   So it was that, in 1571, Parliament and Convocation passed the Thirty-Nine Articles into law, and they were authorised both in English and Latin.


Since 1571 the Articles have remained unchanged.


Commonwealth and Restoration

In 1642 Civil War broke out and the Prayer Book was abolished and replaced by the Directory or Worship, based on the Genevan Service Book.


Although subscription to the Articles was no longer required they were not replaced.   It had been intended that a new set of articles would be produced by the Westminster Assembly in 1648 and called the Westminster Confession of Faith.   However this was never fully authorised and, although it became the doctrinal standard of the established Church in Scotland and of many other presbyterian and independent churches in later centuries, it has never had an official position in England where it was produced.


In May 1660 the monarchy was restored and after a period of uncertainty the draconian Act of Uniformity was introduced in 1662. This established the Book of Common Prayer as the sole worship book of the Church of England for 300 years.   Alongside this the 39 Articles were reintroduced and this time Clerical subscription to them was rigorously imposed.



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