Toward a Confessional Anglicanism

Across the Anglican Communion, it is safe to say that the Thirty-Nine Articles have fallen into disuse. A general lack of familiarity among the laity and hesitancy to embrace, when not outright rejecting, the Articles among the clergy seems to characterize a growing number of Anglican churches in North America and throughout much of the world. This reality is cheered in some quarters as a less sectarian improvement to the tradition and lamented as a travesty in others, but there is no disagreement that the Articles do not hold the prominent place within the tradition that they used to. Those who take the most pride in the Articles and desire that they be returned to serving as the standard of Anglican Orthodoxy tend to be those who identify as Reformed Anglicans. Those who tend to de-emphasize the authority of the Articles, if not reject them entirely, identify as Anglo-Catholics, liberals, and evangelical charismatics. So, what is the place of the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Anglican church today? Is it realistic or worthwhile to attempt to turn back the clock to a time when the Articles were acknowledged as the standard for faith and practice in the Church of England? Have modern developments such as the Oxford Movement of the 19th century and the liberalism of the 20th century permanently altered how the Anglican Communion should identify itself? Are there more important practical issues that deserve our attention currently? Is there a basis for unity that is broader than the Articles and more fitting for our times given that the Anglican Communion is a global church? These are important questions to ponder, but discussion of these issues should consider the fact that the Anglican Communion currently finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis. Thus, this is not merely an academic exercise with little import for the times in which we live. Any honest conversation must acknowledge that the modern approach to the Articles has failed to achieve the unity which they were intended to accomplish. Perhaps it is time that Anglicans should learn some lessons from their Reformed cousins and treat the Thirty-Nine Articles, not merely as a historical document or even just a formulary, but as a formal confession of faith.

While those identifying as Reformed and evangelical Anglicans may be quick to cheer this proposal, treating the Articles as a confession and basis of unity will require some consensus as well as an allowance for the diversity of interpretation that is permitted in the wording of the Articles themselves. Confessional Anglicanism does not entail simply reading the Articles through the lens of John Calvin or the Puritan divines. Meanwhile, those who would identify with the Anglo-Catholic or liberal camps might bristle at this thesis. However, it might be helpful for them also to think about the real basis for their convictions and opinions. If they cannot unite around the doctrine of the Thirty-Nine Articles, perhaps it is worth asking the question of what doctrines, if any, one would be willing to embrace and defend. If one is unwilling to go beyond the doctrine contained in the ecumenical creeds, perhaps there is nothing distinctly Anglican about their theology at all. If liberals are reticent to adopt any standard of faith at all, perhaps they are not interested in being a church. In the following pages, we will consider why the Thirty-Nine Articles should be treated as a confession of faith rather than just a formulary, why the Articles are a fitting confession of faith for the Anglican Communion, establish the outer and inner limits of interpretation to the Articles, identify how the Articles can be used practically in the life of the church to grow in unity and in the knowledge of the truth, and finally, address objections to elevating the Articles to this position and how they might be augmented to address the greatest threats facing the church today.

Formulary or Confession?

We must begin by acknowledging the fact that the Anglican tradition does not speak of the Thirty-Nine Articles as a confession, but rather as a formulary. Why then should the Articles be adopted and used as a confession? Is there a substantive difference between a confession and a formulary? Traditionally, Anglicans understood that the Articles did not stand alone, but worked in tandem with the other formularies which included the Book of Common Prayer, the two books of the Homilies, and the Ordinal. This did not diminish the status of the Articles, however. Each of the formularies served a different purpose and each helped to interpret the others. For example, the doctrine of the Articles was further expounded and clarified by the Homilies. The prayer book gave shape and formal expression to the doctrine contained in the Articles and the Homilies. The Ordinal provided the standards for the ordination of bishops and priests to minister. Thus, the formularies were understood as working together as well as building upon the foundations of the creeds and councils of the early church. There was, however, a clear understanding that councils and traditions of the church were to be read in light of the formularies. For example, Article XXII condemns the doctrine of purgatory and The Homily Against the Peril of Idolatry condemns the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The formularies were more than just the latest additions to the councils and documents of the church reflecting what the English church happened to believe at the time. They served as a standard for determining what was within the scope of English Protestant orthodoxy and what was not.

The problem that emerged over time was that the Thirty-Nine Articles increasingly came to be viewed merely as just one of many documents produced by the Church of England over the course of its history. They merely reflected the time and place in which they were written, and can be informative, but not necessarily binding. They may legitimately be used as a source of authority, but they were not ultimately authoritative when it came to maintaining doctrine and discipline. Attempts were made to divorce the prayer book from the Articles and place the former at the center of the tradition as if the two were contradictory. This was not the intent of the English Reformers, but for those unfamiliar with the history, there is a certain plausibility to the argument. Pushing back on these now well-entrenched assumptions by explaining the historical development and original intent of the Articles will be a losing battle, even though necessary and well-intentioned. The more effective approach would be to explicitly adopt the Articles as the confession of faith of the Anglican tradition and treat them as such. Despite the semantic change, this suggestion does not represent a transformation of the way in which the Anglican tradition has historically understood its governing documents, but as an attempt to return the Articles to the role they were supposed to serve as a formulary. As J.I. Packer and Roger Beckwith say, “Historic Anglicanism is not just a style of worship; it is also, and fundamentally, a confessional stance.”[1] Therefore, the purpose of adopting the Articles as a confession of faith is to recover their historic status in the Church of England and the original understanding of their role in maintaining the boundaries of doctrine.

Having established the purpose of using the language of confession rather than formulary in regard to the Articles, the next question to be considered is whether the Articles would serve as a good confession for the Anglican Communion today. In other words, if we believe that modern Anglicanism suffers from a lack of doctrinal norms, are the Articles adequate or appropriate to serve as an Anglican creed? There are at least four reasons why the Articles are still ideal for what ails the Anglican church today.

Biblical

First, the Thirty-Nine Articles are biblical. Not only are they faithful to Scripture’s teaching on all the issues on which they speak, but they also uphold Scripture alone as being sufficient for all things necessary to salvation. The Articles do not elevate tradition or claim a new source of revelation to be used alongside of Scripture. Regardless of where one stands within the Anglican Communion on the role of tradition or what constitutes normative Anglican practice, all should agree as Protestants that nothing beyond the text of Scripture is to be required of any man or woman to be believed to attain salvation. With this statement serving as a guiding principle, the Articles are careful to avoid dogmatism on any doctrine that goes beyond what can clearly be perceived in Scripture and by doing so displays a spirit of and basis for true ecumenism.

Catholic

Second, the Thirty-Nine Articles maintain consistency with the ecumenical creeds of the early church and explicitly affirm them as the standard for Christian orthodoxy in Article VIII. The catholicity of the Articles is apparent not only in their content, but also in the structure of the document. The Articles begin, not by addressing the most contentious issues being debated at the time, but with affirmations about the nature of the Trinitarian God, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the Holy Spirit as co-eternal and proceeding from the Father and the Son. While there are other confessions such as the Belgic Confession, which are structured similarly, the Thirty-Nine Articles are distinct from several other Reformed confessions of the day including Ulrich Zwingli’s Articles of 1523, the Swiss Confessions of 1536 and 1566, as well as the later Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647, which begin with establishing how one might come to know God rather than with a discussion of theology proper.[2] Those doctrines that would obtain the most consensus across all branches of Christ’s church are front and center in the Articles. Furthermore, the classical terminology that is used to describe the nature of the Trinity and the work of each of the persons in the first five articles remains intact. There is no attempt to root the soteriological, social, or cultural concerns of the day back into the nature of the Trinity. The Articles do not seek to say anything novel about the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Even after stating that Scripture contains “all things necessary to salvation” in Article VI, a claim that would be deemed heretical by the Council of Trent, the Articles come back to explicitly affirm that the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds “ought thoroughly to be received and believed” in Article VIII. Thus, the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture for salvation does not diminish the status of the ancient creeds, nor does it free the Christian to develop his or her own private interpretation of Christianity with a “me-and-my-Bible” approach to Scripture. Therefore, to uphold the Thirty-Nine Articles as a confession does not require Anglicans to sacrifice catholicity, nor to adopt a partisan or sectarian spirit.

Reformational

Third, exploring the relevant history, we find that the Thirty-Nine Articles were developed and written with the aim of establishing a national theological consensus and uniting England against unnecessary schism. While post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism and Anabaptism are precluded by the Articles, the spirit of the document is not one intent on emphasizing differences as much as it is in establishing common ground within Protestant Christendom. Theological consensus was needed in England not only because of the internal upheaval that had been experienced during the reign of Henry VIII, and the subsequent pendulum swings between his children, Edward VI and Mary I, but also because of external foreign policy pressures due to England’s public break with Rome.

The first form of the Articles appeared during Henry VIII’s reign in 1538 and was modeled largely on the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. Henry VIII had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church that year, and even though he had already formally separated the nation from Roman control four years earlier, the papal excommunication of a monarch brought national security concerns to the fore. For a monarch to be deemed as outside of the Catholic church meant subjects were no longer duty-bound to obey and could work to overthrow the monarch with the blessing of the Bishop of Rome. Feeling vulnerable, Henry VIII entrusted his closest advisor, Thomas Cromwell, with forming a political alliance through marriage now that the king was again a bachelor after the death of his third wife, Jane. Thomas Cromwell, a Protestant himself, was eager to push Henry in a Protestant direction by securing an alliance with William I of Cleves, the Protestant leader of the western German states, by contracting a marriage for Henry to William’s sister, Anne. In addition, Henry’s friend and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, also had strong Lutheran sympathies. Six years earlier, he had secretly converted to Lutheranism while on a diplomatic mission to the German states and had secretly married Margarete, the niece through marriage of one of Germany’s leading Lutheran reformers, Andreas Osiander, who served as a pastor in Nuremberg. With Henry’s political and Cranmer’s theological interests converging on Germany, the earliest formulation of the Articles was heavily influenced by Lutheranism.

In 1539, Henry VIII began the reactionary phase of his reign and abruptly halted all progress in the English Reformation with the passing of the Six Articles, which included the reaffirmation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as well the requirement of priestly celibacy. Disquieted by the degree of debate and discord over doctrine within the realm since 1534, Henry desired that “a full and perfect resolution of the said Articles should make a perfect concord and unity generally amongst all his loving and obedient subjects.” (Italics mine)[3] Displeased with his marriage to Anne of Cleves in January 1540 and finding himself no longer in need of an alliance with the German states, Henry VIII was content to maintain an English church that remained Roman Catholic in much of its doctrine, but with Henry rather than the Bishop of Rome at its head. By 1543, Henry had somewhat softened his position toward reform with the publication of King’s Book. However, the purpose for the revised statement of faith remained the same:

[F]or avoiding of such diversity in opinions as by the said evil spirits might be engendered, to set forth, with the advice of our clergy, such a doctrine and declaration of the true knowledge of God and his word, with the principal articles of our religion, as whereby all men may uniformly be led and taught the true understanding of that which is necessary for every Christian man to know (Italics mine).[4]

After Henry’s death in 1547, Edward VI ascended to the throne and with his team of Protestant advisors and regents pushed for a thorough reform in the Church of England. The culmination of this work was the promulgation of the Forty-Two Articles of 1553. Unfortunately, Edward VI died within days of the publication and the Forty-Two Articles never achieved canonical status. The English Reformation received another five-year setback with the ascension of Mary Tudor in 1553 and the martyrdom of many leading Protestant divines under her rule.

By the time Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, the overwhelming focus of the monarchy was again on establishing stability within the kingdom and unity to withstand the outside pressures of the Catholic Reformation led by Philip II of Spain. In 1563, the Forty-Two Articles from the previous decade were amended by Archbishop Matthew Parker and reissued as the Thirty-Nine Articles. Controversy over Article XXIX and the implications for the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation caused it to be dropped for a time before being reinserted into the final form of the Articles promulgated in 1571. It is significant that adoption of this final form occurred when it did. Like her father in 1538, Elizabeth had recently been excommunicated by the pope. Facing the political implications of excommunication, Elizabeth was driven to adopt a statement of faith that not only assured her that she was part of a real church, but also a theological statement around which the people of England could unite. The following year, Elizabeth’s agents foiled the Ridolfi plot, an assassination attempt against the queen involving Florentine banker Roberto Ridolfi, the Spanish Duke of Alba, and some of the English Catholic nobility in the north. Yet the event served as a very real reminder of the precarious nature of Elizabeth’s Protestant monarchy. It was not until Elizabeth’s cousin and rival, Mary Stuart of Scotland, was executed in 1586 after the failed Babington Plot against Elizabeth and Philip II’s Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588 that Spain ceased to pose a serious threat to an independent and Protestant England.

When we consider the unique historical context in which the Articles took their final form, we see that the aim, for better or worse, was not to produce a partisan document, nor was it an attempt to establish principles for breaking away from another institution, but rather aimed at consolidating the Reformation to include as many Englishmen as possible. One might object that a doctrinal statement adopted and enforced by the English monarchy for political purposes compromises the integrity of the theology contained within it. While this is a valid criticism, it should be recognized that there has never been a creed or a confession that was perfectly insulated from the historical circumstances in which it was produced. Even the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, was produced in the context of a civil war between King and Parliament and written in such a way as to accommodate the views of members in the assembly who would not agree to all five doctrines of grace. Furthermore, even if one could criticize the Articles for their lack of theological precision due to political concerns, there is no doubt about the fact that the historical context in which they were adopted lends credibility to the claim they were written with ecumenical ends in view. This also makes them fit to serve as a confession for Anglicans.

Doctrinal Unity

The fourth reason for treating the Thirty-Nine Articles as the Anglican confession of faith is that it would provide Anglicans with a positive statement of faith to affirm what they believe. Often, modern Anglicanism is defined in terms of negation rather than affirmation.[5] Part of the reason for this is explained by a desire to avoid a party spirit. There is a fear of being pigeonholed into one tradition that may not be seen as inclusive. Defining Anglicanism as a kind of tertium quid or a tradition without norms has a certain appeal and is understandable given our current evangelical moment. There are significant numbers of people with a background in American fundamentalism or who may have been caught up in the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement of the past two decades who like the idea of a church that is liturgical, ecumenical, inclusive, and non-political. For such people, being bound by a confession or identified as part of a singular tradition within the church reminds them of the narrow fundamentalism or the “cage-stage Calvinism” that they left behind. However, a tradition without distinctive norms that cannot be stated positively cannot maintain unity. It is much easier to find agreement over what a disaffected group is against than it is to find agreement on what they are for. The Thirty-Nine Articles serving as a confession of faith provide a norm and basis of agreement that is positively stated and thereby provides vision and direction for moving forward with a common identity. As Oliver O’Donovan has stated, “our universal communion in the truth of the gospel will not come about by the denial of denominational traditions, but only by the critical appropriation and sharing of them.”[6]

Embracing the Thirty-Nine Articles as an Anglican confession of faith will require a recognition of both the outer as well as the inner limits of interpretation of the doctrine contained therein. Those who identify as Anglo-Catholic or as liberal Anglicans understand this reality of the outer limits of interpretation and for that reason seek to relegate the Articles to being a mere non-binding historical document today. Though the Articles are intended to have a broad catholic appeal, there is a difference between requiring mere minimal doctrinal commitments and ambiguity, as Peter Toon has said.[7] The former can be utilized to lay a foundation for building consensus while the latter is only a blueprint for constructing a house of chaos and discord. Denying the outer limits of interpretation is to treat Anglicanism as a via media not merely between Rome and Geneva, but between any two points on a given spectrum. In Thomas McKenzie’s popular 2014 book The Anglican Way: A Guidebook, the Anglican tradition is pictured as a compass rose.[8] Each of the opposing points on the compass rose represent a spectrum, both ends of which are embraced within the Anglican tradition. Thus, according to McKenzie, Anglicanism is both catholic and evangelical, charismatic and reformed, contemplative and activist, conservative and liberal. According to McKenzie, there is a little something in Anglicanism for everyone. However, the freedom of belonging to a church that holds to only the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed as the standard for orthodoxy does not translate into the unity that is so desired. The greater the openness of any institution to a broad range of viewpoints, the less common ground that will be shared. Using football as an analogy, we would recognize that a successful team needs to have more in common than merely a love for football. A good coach is needed to cast a vision for the style of football that is to be played and to assign roles on the team. While Anglicans should treat all members of other branches of Christ’s church who affirm the ancient creeds as brothers and sisters in Christ, they should not all be treated as fellow Anglicans. Affirmation of something more is needed to identify one as an Anglican.

The “Inner Limits” of Anglican Orthodoxy

While the Thirty-Nine Articles provide an outer limit marking the boundaries of the Anglican tradition, they also provide what we might call an “inner limit” as well. If the outer boundaries prevent Anglicanism from becoming all things to all people, the inner boundaries prevent Anglicans from becoming precisionists and idiosyncratically reducing every theological or practical issue to the finest point, excluding all those who might disagree. Reformed and evangelical Anglicans rightly resist the redefinition or the outright abandonment of the Articles in the Anglo-Catholic and the mainline liberal churches. However, the Reformed and evangelical Anglicans would do well not to make the Articles say more than they actually do or use them as a bludgeon for pushing their own agendas and concerns on the rest of the Anglican Communion. Out of a zeal to promote the “Protestant face” of Anglicanism, there is a tendency to overplay one’s hand and now allow for a proper degree of diversity.

There are a couple of ways of doing this. First Reformed and evangelical Anglicans can tend to read the Articles, especially those dealing with soteriological concerns, through the lens of John Calvin. Seeing the rejection of “free will” in Article X or the affirmation of “predestination” in Article XVII, for example, can lead some to conclude that being a real Anglican requires an affirmation of the Canons of Dort. However, as Bishop Edward Harold Browne demonstrates in his lengthy exposition of the Articles, the language of the Articles on these soteriological points was shaped just as much, if not more, by the Lutheran tradition and should be interpreted accordingly.[9] Furthermore, while the Articles are very clear about their rejection of the medieval doctrine of congruent merit, the affirmation of Article X that preventing grace is required for man to do works that are pleasing to God is a rather ecumenical statement that could have easily been affirmed by even a number of the Tridentine divines.[10] In Article XVII, one must be careful to interpret the Articles on their own terms, especially in regard to predestination and election. Another way the Articles serve as inner boundaries is by limiting the reforms of the Anglican tradition to those areas and practices directly and clearly at odds with the Scripture. Establishing the sufficiency of Scripture alone, the proper authority of the church, the need for the laity to hear the Word and the prayers in their own language and to receive both elements in communion, the freedom of clergy to marry, and the rejection of superstition and the arrogance of works of supererogation – these are substantive reforms that restore the church back to its place in the first four centuries without creating a sectarian movement.

A Standard Made for Our Use

Confessional Anglicanism requires more than placing the Thirty-Nine Articles on a pedestal and affirming them as the standard for maintaining Anglican orthodoxy. To appropriate the language of Article XXVI in regard to the sacraments, the Thirty-Nine Articles should not merely be gazed upon or carried about but serve as a confession that we may duly use them. This raises the question as to how the Articles might be used differently if they were recognized by our churches as the Anglican confession of faith. The first way the Articles should be used is as the standard for discipline. When theology contradicting the Articles is being preached or propagated, bishops, presbyters, and deacons should be called out, and if unrepentant, sanctioned for it. While it is commendable that the ACNA officially includes the Thirty-Nine Articles as a standard of the Anglican tradition, the Articles carry almost no weight within the province as a whole. Anglo-Catholic parishes are very open about their disregard for the Articles. For example, where the Articles explicitly forbid the reservation, lifting up, carrying about, and worshipping of the elements in the Eucharist, this practice is openly engaged in and advertised in public forums online as being completely permissible for Anglicans. In addition, liberals within the ACNA also openly propagate ideas inconsistent with the Articles with no concern whatsoever that they would face discipline or censure. It is not uncommon for ACNA clergy to refer to the Articles in the same way as the mainline Episcopal church does – as merely a historical document, which is no longer binding. No one should be so naïve as to believe that speaking of the Articles as a confession will magically bring the Anglo-Catholics and liberals to heel. However, progress can be made by publicly applying them as the standard for discipline rather than appealing to an ahistorical notion of “three streams” as the basis of unity.

The Articles should also be used to teach the faith in the churches. Even in dioceses and sectors of the Anglican communion that are more explicitly Protestant and conservative and which continue to require subscription to the Articles, the doctrine of Articles is not taught to the laity. It is not uncommon for children to grow up in Anglican and RE churches and reach adulthood being completely ignorant of the Articles and the doctrines affirmed therein. Confessional Anglicanism would require that the Articles be taught systematically to both children and adults. While subscription would not be required for lay persons to be confirmed, knowledge of and general agreement with the doctrine of the Articles should be expected. This need not be a dry or tedious venture. Various Reformed and Presbyterian denominations produce catechisms, children’s literature, and curricula for teaching the content and history of their various confessions. The Anglican Communion could be pursuing the same kinds of endeavors and producing similar materials to promote the knowledge of the Articles among the laity if the Articles were valued and held up as the standard of the faith. Instead, too much effort seems to be focused on cultivating an Anglican identity based merely on nuance and inclusion.

Some Challenges

Despite the arguments in favor of adopting the Thirty-Nine Articles as the confessional standard and the benefits of doing so, there are also some drawbacks and challenges to this approach. The first is that the Thirty-Nine Articles were developed and adopted in a different context and for a different purpose than the Reformed Protestant confessions. Many confessions were written for a particular church within a state or for a small city-state or canton such as Geneva or Zurich. For example, the French Confession of Faith was adopted as the confession of the Reformed church in France at the Synod of La Rochelle in 1571, but as Protestants were a persecuted minority in France, it never would have been brought before the Estates General to be approved as the national confession as the Thirty-Nine Articles were in England. For this reason, Oliver O’Donovan states that the Articles are “not susceptible to the kind of textual definition which the Confessions (on the Protestant side) and the conciliar decrees (on the Catholic) afford.”[11] In other words, since the Articles serve a different purpose than the other Reformed confessions, they are not as precise and should not demand the same level of subscription required by other Protestant traditions. While this is an important distinction to recognize, given that the Articles tend to require minimal doctrinal commitments in comparison with other Reformed confessions or Catholic decrees, shouldn’t the Articles be even easier to adopt as a confession? Subscribing to the Articles without reservation would seem less burdensome and a lower stakes proposition than subscribing to a document like the Westminster Confession of Faith.

A second and very real challenge of elevating the Thirty-Nine Articles to a confessional status within Anglicanism is that the Articles were always meant to work in tandem with the Book of Common Prayer to shape the theology of the church. Anglicanism is not merely a list of doctrinal propositions but is also lived out in the liturgical worship of the church. The law of prayer is the law of faith. To elevate the Thirty-Nine Articles to the unique place of serving as a confession of faith apart from the prayer book, would have the potential to some degree to distort the tradition in its own way as well. Many of the Puritans in the 17th century were willing to agree with the theology articulated in the Articles. It was the use of the prayer book and the liturgical worship which they objected to. Would it be accurate to speak of the non-conformists as true Anglicans simply because they would be comfortable with affirming the theology in the Articles? To do so, would require an expansion of the definition of Anglicanism in the same ways that are being done today, and because of which the tradition suffers from an identity crisis.

Always Reforming

This leads to the final consideration of the Articles. In what way might the Articles be augmented so as to address the heresies and threats the church faces today? There are several areas in which Anglicans should seriously consider adding to or supplementing the Articles in order to head off any further infiltration of the church by modern heresies. First, the issue of liberalism needs to be dealt with at the confessional level. Now that we have reached a point in history where we can witness the full effects of liberalism and its use and abuse of language, it should be made clear that liberalism and Christianity cannot coexist in the church. Liberalism has led a revolution within the form over the past century and has emptied traditional Christian terminology and doctrine of its traditional meaning and substance.

Second, Anglicans would be well served to wrestle with and take a clear confessional stand on questions of sexual identity and marriage. At the time of the Reformation, even before the age of science, everyone understood that there were two genders, and one did not have an identity existing apart from one’s biological reality. Furthermore, everyone understood that a marriage consisted of one male and one female. The silence of the Articles on these issues does not betray an openness to alternative lifestyles as some progressive evangelical academics seem to suggest. Given the reality that there are two genders and the definition of marriage issues central to our doctrine of creation and redemption, marriage serving as an illustration of Christ’s relationship to His church, these issues should be made explicitly clear in a modern confession of faith.

Third, the Articles should be augmented with a provision addressing the prosperity gospel that not only has made deep inroads into American evangelicalism but wreaks havoc in the global south as well. This is an issue worthy of a lot of thought. While Scripture teaches that there is blessing in obedience and that a good man leaves an inheritance for his children, following Jesus is about taking up one’s cross, and is not in itself a path to prosperity. Though wealth and prosperity are enjoyed today to a degree that would have been unthinkable in the 16th century, there is a lot of similarity between the practice of the Roman Catholic church in selling indulgences, which the Articles condemn, and the prosperity preachers today. Both take financial advantage of people for their own gain. Both exercise a spiritual tyranny insisting blessing awaits if only the people would exercise more faith. Both deserve to be explicitly rejected as heretical practices. Therefore, Confessional Anglicanism, while affirming the importance of upholding the Articles as the doctrinal standard should be honest about the need to be always reforming and taking a strong confessional stand amidst the unique challenges of our day.

Recognizing the Articles as the confession and doctrinal standard of the Anglican tradition is not a magic bullet, or an easy solution for the fractured state of the Communion globally, or the ACNA nationally. It is very possible that explicitly centering the Articles would lead to even more fracturing. Cultivating a willingness to discipline those teaching contrary to the Articles would take time and prove difficult. However, there is nothing preventing Anglican and Reformed Episcopal parishes and dioceses from consistently teaching and disciplining based on these standards. Those opposed to a central role for the Articles in defining Anglicanism are only united in their objections, not in their alternative. Therefore, a formation of a coalition of the willing, those within the Anglican Communion in general or the ACNA in particular, could gain significant ground with a common commitment to teach the Articles in their churches rather than restricting them to the seminary.

Notes:

  1. J.I. Packer and R.T. Beckwith, The Thirty-nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today (London: The Latimer Trust, 1998), 35
  2. Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity (London: SCM Press, 2011) 12.
  3. “The Six Articles Act,” in Select Documents of English Constitutional History, ed. George Burton Adams and H. Morse Stephens. (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1901), 254.
  4. “A Necesary (sic) Doctrine and Erudition for Any Christian Man; Set Forth by the King’s Majesty, &c”. Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature. Created by Anniina Jokinen April 9, 2009. Accessed December 6, 2021. http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/kingsbook.htm
  5. Paul F. M. Zahl, The Protestant Face of Anglicanism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 35
  6. O’Donovan, 3.
  7. Peter Toon. “The Articles and the Homilies,” in The Study of Anglicanism, ed. Stephen Sykes, John Booty, and Jonathan Knight, Revised ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 147.
  8. See Thomas McKenzie, The Anglican Way: A Guidebook, (Nashville: Rabbit Room, 2014).
  9. Edward Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles: Historical and Doctrinal, Volume II. (Kessinger’s Legacy Reprints), 79.
  10. Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles: Historical and Doctrinal, Volume I. 355.
  11. O’Donovan, 6.

Jared Lovell

Jared Lovell is a deacon in the Reformed Episcopal Church serving Grace RE Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jared is a classical educator, teaching European and American history at Memoria Press Online Academy, and is a teaching fellow at the Wayside School.


'Toward a Confessional Anglicanism' have 8 comments

  1. September 30, 2022 @ 10:39 am Ryan Scott

    Some evidence that the Articles were traditionally understood as a confession of faith:

    1.) Thomas Rogers wrote the first commentary on the 39 Articles, calling it “the English Creede” and saying: the “confession of the Church of England” was “correspondent to the confessions of all reformed churches in Christendom”.

    2.) Burnet writes: “they are sum of our doctrine, and the confession of our faith”.

    c) The framers of “A Harmony of the Confessions of Faith of the Orthodox and Reformed Churches” included the Articles in their list of confessions.

    d) Browne: “the Church of England, in the very front of her confessions, declares herself orthodox and Catholic.

    e) Their historic place. By deliberately using the same language as the Augsburg confession Cranmer/Parker showed that they viewed the Articles as doing much the same thing as Augsburg. Ussher then used the same language and expanded it into the Irish Articles, which was then moulded into the WCF, showing that their status as confessional was a given.

    f) Their function: “for the avoiding of diversities of opinions and for the establishing of consent touching true religion.”

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  2. September 30, 2022 @ 4:52 pm Eric Bennett Rasmusen

    The 39 Articles were very much a confession. You couldn’t get into Oxford or Cambridge without subscribing to them. Parliament too, I think. This pretty much cut you off from being a pastor.
    They should be treatedliket he PCA Presbyterians treat the Westminister Confession: to be member, you dn’t have to subscribe, but to be an officer, you need to say which articles you disbelieve, and the committee will decide whether to ordain you or not.

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  3. October 2, 2022 @ 12:55 am Father Ron Smith

    The historic 39 Articles have now, for some time – at least since the restorative catholic emphasis of the Oxford Movement – been labelled by many modern Anglicans to be more accurately described as the ’39 Artifacts’, which is now precisely their role in modern Anglican circles. Their deliberately anti-Catholic ethos, especially in the light of the modern ecumenical movement, is no longer considered to be descriptive of non-GAFCON Anglicanism

    Reply

  4. October 3, 2022 @ 8:40 am Connor Perry

    A note about reading the Article on Predestination “in view of the Lutheran tradition” as it were. I would caution against saying this without qualification, it can lead to some heavy misconceptions, as the Lutherans are split between the Strict Lutherans (whose doctrine on such matters is more similar the ours as expressed in the 39 articles and the Lambeth articles) and “Intuita Fide” which is more alien to our tradition.
    There was a book written called “Debating Perseverance” by Jay T. Collier on the subject of Perseverance of every saint in the English tradition that points out some more obscure historical points that help clear up the intent of the article on predestination as well as Lambeth and the English reaction to Dort.
    I believe our understanding of the “Reformed” doctrine of Predestination has been unnecessarily narrowed in scope by more contemporary thinkers—and I don’t believe there’s any particular Lutheran explanation of Predestination that’s better than the diverse Reformed explanations one could take from history.
    But that’s just a thought, if I have the time I might consider writing a fuller piece on this since it seems to be brought up a lot.

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  5. October 4, 2022 @ 4:24 am Fr. Paul Howden

    This call to embrace The Thirty-Nine Articles as our confession is timely, and would greatly help our identity crisis in the ACNA. The recognition that theological liberalism as a separate religion is overdo, and Anglo-Catholics should understand that there are guardrails beyond which are not permitted. I will be promoting this piece to those in my parish, and I hope it can be implemented. Jared Lovelle is to be commended for the boldness, wisdom and clarity of his essay.

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  6. October 4, 2022 @ 5:10 am Simon

    Very good! We need clear cut boundaries or else we will back in twenty years to same nonsense that infected the episcopal church. The beauty of the articles is that there are boundaries, but then wiggle room within the boundaries. It is truly a more broad confessional than others which enhances catholocity yet properly checks “loosy goosey” anything goes approach as well.

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  7. October 21, 2022 @ 11:08 am Bryce Lowe

    An excellent article—thank you for taking the time to write it. It’s encouraging to see other Anglicans working hard to shape a confessional vision for this church.

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  8. December 18, 2023 @ 3:33 pm S. Wesley Mcgranor

    Hell no! You/they squandered Protestant Arminian High-Churchmanship enough with the Reformed and Anglo-Catholic overbearingness to say the least.

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