To Proclaim Afresh
Declaration and Oaths for Church of England Ministers
Faith and Order Commission
Church House Publishing, 2022 (ISBN: 9780715142905, 35pp, £5.99)
Colin Podmore’s 1999 article on the Declaration of Assent in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal considered whether the formulation was still too young to benefit from scholarly exposition. Another two decades may now have turned the tables.
The title of this short but excellent publication is lifted from the second sentence (of four) in the preface to the Declaration of Assent. This Declaration is made by every church minister on ordination (or admission) and at all licencings to new ministries and its preface reaffirms what the Church of England is, what it does, what it ‘professes’, its vocation, and what it ‘has borne witness to’. Why the vocational element of this compound, though important, has been selected as the title to the whole (including the sections on the oaths as well) is unclear.
Declarants ‘affirm’ their ‘loyalty to the inheritance of faith [set out in the preface] as [their] inspiration and guidance’. Although this booklet responsibly parses every densely-loaded phrase of the preface, the declaration itself is oddly neglected. This is unfortunate as ‘affirming loyalty’ seems significantly weaker a statement than what declarants go on to say; that they ‘accordingly declare [their] belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness’. Quite rightly, and in keeping with the spirit of the preface to the Articles of Religion, these references to the documentary ‘inheritance of faith’ come without any gloss but allow only that they are noted in their ‘true, usual, literal meaning’, ‘in the plain and full meaning thereof’. This declaration gives substance to the nature of the ‘loyalty’ affirmed; it is not a mere acknowledgement of the past, but an active loyalty to a present reality.
Though the Declaration of Assent is thus stronger than the Faith and Order Commission imply, its predecessors were stronger still. The booklet gives the 1865 declaration text in full, but not the 1583/1604 form, thus obscuring the progressive dilution of doctrinal commitment expected from clergy (not to mention school teachers and university lecturers). The XXXVIth canon required subscription ‘willingly and ex animo’ to articles affirming the common prayer and ordinal contain nothing contrary to scripture and that the 39 Articles are likewise ‘agreeable’ thereto. The ‘willing and ex animo’ declaration was downgraded to a ‘solemn’ one by the Victorians, and the acknowledged conformity with scripture reduced from ‘nothing contrary’ to merely ‘agreeable’.
The chronology in the FOC’s booklet then focusses on objections to the 39 Articles as the motivation for twentieth-century modification. More attention to the sad dissent over the common prayer and ordinal would also have been worthwhile. Nonetheless, the early years of General Synod further reduced church subscription with the present formulation entirely removing the direct link between scripture and the formularies, save via the medium of ‘Christian truth’. No character is ascribed to the modern declaration, whether ‘willing’, ‘ex animo’, or ‘solemn’, and although its administration is usually conducted in such an atmosphere at present, the maintenance of this, as with so much else in the present fragile ecclesiastical settlement, depends entirely on the good will of the English episcopate. More positively, one might consider that the 1865 declaration required belief only that the formularies were agreeable with the Word, with no necessary personal belief oneself beyond ‘assenting’ to the formularies, whereas the 1975, as noted above, requires explicit belief in the faith revealed by the Word, albeit that the faith is rather loosely delineated.
The division of the booklet into separate sections on the Declaration and on the Oaths (of Allegiance and Canonical Obedience) makes sense; less so the third section on ‘the Declaration as enacted performance’. This curious chapter is built on the truism that statements ‘can bring about new states of affairs’. This bizarre collection of amateur pseudo psychology has the ring of an extempore outburst of enthusiasm at the Commission which the editorial process lacked the nerve to excise on coming to their senses.
The preface and foreword to the booklet hope that it will be read, in particular, by ordinands. Such exposure would indeed by beneficial, though until there is the threat of examination on the topics contained, the likelihood of proper digestion among this key demographic seems low!
Edward Keene, Little Shelford