The Thirty-nine Articles and the Church

October 31st, 2009 Posted in News |

(Ed: In an effort to keep the ball rolling on the subject of Anglicanism as a theological system, I thought I’d reprint the following, which was a talk given to an evening meeting of our own congregations a couple of years ago.)

Introduction

That the Thirty-nine Articles were designed to benefit both the church and the state by settling religious disputes is evident from the Royal Declaration of 1562:

Being by God’s Ordinance, according to Our just Title, Defender of the Faith, and Supreme Governour of the Church, within these Our Dominions, We hold it most agreeable to this Our Kingly Office, and our own religious Zeal, to conserve and maintain the church committed to Our Charge, in Unity of true Religion, and in the Bond of Peace; and not to suffer unnecessary Disputations, Altercations, or Questions to be raised, which may nourish Faction both in the Church and Commonwealth.

That is the Anglican ideal, based on the model of church and state conceived at the English Reformation. There are to be no disputations, altercations and questions. Instead there is to be unity and the bond of peace, in state and in church.

The nature of the Church

But what is the Church? Article XIX tells us:

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.
Notice first, the reference to the visible Church, as distinct from the invisible Church. The invisible Church is the company of faithful believers known only to Christ. And indeed the Westminster Confession of 1647 began its definition of the Church there:

The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect … [emphasis added]
But of course the membership of the invisible Church is known only to God, and the Articles leave that aside, concentrating only on the visible. And what is visible is the preaching of the Word of God and the ministering of the Sacraments according to Christ’s commands. Where you have those, you have the Church.

Church and diocese

But here we hit a modern political issue. In his book The Anglican Understanding of the Church, Paul Avis, who is a very influential writer in these matters, denies that Article 19 means that the local congregation is the fundamental unit of the Church.

He argues from the fact that the Latin version of this article refers to a coetus fidelium — an assembly of the faithful — which he says refers to “a national church made up of dioceses” (p77). He concludes,
The ‘local church’ in Anglican ecclesiology denotes … the community of word and sacrament gathered, governed and led by the bishop. For Anglican ecclesiology , the ‘congregation’ in the strict sense is the diocese. (Avis op cit)
Not unnaturally, this conclusion has made Avis very popular amongst bishops, but whilst Avis is right in saying that the Article has a wider view than the local congregation, he is, I would argue, wrong to say it is the diocese.

Particular and national churches

The reason I believe he is wrong is because the Articles themselves don’t think of the Church in this way. The critical Article is 37, Of the Civil Magistrates, which says this:
THE King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain …

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