Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles

Articles XIX through XXXI move us into “Corporate Religion”


Of the Church

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.

De Ecclesia

Ecclesia Christi visibilis est coetus fidelium, in quo verbum Dei purum praedicatur et sacramenta, quoad ea quae necessario exiguntur, iuxta Christi institutum recte administrantur. Sicut erravit Ecclesia Hierosolymitana, Alexandrina, et Antiochena: ita et erravit Ecclesia Romana, non solum quoad agenda et caeremoniarum ritus, verum in his etiam quae credenda sunt.

Fr. Laurence Wells
At this point the Articles move, rather seamlessly, into another department of doctrine.  Articles IX through XVIII deal with man’s need and God provision, the doctrine of salvation.  But at this point the concern shifts to the doctrine of the Church.  The progression is natural and smooth.  The Church is where salvation takes place.     
At its very beginning Article XIX alludes to (but does not dwell upon) a distinction unfamiliar and unpopular today, the distinction between the “visible” and “invisible” Church.  This distinction seems to imply that there are two Churches, as there are the two major Sacraments or the two natures of Christ.  I recall a devout lady, a faithful Churchwoman, who asked me in all sincerity, “Father, how may I join the invisible Church?”   That made me aware that my sermon on this topic had been less than clear and needed further teaching.  She was thinking that the “invisible Church” was a sort of advanced standing, somewhat like the Shriners within the Masonic Order.  Because of such an erroneous construction, many theologians have attempted to discard the distinction altogether.   
This distinction came to the fore in the 16th century, which was a time of crisis not only for the doctrine of salvation but for the doctrine of the Church and sacraments as well.  But it was first developed by St Augustine of Hippo, whose theology was vigorously revived in that century in both Protestant and Roman camps.  Augustine elaborated the distinction as a corollary to his doctrine of Election, although the distinction works just as well for the semi-Pelagian and Arminian systems also.  Augustine wrote concerning the Church, “there are many sheep without and many wolves within.”   That truth became painfully obvious in the corrupt Church of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Augustine and his 16th century disciples grounded this distinction firmly in Scripture.  The locus classicus is the parable of the wheat and tares growing together in Matthew 13:24—30.  In the same chapter we also find the parable of the net which catches fish of every kind, some of which must be thrown away as worthless.  In John’s writings we have the parable of fruitful and unfruitful branches.  In John’s first Epistle we meet the sad statement, “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us (1 John 2:19).  The Old Testament background on this point is the theme of the “remnant” of faithful Israelites, the 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal, but submerged within a corrupt and apostate nation.        
Within the visible, earthly institution of the Church we find those who are genuine and sincere and along with them those who are false and hypocritical.  This is a commonsense observation.  There will be a final separation of sheep and goats, of wheat and tares, of good fish and worthless, of fruitful and unfruitful branches.  But the warning of Our Lord is that we are not to attempt this separation on our own before He comes.  To a certain extent the “antichristoi” of John’s Epistle will go their own way through schism and betrayal, but it is dangerous for us to undertake the separation on our own. Even Elijah did not know who were included in the 7,000.   Efforts to achieve a pure Church always turn out badly.        
The Church visible and invisible is not two separate Churches or two layers in a cake.  The visible Church is the Church visible to us here and now, the Church we discern through its marks of Word and Sacrament.   The Church invisible is invisible only to us, but is the Church visible to God.  This is the entire Body of the faithful (Augustine would say the entire Body of the elect), those who have gone before and are now with Christ in paradise, those still on their earthly pilgrimage, and those souls known only to God who are yet to be born.  This is the “multitude which no man can number” in Revelation, the “body of Christ” in Paul, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
We may well say that the distinction between the visible and invisible aspects of the Church are analogous to the “sign” and “thing signified” in a sacrament. We see the sign with natural eyesight, but the thing signified must be apprehended by faith. When we see the mixed body of believers, semi-believers, and unbelievers gathered around the means of grace, we see an outward and visible sign of something far greater.  The invisible Church is truly the communion of saints, the mystical Body of Christ, made visible to us sometimes in the humblest of ways:  the priest who stutters and stammers, the choir which sings off-key, the congregation which is lackadaisical in its obligations, but along with the member who joined to make business contacts but does not have a single work of grace in his heart.                 
One warning: This distinction should never be employed to denigrate or devalue the human, imperfect, sinful, error-prone empirical thing we call the “visible Church.”  There are statements in print stating that the invisible Church was founded by God but the visible Church was created by man.  Such a statement does not come to grips with the Biblical data introduced above, in which the wheat and tares grow in the same field, the fruitful and unfruitful branches on the same tree.   Whatever the faults or errors of the 16th century Reformers, it cannot be justly alleged that they held any “low view of the Church.”  Calvin was emphatic that no one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.  When Calvin quoted this dictum from St Cyprian, he was speaking of the visible Church.     
The value of this distinction is that, rather than belittling the “congregation of faithful men,” it affirms that the visible Church is as much a Divine institution as any sacrament (dare I say, any other sacrament?) and holds an integral place in God’s work of saving sinners.

Fr. Robert Hart
The question of which is greater and more important, the ministry of God’s word or of His sacraments, is a false question. People in one party emphasize preaching the pure word of God as the sign of the Church, and people in another party emphasize the ministry of the sacraments as that sign. But, in the truly balanced and sober approach of Anglican Reason, we see that both are necessary. We need both, and we do not have any intellectually honest way to compare their worth and weigh them against each other. Furthermore, without the ministry of God’s word there can be no sacraments, just as, without the sacraments, the Ministry described and commanded in God’s word cannot take place.
Not only does Article XIX state this clearly, but so does the Ordering of Priests in our Ordinal: The Bishop says this, long after the prayers have begun, while his hands are placed upon the man he is ordaining: “Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” He then says, “Take thou Authority to preach the Word of God, and to minister the holy Sacraments in the Congregation, where thou shalt be lawfully appointed thereunto.” He does not emphasize one above the other.
The marks to look for are faith (“faithful men”, i.e. faithful human beings by the genuinely inclusive language of classical civilization), preaching of the pure word of God and the sacraments. If we are to accept the implications of the historical record, Book VII of Hooker’s “Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity” shows that Anglican practice and belief always included the Apostolic Succession of Bishops as part of both the ministry of God’s word and of His holy sacraments, and that this was instituted not by men, but by God through His Son; and carried on within the Church.
Some would argue that the marks to look for are those of the Nicene/ Constantinopolitan Creed: “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” Obviously, these describe the Church accurately. We say “I believe” to each of these.
But, how does a person see these things in his own hometown when looking for the Church? Can we see the Church as One? To avoid falling into the One True Church fallacy, we have to realize that no one can say to other parts of the Body, “I have no need of thee.” No one can, therefore, heal the political divisions of history as they affect the visible church in each locality. The mark of “One” does not apply, therefore, simply to one and only one congregation near you. Instead, it must speak of the broader unity that makes each true expression of the Church part of that One Church. Of the Apostolic churches, we alone understand that Oneness and essential unity of the Church, because Anglicans have never claimed to be the whole Church.
How does one see the Church as Holy? Obviously, not by finding a congregation in which no sin is ever manifest. For, that is simply impossible. To the best of our ability, we may discern where faith is present, and where hope and love appear to abide. We may see, however, Catholic and Apostolic in those visible ministries of the word and the sacraments.
We are told that “Catholic” means universal. The Church, we say in our major Creeds, is Catholic, and, according to the Creed named in honor of St. Athanasius, our Faith is Catholic. “Catholic” really means according to the whole (from the Greek word Katholikos). The Church is recognizable by teaching that whole doctrine that is universally agreed upon by the whole Church; that is, recognizable by teaching those things in the Creeds, all of which are revealed and recorded in the Scriptures, which have been known and recognized by the Church as the word of God. And, by both the teaching of God’s holy word and by the sacramental ministry of the Apostles continued in practice and visible in the life of a congregation, the Church is known, recognized and manifest.
Without “unchurching” other believers, we are nonetheless able to hold ourselves to the highest standard. Without presuming to cast judgment on how much grace is available in other Christian denominations and congregations, we may know, in a positive sense, what to look for in order to be confident that we are in the Church as Christ has ordained it.


Canon Tallis said...

Excellent and wonderful to read but nothing new, nothing original and that may be the very best part. This was what I have read in the Scriptures, the fathers and the Book of Common Prayer. The one word that frightens me the most is "faithful." To be faithful in this most difficult time is indeed difficult, but has it not equally been true at all times and for every man.

I think I must go and work on some more ways to be truly faithful to Him who is always so.

RC Cola said...

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.

Imagine bringing the authors of the Articles to the 21st Century in a time machine. I think knowing what would happen to the Church of England would lead them to despair.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I believe we are Continuing in the spirit of their faith.

MichaelA said...

Excellent work, Fr Hart and Fr Wells. Almost to half-way - I look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

Why isn't Constantinople mentioned as a Church that has erred?

An Awkward Aardvark