Friday, June 26, 2009

Orthodoxy and the XXXIX Articles

By Archbishop Methodios Fouyas, 1972

In the Church of England, as has often been said, there are no comprehensive confessional statements comparable to the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas or to the De Fide Orthodoxa of John Damascene. There are two books which occupy a central place in the piety and scholarship of Anglicanism and these are: the Holy Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.1 It is the Book of Common Prayer as a whole that the Anglican Church considers as its confession, even more than the Thirty-Nine Articles which appear in it.2

Since many non-Anglican writers insist that the Thirty-Nine Articles constitute the authoritative text for the teaching of the Church of England,3 we must examine this question in detail, remembering that without a thorough knowledge of an organism like the Church of England, it is easy to come to mistaken conclusions. Certainly there is strong desire amongst many Anglicans that the Thirty-Nine Articles should be removed from the Prayer Book and we frequently encounter Anglican clergy who deny them any authority. But for a systematic and authoritative explanation of the actual character of the Thirty-Nine Articles let us first see what Bishop Gore had to say in a brief description of them.

The articles bear with them almost throughout the savour of a bygone situation. Many of them are deeply repugnant to the spirit that one may call modern or critical or liberal, even if the 'prima facie' force of their language can be legitimately weakened. The whole discussion of Justification and Predestination is antiquated and quite unenlightening, and the anti-Roman articles are so ambiguously expressed that it does not appear clearly what is being condemned. I do not think that the present terms in which the clergy subscribe to the Articles, the Prayer Book and the Ordinal, as containing, all taken together, the doctrine of the Church of England, which at the same time is scriptural doctrine, ought to present any real difficulty to us. But I find myself in agreement with a large number of those who have most to do with the interests of religion in the universities and the theological Colleges that the Articles of Religion ought to be relegated to the position of historical documents. Nor at present, at least, would it appear to be desirable to have any document other than the Nicene Creed substituted for them as the standard of doctrine to be accepted by the clergy. Of course in addition they must be able conscientiously to use the services and teach the catechism which means that they are in harmony with the doctrines implied or taught.4

In the writings of the great Anglican theologians it is clear that the Thirty-Nine Articles are always called 'Articles of Religion' and never 'Articles of Faith'. Archbishop Laud of Canterbury said that 'The Church of England never declared that every one of her Articles are fundamental to the Faith.'5 Archbishop Ussher of Armagh said: 'We do not suffer any man to reject the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England at his pleasure, yet neither do we look upon them as essentials of saving Faith or legacies of Christ and his Apostles.'6 Similarly Bishop Pearson of Chester 7 said that:

The Book of Articles is not, nor is pretended to be, a complete body of Divinity, or a comprehensive explication of Christian doctrines necessary to be taught; but an enumeration of some truths, which upon and since the Reformation have been denied by some persons; who upon their denial are thought unfit to have any cure of souls in this Church or realm, because they might by their opinions either infect their flock with error, or else disturb the Church with Schism, or the realm with Sedition.

The Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Bishops in 1888 passed a resolution, which throws some light on the position of the Articles among the Churches of the Anglican Communion. The resolution is as follows:

As regards newly-constituted Churches, especially in non-Christian lands, it should be a condition of the recognition of them as in complete intercommunion with us, and especially of their receiving from us Episcopal Succession, that we should first receive from them satisfactory evidence that they hold substantially the same doctrine as our own, and that their clergy subscribe Articles in accordance with the express statements of our own standards of doctrine and worship; but that they should not necessarily be bound to accept in their entirety the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.8

It is evident that the Thirty-Nine Articles, taken as a whole, are intended to be Articles of peace and concord. In the discussions between Orthodox and Anglicans during the 1920 Lambeth Conference, the latter said that 'the Thirty-Nine Articles are not Articles of Faith, but Articles of a practical public State's confession, as is shown by their vague character ... If you wish to learn the mind of the Church of England, study the Prayer-book and not the Thirty-nine Articles'.9

In the discussions with the Orthodox representatives at Lambeth Palace in 1930, the Anglicans stated that if there were any ambiguity in the Thirty-Nine Articles they were 'in all cases to be interpreted by what the Prayer Book itself said'.10 'We have here an application', writes Visser't Hooft, 11 of the characteristic Catholic principle Lex orandi, lex credendi, which leads in practice to an increasing emphasis on the more Catholic liturgy as over against the more Protestant statement of Anglican doctrine'.

However, during the Moscow Conference between Anglicans and Russian Orthodox, the impression which Dr. A. M. Ramsey, then Archbishop of York, received was this: 'Whereas in the discussions between Anglicans and other Orthodox Churches in the 1920's and 1930's there was on the Anglican side a tendency to soft-pedal the Thirty-Nine Articles, and to suggest that they did not greatly matter since they were concerned with "local" controversies and were less important than the Anglican appeal to antiquity, no trace of this unrealism is seen in the Moscow Conference. Here, the Orthodox were encouraged to deal with the Church of England as it is. On the subject of the Thirty-Nine Articles the Russians were outspoken and trenchant. Yet, even so, the Articles stood up to their onslaught with rather more success than might seem likely . . ,'.12 After this necessarily brief interpolation we can deal with the Anglican Church, without it being thought that we have overlooked a document of such historical importance in Anglicanism.

In 1967 the Archbishops of Canterbury and York set up a permanent Commission on Christian Doctrine, whose first task was to re-examine the place of the Thirty-Nine Articles in Anglican tradition. The Commission was appointed by the Archbishops and consists of seventeen members representing different schools of thought in the Anglican Church. It reported in 1968 on the subject of the Articles (Subscription and Assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles, S.P.C.K., 1968), and has gone on to consider other subjects referred to it by the Archbishops. Its report on the Articles aroused little or no controversy and may be taken to express the mind of the Church of England on the subject.

___________________________

1 Cf., for example, G. Ellison, The Anglican Communion. Past and Future. (The Seabury Press, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1960) pp. 17-18.
2 J. F. Lescrauwaet, 'The Reformed Churches', C. vi (1965), p. 73-
3 P. Trembelas, The History of the Reformation in the Anglican Church (Thes-saloniki, 1956) pp. 57-67 (original in Greek).
4 Gore, op. cit., p. 59. The Thirty-Nine Articles, says Bishop G. Ellison, do not pretend to be a complete statement of the Faith (op. cit., p. 17). Cf. also Gore, Orders and Unity, p. 201, n. I.
5 A Relation of the Conference between William Laud, late Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mr. Fisher the Jesuit, by the Command of King James, vol. ii (Oxford, 1839) p. 42.
6 See The Works of George Bull, Bishop of St. David's, ed. Edward Burton, vol. ii (Oxford, 1827), pp. 211-12.
7 The Minor Works of John Pearson, ed. by Edward Churton, vol. ii (Oxford, 1844), p. 215.
8 Puller, op. cit., pp. 48-9. Cf. Davidson, The Five Lambeth Conferences, p. 174.
9 C.E. iii (1922) p. 12.
10 Doctrinal Report, p. 61.
11 op. cit., p. 40.
12 The Moscow Conference in Retrospect from an address by the Archbishop of York. S., Series 3, No. 23 (Summer 1958), p. 562.

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