Fr. Laurence Wells
About thirty years ago a priest of the Continuing Church wrote a letter to the Christian Challenge in which he declared that there is not a single one of the Articles which is not subject to dispute. That priest had little use for what he called "the Elizabethan settlement." He soon betook himself to the Papal obedience. I could not resist the temptation to take him up on his unqualified claim "not a single one," and in my own beguiling manner pointed out that Article I simply states that "There is but one living and true God." My letter to the Challenge touched off one of those epistolary battles we used to enjoy before the arrival of the Internet. A dear and witty friend of mine, now with the Lord, quoted II Corinthians 11:24, "Five times I receive at the hands of the Jews forty lashes save one." Being a young priest at the time (to me 40 seems very young indeed), I learned that the Articles are a touchy subject and anyone who says anything at all good about them will quickly draw negative attention.
Discussions of the Articles have a way of bogging down over the point of their current legal standing and the degree of our commitment to them. Someone will bring forth the obvious banal observation that once upon a time they had not been written. Others will point out the virtual silence of our various canonical instruments on the current status of the Articles. I do not know for sure of any jurisdiction of the Continuum which is legally forsworn to the Articles. No cleric, to my recollection, has been formally charged in modern times with teaching contrary to the Articles; but a few, I can truly attest, have raised eyebrows for speaking kindly of them. For the nonce, for the sake of the argument, I will yield the point and concede that the Articles are legally a dead issue among us, their canonical authority having fallen into desuetude. Promoting some disciplinary enforcement of the Articles is far from my purpose.
I will argue instead that the Articles truly do possess authority, not necessarily a legal authority, but simply the authority of truth. Such statements as "There is but one living and true God" or "Christ did truly rise again from the dead" will stand or fall on their own strength. They require no action from a Church Synod. So from this lofty and perilous tree-stand, we will proceed to examine the Articles one by one. We will endeavor to show that those who reject the Articles as a whole may prove too much.
Having conceded that the canonical status of the Articles is virtually moot, allow me also to observe that they possess no quality of inerrancy. There are several places where one might prefer that things had been phrased differently. In Article XXV, for example, I wish the author had written, "The New Testament sets forth seven rites or ordinances, which the Church properly calls Sacraments, two of them directly ordained by Christ Himself, and the others firmly grounded in Apostolic practice and Scriptural teaching." Not that the original language there is entirely wrong, but it does require some gymnastics of interpretation. But a far more serious mistake is found in Article II, where "reconcile" is used when "propitiate" would have been the correct Biblical term. But to borrow a metaphor from Charles Hodge, these are only "flecks of granite in the marble of the Parthenon." They do not destroy the beauty of the building but they serve to make it more interesting.
The masterful commentary entitled "The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England" written by Edgar C. S. Gibson, Bishop of Gloucester and published in 1896, divides the Articles into four sections. I quote him verbatim:
"The most natural and convenient division of them, in accordance with their subject-matter, appears to be the following:
I. The Catholic Faith and where it may be found (Articles I--VIII).
(a) The Faith (Articles I.--V.)
(b) Scripture and the Creeds (Articles VI. -- VIII.)
II. Personal Religion, or Man and His Salvation (Articles IX. -- XVIII).
III. Corporate Religion, or the Church, the Ministry, and the Sacraments (Articles XIX. -- XXXI).
IV. Miscellaneous Articles, relating to the discipline of the Church of England, its relation to the civil power, etc.
(Articles XXXII -- XXXIX).
Now let us proceed to examine the Articles separately, beginning with Article I.
(To be continued.)