Author(s)Ed Shaw
Date 12 April 2017

The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

Go back a generation or two and the Church of England was often labelled “the Conservative Party at prayer.” More recently perceptions have changed and the left-wing bias of the established church (and most especially that of its bishops) has been the focus of much criticism — especially in the right-wing press. Reflecting on this transformation no less an authoritative figure than Sir Humphrey Appleby posed this question in the 1980s BBC TV series Yes Prime Minister: “Isn’t it interesting how nowadays politicians talk about morals and bishops talk about politics?”

In Article 38 we have the Church of England of the first Elizabeth’s reign talking both politics and morals. But it’s the politics that — even then — comes first. The Reformation party in England are wanting to clearly distance themselves from the extremists of the continental Reformation – the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists had not only sought radical changes in the Christian religion (like believers’ only baptism…) but changes in the wider political and social orders too – including an end to the concept of private property (with Acts 4 as their biblical justification).

The Anabaptist seizure of the German city of Münster in 1534 had trialled this proto-communist approach to possessions and been bloodily repressed after a year-long siege. From then on religious reformers needed to reassure their political masters that they were most definitely in favour of property rights and would not seek any radical redistribution of wealth (most especially of anything belonging to these rulers).

The Church of England’s leadership needed to clarify that they were just after religious reformation and no such wide-ranging political, economic, and social revolution; a more successful (but still not permanent) attempt at ending private property would have to wait a few centuries for the arrival of one Karl Marx. Then the advent of Communism would breathe new life into the first clause of Article 38 and seemingly justify accusations of the Anglican approach to politics being more to the right than the left.

But actually Article 38 is both biblically and politically balanced. The generous giving and sharing of the early Christians was not driven by any ban on private ownership – in Acts 5 Peter makes it very clear to the deceitful Ananias and Sapphira that their property was their own to keep or give away as they chose to (Acts 5:4). It’s not an individual’s possession of money but their love of it that troubles the apostle Paul (1 Timothy 6:10). The first part of Article 38 would seem to be not just a politically expedient one but a justifiably biblical one too.

Any historic charges of Anglican right-wing bias are surely undermined by the second part of Article 38. Here generosity to the poor is simply expected with no insistence on the poor being “deserving” — as has often been demanded by those on the political right. Instead the focus is on every individual giving in proportion to their own resources — the richer are given the clear moral duty of caring for all of those less fortunate than themselves.

Now the biblical warrant for this comes, of course, in the much-repeated commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself, and passages on the use of financial resources like 1 Timothy 6:17-19. But in political terms the feel is of a much more left-wing sounding redistribution of wealth. The first clause of the Article might be understood as right-leaning, but the second could be seen to take things in the opposite direction. 

Whatever the politics, the moral case is clearly made: I am biblically justified in owning things, but the Bible also demands that I share those things with those in need. The church of Jerusalem asked the apostle Paul to prioritise remembering the poor – something he was eager do (Galatians 6:10). The Church of England’s foundational Articles of Religion ask all Anglicans to do the same – are we showing the same eagerness today?