XXVI — OF THE UNWORTHINESS OF THE MINISTERS, WHICH HINDERS NOT THE EFFECT OF THE SACRAMENT
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.
It is not often that we find liberal Anglicans quoting from the 39 Articles. Nevertheless Article 26 is a favourite with some who want to say that evangelical ministers and their congregations should accept whatever bishop they are given and not raise questions about their teaching. Their argument is that the title of this Article states that unworthy ministers do not hinder the effect of any Sacrament they administer. Therefore evangelicals should accept the bishop they are given. Yet the logical conclusion of that would be that a professed Buddhist could administer Christian sacraments without any problem. That would seem bizarre and shows why it is important to understand the proper significance of this Article.
The background to the Article lies in the error of Donatism (not a heresy as some loosely say) which was an issue in the early centuries of the church in North Africa. This error can be found in any context in which there is misguided zeal for the purity of the church. It is about majoring over minors and breaking fellowship with faithful Christians. The error creates divisions between Christians. The great Augustine of Hippo saw that the resolution of the issue came about through recognising that the professing church will be a mixed body containing open sinners.
At the time of the Reformation godly Christians understandably became very upset by what Griffith Thomas calls ‘the gross lives of many of the Roman priests’. Their disgust meant that many were unwisely tempted to accept the arguments of Anabaptists who said that Christians should be baptised by a godly minister. The first part of the Article addresses this issue and comes into our 39 Articles via Luther and then Cranmer. It states a principle that faithful Christians need to recognise. Jesus rebuked his disciples for a version of the Donatist spirit in Mark 9:38-41. The apostle John reminds us of how love for fellow Christians is diagnostic of real Christianity in 1 John 3-4. The apostle Paul warns us of the need to welcome a repentant offender in 2 Corinthians 1:7.
However having noted the principle in the first part of Article 26 it is very important to note that its last paragraph was deliberately added in by Cranmer. In this, Cranmer recognises that the Donatist error is likely to arise when the Church does not take seriously its responsibility to exercise discipline on what he terms here ‘Evil Ministers’.
And this of course is exactly the issue we face in many parts of the Church of England today. Donatism was a misguided attempt to preserve the purity of the Christian community. It is a wrong response to a serious problem. However we must note that both the Donatists and Augustine would have urged the necessity of separation from Pelagian or Arian heretics. In case we misunderstand Augustine, we should know that he is quoted as saying ‘Neither must we subscribe to (i.e. obey) catholic bishops if they chance to err, or determine anything contrary to the canonical divine Scriptures’ (On the Unity of the Church, 28).
This concern for discipline in the last part of Article 26 reflects biblical concerns that are found in the pastoral epistles and in Paul’s teaching about breaking fellowship in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11. And of course the same concern is found in the Ordinal where priests (presbyters) are to ‘banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s word’. Furthermore the collect for consecrating a Bishop refers specifically to the responsibility to administer godly discipline.
APPLYING THE ARTICLE TODAY
The point then of Article 26 is that it warns us not to make the error which the Donatists fell into in responding to ungodly behaviour in the professing church. But it also underlines the responsibility of church leaders to deal with ungodly ministers.
If in current circumstances you refuse to share fellowship with unfaithful congregation members or leaders who profess to be Christians, then you are exercising a discipline that has failed to be enforced by those who should. You are not a Donatist.
Indeed those who so readily accuse biblical Christians of Donatism should reflect on how they themselves treat any who disagree with them on biblical grounds. If the impact of their position is that they exclude godly Christians from the fellowship of the Church then it is they who should be accused of Donatism. Article 20 warns against the Church ordaining something contrary to God’s word written. When a conscience that is seeking to submit to the authority of Scripture cannot be accommodated within the Church then the consequences will be very grave.
What then should we do if we face a situation when we have to work out how to respond to a church leader who by their behaviour or by their teaching causes scandal and confusion to those who are sincerely seeking to submit to Christ and his word? The first thing is to remember what the first part of this Article 26 states. Be careful about misguided attempts to preserve the purity of the church. Sometimes ministers today receive requests for rebaptism which are often an expression of the idea that someone’s first baptism was ‘no good’. We should not be in the business of rebaptising. The consecration of women bishops has also made evangelical Christians think carefully about how they respond to the charge that they are only interested in having the bishops they want. We must avoid the spirit of Donatism.
However in the face of an unfaithful church leader it is important to take the step of asking the appropriate authorities to exercise the discipline that the last part of the Article demands. If that responsibility which the Ordinal expects is not discharged then we will have no option but to express the break in fellowship in appropriate ways ourselves. You are never guilty of the Donatist error if you seek wise and godly discipline for those guilty of heresy.