Formularies for What? Center for Reformation Anglicanism

Formularies for What?

Part 1

By Chuck Collins

I eavesdropped on a conversation once in which a very nice lady said, “I love being Episcopalian; you can believe anything and still be one!” She would agree with William James who famously said, “Anglicanism remains obese and round and comfortable and decent with this world’s decencies, without one acute note in its whole life or history.” Is this true? Do Anglicans and Episcopalians have theological distinctives to ground them, or does un-tethered diversity win the day? The church that stands for nothing will fall for anything! Within the roominess and generosity of this church is a rich heritage with clearly defined Anglican essentials.

The English reformers were willing to die for certain doctrinal beliefs — “I think it my duty to exhort you… defend the faith of Christ even until blood and unto death,” (Bishop Edwin Sandys, The Sermons of Edwin Sandys). They were a diverse bunch, to be sure, but they were united in their commitment to the supremacy of Holy Scripture over other authorities, to the central doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone, to the priesthood of all believers, and to a sacramental understanding that the grace of Holy Communion is Christ’s spiritual presence in the hearts and affections of the faithful recipients. These inviolable Anglican doctrines are enshrined and fixed in the Elizabethan Settlement and the recognised formularies of the English Reformation. The historic formularies — the Articles of Religion, the Ordinal, the Book of Common Prayer, and books of Homilies — name and explain the essential doctrines of the Anglican Communion. The foundation for our unity as Anglicans is not some invented connection to the Archbishop of Canterbury, or a three-legged stool of authority (Scripture, reason and tradition), or three streams (Protestant, Catholic, and Pentecostal), as some will say. The modern tendency is to replace any number of organisational inventions for what has long been recognised as a theological definition. Anglican identity is grounded in a cohesive theology that is biblically based, confirmed over time, and preserved in the historic formularies.

The Articles of Religion

The Articles of Religion are often dismissed with an offhanded comment that Anglicans and Episcopalians are not “confessional” like Lutherans with the Augsburg Confession and Presbyterians with the Westminster Confession. The thinking that Anglicans do not have a defining statement of belief is simply not true. Thomas Cranmer wrote the Articles at the same time as the other great Protestant confessions, with the same purpose in mind. The 1571 (and final) version of the Articles succinctly states their purpose: “For the avoiding of diversities of opinions and for the establishing of Consent touching true religion.” While it is clear that the Articles speak to sixteenth century issues in the Church of England, they are much broader in scope and more comprehensive with their attention to such core Christian doctrines as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the authority of Holy Scripture. By addressing many matters — controversial and noncontroversial to the times — the Articles show themselves to be the church’s confession of faith. Since the Act of Parliament that established the Articles in 1571, all clergy ordained in the Church of England have been required to subscribe and now to assent to the Articles as an authoritative statement of Anglican beliefs. Moreover, in many parts of the Anglican Communion today subscription is still required of ordinands, as the Articles “bear witness to the faith revealed in Scripture and set forth in the catholic creeds” (Church of England, Canon C15). William White, the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church championed the Articles, but he did not require their subscription since they were included in the Constitution of the church, and everyone ordained already vowed to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church (its Constitution and Canons). The neglect of the Articles in one of the great tragedies of Modern Anglicanism.

So what is an Article, and how are they organised? An Article is simply an official position statement on an important doctrinal matter. The Thirty-nine Articles can be organised and divided into three sections: the catholic (as in “universal”), the Protestant, and the Anglican. Articles 1-8, the catholic Articles, define and describe what is to be believed by all Christians, everywhere and in every age. Articles 9-34 are the Protestant Articles that describe how Anglicanism is distinctly Protestant and not Roman Catholic. The last ones (Articles 35-39) are considered the Anglican Articles, describing aspects of Anglicanism that are distinctive from other parts of Protestantism. As Gerald Bray explains: “Understood in this way, the Thirty-nine Articles have a logical and harmonious symmetry, starting with the universal and going on progressively to what is more particular, first to the protestant world in general and then to the specific circumstances of the Church of England” (The Faith We Confess). The Articles have doctrinal authority today because they are recognized as Anglicans’ key doctrinal statement. At the General Convention of 1801, the fledgling Episcopal Church adopted the Articles as its theological standard. The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) Constitution and Canons states: “We receive the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1571, taken in their literal and grammatical sense, as expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time, and as expressing fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief.” The Jerusalem Declaration (GAFCON, 2008) states that “We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.” 

Those who want to know what Anglicans believe about Scripture, predestination, transubstantiation, and whether or not the sacrament’s efficacy depends on the holiness of their minister need only to read the Articles of Religion.

The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Director for the Center for Reformation Anglicanism.