As a layman, one who was seeking connection with the early church and who after months of thinking, praying and research into doctrine, I settled on the 39 Articles as a worthy balance between Biblical, Evangelical faith and historic worship and polity. I was fully aware of the liberal slant of the Episcopal church, but was also heartened to find a few Anglican groups who claimed to combine history, biblical authority and the power of the spirit into one Biblical and Evangelical movement. Anglo-Catholicism was not part of my research, but I assumed that the 39 Articles held sway even in those circles. So I must admit a certain degree of shock upon reading the following from the Anglican Missal
"I confess to God Almighty, to Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to thee, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault. Wherefore I beg blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and thee, father, to pray for me to the Lord our God."
How did a prayer to Michael the Archangel, Mary and apostolic saints appear in a worship liturgy if the 39 Articles specifically proscribed prayers to saints?
The answer, I am coming to understand, is partly political, partly theological. Anglicanism was of necessity a political compromise. Prior to the Elizabethan settlement Protestants and Catholics were killing each other. The decision to end the hostilities was for the sake of England itself. Some theological disagreements had to be laid aside. But in spite of the Protestant emphasis in Cranmer's theology, just enough room was made in the moderating of certain statements to allow Catholic minded Englishmen a place within the English church. The twist that would occur in the 19th century is rather exquisite in its subtlety.
It appears that Charles I (1600-1649) had included a particular declaration that would appear in the English Book of Common Prayer . The declaration included the following in regard to the Articles:
“...the Articles of the Church of England... do contain the true doctrine of the Church of England agreeable to God's Word... no man hereafter shall either print, or preach, to draw the Article aside any way, but shall submit to it in the plain and full meaning thereof: and shall not put his own sense or comment to the meaning of the Article, but shall take it in the literal and grammatical sense.”
The motive appears in part to have been an attempt to unite warring factions within the English church and insist on common form of worship and theology. Someone such as myself would find the “plain and full meaning” to be explicitly, though not rabidly, Protestant.
But in the 19th century, the Tractarian movement, also known as the Ritualist movement or the Oxford movement gained a following. The original intent of the Tractarians was to rescue the Church of England, which was controlled to a large degree by Parliament, from being ruled by politicians who had no connection to the Church at all. The original thrust of early "Tracts for the Times" was to restore the spiritual nature of the English Church. In doing so, the Tractarians reached back for inspiration to the English church prior to the Reformation, particularly in the first five centuries of the Christian Church. It's spirit was distinctly catholic.
John Henry Newman, in his now infamous Tract 90, saw in the Declaration of Charles a distinct possibility. Since Catholic thought had never completely died out in England and many officers of both church and state historically had retained more catholic beliefs, Newman interpreted the declaration of Charles to mean a catholic understanding of the articles was permitted. He wrote that Charles' declaration...
“For its enjoining the ‘literal and grammatical sense,’ relieves us from the necessity of making the known opinions of their framers a comment upon their text; and its forbidding any person to “affix any new sense to any Article,” was promulgated at a time when the leading men of our Church were especially noted for those Catholic views which have been here advocated.
In other words, the Tractarians would come to argue that the polemics of the Reformation era ought not to determine the meaning of the 39 articles, even if the framers, particularly Cranmer, were advocates of Luther and Calvin's ideas and even if the Articles were written in the Refomation era. In fact the entire Reformation could legitimately be read out of the Articles, for Newman gave specific examples.
He suggested that the articles VI and VII, in their reference to the Scripture as the final authority did not mean scripture was the sole “rule of faith”. He wrote “We may dispense with the phrase 'Rule of Faith,' as applied to Scripture, on the ground of its being ambiguous; and, again, because it is then used in a novel sense; for the ancient Church made the Apostolic Tradition, as summed up in the Creed, and not the Bible, the Regula Fidei, or Rule.”
Effectively Newman, while not exactly saying the Articles were wrong in asserting Scripture "containeth all things necessary to salvation", in effect circumvented the cornerstone of the Reformation, and made the church the final authority - the keeper of the true understanding of apostolic faith.
Where the articles declared that “councils may err”, (Art. XXI) Newman asserted that such a wording did not preclude the notion that some councils are guaranteed by the promise of the Holy Spirit to be infallible: “While Councils are a thing of earth, their infallibility of course is not guaranteed; when they are a thing of heaven, their deliberations are overruled, and their decrees authoritative." Exactly how this promise of infallibility came to be or came to be understood remains unclear to me.
Where the articles rejected “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory”, Newman suggested that it was only the “Romish” version of purgatory that was condemned, and other versions might be acceptable, and similar reasoning was applied to other proscriptions of Catholic practices - instead of rejecting those practices, the Anglican church should simply correct their abuse.
Evangelical reaction to Tract 90 was particularly negative. As the Oxford Tractarians pressed their case and reintroduced pre-Reformation elements into their worship practices - some were brought up on charges and prosecuted. This served only to win sympathy for the Tractarian cause. To be fair, many evangelicals rightly credit the Tractarians for bringing a deeper appreciation of regular celebration of communion and a sense of the beauty and reverence of worship back to the church.
But the end result is that today many otherwise orthodox Anglo-Catholics either accept the 39 Articles by essentially severing them from the Reformation era and reinterpreting their meaning or by ignoring them in part or altogether. Since the Articles were penned in a controversial time and since many of the settlements of the Church of England were intended as peace keeping measures, the Articles were understood by John Keble in this way: “It is quite evident, therefore that the Articles would be understood by the clergy who first subscribed them as Articles of Peace for the preservation of unity. They were not religious tests, or Articles of Faith; they were made as comprehensive as possible, and they were to be interpreted and understood in accordance with the general rule of Catholic tradition, i.e., in the Catholic sense.”
Of course the Evangelicals at the time did not agree with Keble or Newman on that point. But today, 450 years from the writing of the articles and 150 years after the Tractarian movement, many lifelong Anglicans apparently have little understanding of the historical developments. So the Anglican communion is cursed with a split personality. One "face" of Anglicanism is Protestant in theology and practice, the other can be rigorously Catholic in its liturgical and theological commitments, and two seemingly contradictory systems live side by side with an uneasy compromise. and I suspect in this decidedly anti-intellectual age, most laypeople are blissfully unaware of any contradictions in belief.
Where this is most discomforting to me is in the implications of certain liturgical phrases used in some Anglo-Catholic services. Whereas the Protestant reading of the Articles tends to explicitly proscribe the "sacrifices of masses" (stated in plural form, which allowed Newman to distinguish from the 'sacrifice of the mass' in the singular) and insists on the one offering of Christ, Anglo-Catholic thinking on the Eucharist blurs the line between Communion as a "thanksgiving" and communion as an "offering". From the aforementioned Missal, at the bringing of the bread and cup during the Eucharist. According to Project Canterbury, in the Manual of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, we find the following:
Celebrant: Pray, brethren, that this my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty.
People: The Lord receive this sacrifice at thy hands, to the praise and glory of his Name: both to our benefit and that of all his holy Church. Amen.
Roman Catholics will find this language familiar - it is verbatim from one Catholic liturgy, in which the Mass as Sacrifice is official doctrine of the church. Confusion on the point is inevitable.
To be fair, Anglican liturgies can be exceedingly confusing at this very point, as the tug-of-war between Protestant and Catholic ideas has played out. There is in the same liturgy, this seemingly balancing statement..."by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, Perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again"
On the surface this clarification might be acceptable to the Protestant camp, except at the point where the sacrifice might be seen as being necessary for a new, fresh, work for the forgiveness of sins. Still, statements about the "Sacrifice of Praise" and offering of gifts of Bread and wine, get garbled with other phrases, such as:
And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness, mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most humbly beseeching thee to grant that, by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we, and all thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.
If it is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, in what sense does this sacrifice obtain remission of sins? The doctrine gets murky. And I get increasingly uncomfortable, personally.
Other liturgical statements are more explicitly evocative of a propitiary sacrifice in the Eucharist. The reason, I believe is this: While Anglo-Catholics do not, as a rule, believe the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, their view of the "real presence" in the elements is objectified to the point where Christ is seen as objectively present in the elements themselves, so that his sacrifice on Calvary is intricately connected with the elements of the Eucharist. The result is a subtle tendency toward seeing the Eucharist as a re-presenting of the sacrifice in a way that is propitiary.
Statements in more overtly Anglo-Catholic circles such as in the manual of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament seem to go to the limit. From Litany 1:
Jesu, the Lamb without spot, Who, once sacrificed, art continually offered, yet art alive for evermore; Who art continually consumed, yet still remainest Perfect;Have mercy upon us.
We beseech Thee to hear us, Good Lord.That by this Sacred Oblation we may acknowledge Thine infinite perfections in Thyself and Thy supreme domination over all things;We beseech Thee to hear us, Good Lord.That by this adorable Sacrifice we may acknowledge our perpetual dependence upon Thee, and our absolute subjection to Thy will;We beseech Thee to hear us, Good Lord.
And from the Acts of Faith. I.
O my beloved Lord and Saviour, Jesu Christ, I firmly believe, because Thou hast said, "This is My Body; This is My Blood," that in this blessed Sacrament Thou art truly present, Thy Divinity and Thy humanity, with all the treasures of Thy merits and Thy Grace: that Thou art Thyself mystically offered for us in this Holy Oblation; and that through Thine Own Presence Thou dost communicate the virtues of Thy most precious Death and Passion to all Thy faithful, both living and departed.
Lest I be thought to be reading too much into these statements, we should not forget that Newman, for his part, suggested that the sacrifice of the Mass was in some way allowed even by the 39 articles. From Tract 90:
On the whole, then, it is conceived that the Article before us neither speaks against the Mass in itself, nor against its being an offering for the quick and the dead for the remission of sin; but against its being viewed, on the one hand, as independent of or distinct from the Sacrifice on the Cross...
So the apparently mediating position held by many is that Christ died once and in keeping with the book of Hebrews entered the heavenly temple once, but in some way his sacrifice is re-presented in a way that obtains remission of sins. To most Protestants, this view is blasphemous, for it calls into question the infinite value of Christ's sacrifice, the "finished work". As High Priest, the writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus went into the Holy Place once, for all time, then sat down, a point I have had to review yet again myself. As mediator, as advocate, his work continues. But as sacrificial victim and High Priest, His work is finished. So the sacrificial language is hugely problematic to the Evangelical.
Other matters also come into seemingly irresolvable conflict. Whereas the Articles, from a Protestant perspective, clearly say that the sacraments are not to be "lifted up" for the purpose of adoration, some Anglo-Catholic groups, following Newman's lead, find room for exactly that. Because of the belief that Christ is objectively present in the elements themselves, adoration of the elements is in a sense worship of Christ.
The history of the Confraternity includes this in response to protestant resistance to Anglo-Catholic practices:
"...gentlemen, the very moment any one says we shall not adore our Lord present in the Eucharist, then from a thousand hearts will come the answer, 'Let me die in my own country, and be buried in the grave of my father and mother.' For to adore Christ's Person in his Sacrament, that is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart. How we do it, the way we do it, the ceremonies with which we do it, are utterly, utterly indifferent. The thing itself is what we plead for."
And to link the matter together, the writer of the history notes: "Eucharistic Adoration was its first object, always, and after that, prayer in union with the Eucharistic Sacrifice."
How does one square this with Article XXVIII which states: "The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped?" Only by severing the 39 Articles from the Reformation itself.
Today both the "high church" and "low church" Anglican expressions can be found worldwide. To folks like me who grew up fairly unfamiliar with Anglicanism, this at first, from a distance, appears to be only a matter of style - with some Anglicans preferring a more formal worship, others preferring a more accessible approach. This was all I innocently thought was at stake whenever I would observe a particular element that seemed a bit too "Catholic" for my latent evangelical theological boundaries, and in fact there are many degrees of expression between the poles. Many Evangelicals today would accept some elements of High Church worship as part of the overall heritage of Anglicanism. Many who might have Anglo-Catholic leanings would consider themselves to also be evangelicals and would interpret even the more sacrificial language of some Eucharistic prayers in a more "evangelical" way. So one cannot paint with a broad brush. Unless one knows enough about the history of Eucharistic controversies, most laypersons would never know enough to even ask questions that might uncover the layers of meaning and history behind various phrases.
But now, as I ask questions, dig deeper, uncover the history and the obscure texts, I can't help but feel that Newman's thesis is dishonest and misleading. If the Oxford Movement leaders really felt that the early "catholic" teachings were correct and Cranmer's leanings toward Calvin and Luther were wrong, then they could well have argued that the 39 articles were simply too protestant and should have been rewritten. In the 19th century, some did argue precisely that, but they would not have won the day at that time. The appearance is that to survive as an Anglo-Catholic required less confrontational methods. By "reinterpreting" the articles they managed to subtly infiltrate catholic ideas into the English church without most laypeople understanding what was happening.
As a former Roman Catholic, who spent thirty years as an evangelical, who wished to recover the doctrinal stability of the creed, the historical connection to earlier generations in the Lord's Prayer and who wanted to be more intentional in confession and celebration of the Lord's table, I am now faced with a quandary. I came to a conservative, Evangelical, Anglican church which spoke of the authority of scripture and salvation by faith alone. I came only after carefully studying the 39 articles. I chose to associate with what I believed was a conservative group of Anglicans, precisely because the 39 Articles did not reintroduce some of the elements of Roman Catholicism I found to be extra-biblical. I, in good faith, accepted the doctrine found in the Articles and assumed that the articles, read in a normal fashion connected to the Reformation era, were a fair statement of essential Anglican belief - a Reformation of the corruptions of the universal and apostolic church.
Anglicanism seemed in some way a defined mid-point between Rome and radical independence. But I am coming to understand Anglicanism as a world-wide movement is not a mid-point, it is rather a broad and ill-defined collection of many different middle ways. And as a result, on a local level, one cannot rigidly limit the meaning of the 39 Articles to their Protestant original intent without stepping on the toes of others who interpret them according to Newman's thesis. Pluralism, not doctrinal clarity, is the norm. On the matter of Trinitarian Creedal Orthodoxy, there is unity. Everything else is in flux.
I do wish, now, that I had been taken aside early on and told that the articles can be subject to such variant readings. I now wonder if my association to Anglicanism was undertaken under a completely false assumption. Seems like false advertising.
Which is not to say genuine believers do not have a right to their opinions. It is certainly permissible to say that one believes the Protestant thrust of the 39 Articles is in error and to remove reference to them from local church vision statements - to clearly state one's position.
I can also respect a person who might believe that the original intent of the Articles was less Protestant than Luther or Calvin or even Cranmer might have preferred. (The burden of proof would be on them to demonstrate this from documents of that era).
But it seems to me dishonest and disingenuous to claim that the 39 articles can be divorced from history and made to mean something that the writers apparently did not intend, to reintroduce the very practices the writers sought to proscribe. The effect of such parsing of words is to confuse and obscure, and sadly, to open the door to more and more hedging and parsing of words.
While many churches might not practice Eucharistic adoration, prayers to the saints, prayers for the dead, say the rosary, venerate icons or relics or think of the Eucharist as a propitiary sacrifice, I am finding many otherwise Evangelical and Biblical Christians see no need to stand against those things - they are graciously allowed as part of the broad tent of Anglicanism, owing to apparent practices from the early church and to the Great Tradition. So to speak against these things can be seen as narrow, divisive and, well, un-anglican. I'm new in these parts, I guess I didn't pick up on the local customs.
As much as I long for an end to divisive doctrinal wrangling, I am finding myself in a position of needing do draw a line - to state that I cannot go beyond a particular point. "Where is it written?" remains an essential factor in defining doctrine for me. It must remain so. If scripture cannot correct the Great Tradition, then scripture is not the final authority and that is a commitment I cannot relinquish. If the Great Tradition can force interpretations onto scripture that the context and grammar do not warrant, or add rituals, beliefs, doctrines to the faith that seem to have no basis in the text, then scripture is not the final authority in matters of faith. At that point, the only reasonable choice would be to become Roman-Catholic, not Anglo-Catholic, and it seems in some circles the line between the two is nearly imperceptible.
And I have to wonder. If Anglo-Catholics can find a way to "reinterpret" the articles of Religion, to sever them from their historical setting, to impose an interpretation on them that was fueled by 19th century concerns and Catholic theological interests, on what basis does an Anglo-Catholic honestly resist liberal reinterpretation of the same articles of Religion from the perspective of postmodern multicultural relativism? On what basis can revision and reinterpretation of the Biblical texts be repudiated?
How can one decry severing any text from its historical context if one has used that tactic to one's own benefit?
To the casual observer, these two faces of Anglicanism present a confusing double image. Perhaps it is no accident that a third face would emerge a generation ago.