Over the last couple of years we have offered a series of daily meditations on our website over Lent. Last year we looked at the Homilies, and the year before that at George Herbert’s book on pastoral ministry. This year, with it being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we turn to the Church of England’s own Reformational basis of faith — the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
It’s the anniversary of Luther’s famous stand against indulgences this year, and there has been much debate about his legacy. Naturally we want to repudiate the violence of the 16th century, and must regret that there was and is division amongst the churches. Ultimately, however, the Reformation clarified a very necessary distinction between teaching which leads people astray spiritually and the more edifying teaching of the Bible — freshly released into the world, in a language people could understand, by the Protestant Reformers.
So over the next 40 days or so, we will be exploring what the foundational statements of Anglican teaching written by those Reformers actually say. The Thirty-nine Articles give us some excellent doctrinal handles on the teaching of the Bible, to which of course they are themselves entirely subordinate.
Certainly the Articles were designed to be more than a historical curiosity. Some people have said that the Church of England is not a “confessional church.” But the formularies demonstrate otherwise. Canon 36 of the 1604 Canon Law laid down that all clergy should subscribe ex animo to the Articles, and Charles I declared that they express “the true doctrine of the Church of England agreeable to God’s word.” Though things have changed somewhat since then, the Thirty-nine Articles remain at the heart of our ecclesiastical constitution.
Today’s Canon A2 states that the 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.” Not just clergy, but all members of the Church of England can assent to the Articles with a good conscience as expressing our confession of faith. Indeed, Canon A5 goes on to say that the doctrine of the Church of England, grounded in the Holy Scriptures,“is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion,” along with the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. So they are a statement of official, authorised Anglican doctrine.
Despite the fact that subscription requirements have been somewhat watered down, all clergy must still refer to the Articles, and in their Declaration of Assent at ordination each is asked to affirm their “loyalty to this inheritance of faith” as their “inspiration and guidance under God.” This may not be the sort of subscription that requires agreement with every single word “without reservation”, but it clearly commits any honest ordinand to a careful study of the Articles and a generally submissive (and joyful) demeanour towards them.
The formularies are not merely descriptive of what former generations thought: they still bind those who make such declarations with integrity; they are Anglican DNA. We should encourage all Anglican people to read and study them well, and to find out more perhaps by reading this short book on the foundations of our Church, or this more weighty commentary on the Articles. There is even an audio version of the Articles available for free download online!
The Articles can be of great use in contemporary debates. They are in fact an underemployed resource in many Anglican discussions. So our hope is that over the next 40 days you will enjoy discovering or re-discovering these important and pithy statements of biblical and Reformational teaching, and then put them to use again in your own church as appropriate.