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Anglican Communion compass Yesterday’s post deplored the dire situation in The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States.

Today’s post examines how the greater Anglican Communion and TEC lost their way once they discarded the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

Gillis Harp, Professor of History of Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania — which has a faithful Anglican congregation — describes himself as an amateur student of the Thirty-Nine Articles. That said, he has written a learned 17-page history, describing their ascent and decline throughout the history of Anglicanism. Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

N.B.: Harp’s references to ‘evangelical’ refers to what used to be known as low church Anglicanism. Evangelicalism in this context is the opposite of Anglo-Catholic.

During the Reformation

In formulating the Articles, English Reformers made it clear they repudiated Catholicism and Anabaptism, whilst affirming Lutheranism and Calvinism in light of Augustinianism (p. 3 of the PDF):

On the main points of contention with Roman Catholicism they are indeed crystal clear. Scripture is clearly identified as the supreme rule of faith and other essential matters follow: the fact of human depravity; the Biblical understanding of justification (what Luther aptly labeled the doctrine on which the church stands or falls); the doctrine of assurance; the meaning and purpose of the sacraments. On the flip side of the coin, they are also admirably clear in their negative teaching—i.e., their rejection of medieval tenets: purgatory, transubstantiation, denying the cup to the laity, the sacrifice of the mass and several others. What one often forgets is that they are also very clear about what Anabaptist distinctives they repudiate: Pelagianism, deprecating the sacraments, rejecting infant baptism, inattention to the order of the church visible and other matters. Indeed, often what strikes us as an odd turn of phrase has its roots in a point arising from Anabaptist teaching.2

The Articles are brief in their expression. They are not lengthy, perhaps to their detriment, as the respective Lutheran and Calvinist confessions of faith are. However, early English Reformers saw this as being a good thing (p. 3):

Bishop Pearson concluded in 1660 that they were not ʻpretended to be a complete body of divinityʼ but, rather ʻan enumeration of some truthsʼ, truths that were the minimal doctrinal requirement for those charged with the pastoral ministry in the Church of England.3 Subscription to such a modest set of doctrines by the clergy would secure theological (and political) peace in a necessarily comprehensive national church.

Anglican theologians of the 17th century, such as Bishop Pearson, affirmed the Articles in their sermons and written works.

Enlightenment: emphasis on rationality

During the Enlightenment, other Anglican theologians emphasised the broader significance of the Reformation, some of which, Harp says, has extended to the present day (p. 4). These men viewed:

the Reformation as a grand deliverance from the superstition of the Dark Ages and part of a larger march of progress toward common sense and rationality. Theological liberals extended this approach at the beginning of the twentieth century. One used to encounter such an interpretation of the Reformation in high school and college textbooks that portrayed Luther as a champion of individual liberty (quite a stretch for a figure as thoroughly medieval as Luther). Sometimes one got the impression from these accounts that the greatest achievement of the Reformation was that it made Higher Criticism possible!

However, there were others who held to a High Church tradition even before John Henry Newman. Yet (pp. 4, 5):

Some of these (especially those old High Churchmen who wrote before the Ritualist movement) were sharply anti-Roman Catholic and usually careful to exclude a sacerdotalist definition of the ordained ministry. The two best examples here are Bishop William Beveridge (1710) and Bishop Harold Browne (1850).4

Newman and the Oxford Movement

In the 1830s John Henry Newman was an Anglican priest who taught at Oxford. He was highly influential and well respected at the university.

In 1833, Newman began publishing a series of tracts, each one numbered, which affirmed a Roman Catholic interpretation of the Articles. This brought his Oxford Movement into greater prominence among Anglican clergy around the nation.

The publication of his Tract 90 represented his peak in the Church of England and soon resulted in his decline via criticism from clergy who were firmly in the Augustinian-Lutheran-Calvinist — Protestant — camp.

Newman contended that there was no Anglican doctrine as such; the Articles merely pointed to an ideal yet to be discovered. Furthermore, he ignored the Protestant nature of the reformed English Church. He also minimised the original intent of the Articles’ formulation as a Protestant statement of belief (p. 6).

Not surprisingly, this had the result of dividing Anglicans into resolute Protestants and those accepting of certain Roman Catholic doctrines.

In short, Anglicanism could be what the individual believer wanted it to be (p. 6). Unfortunately, this attitude has continued to pervade much of the Anglican Communion, i.e. the visible church.

Newman’s Tract 90 proved to be a step too far. A vast majority of clergy condemned it. In 1845, Newman became a Roman Catholic.

Still, his influence persists today. Even low church — evangelicals — began reinterpreting the Articles, relaxing the original emphases on the importance of Scripture, justification and imputed righteousness. They pronounced Luther and other early Reformers — Calvin and Zwingli — as ‘extreme’ and guilty of writing a ‘legal fiction’ (p. 7).

20th and 21st centuries

This loose interpretation of the Articles is still present among many low church evangelical clergy.

This is the reason why I have very few Anglican sites written by clergy on my blogroll. Just because they are ‘evangelical’ does not mean they are writing truths in line with Scripture or the Articles.

By the 1960s, theologians and other professors began to view the Articles as historical artifacts, just as they had done with old secular documents and books (p. 9):

Since the 1960s and seventies, several historians of political thought (sometimes called the ʻCambridge Schoolʼ) have advocated a ʻcontextualistʼ approach to historical texts. A student of John Locke, Professor John Dunn, has summarized the method of the Cambridge School as treating ʻthe historical character of the texts as fundamental, and understands these, in the last instance, as highly complex human actionsʼ. For these scholars, it is crucial that (to quote another theorist) ʻthe texts are treated in a self-consciously historical manner, through locating them in time and place and, moreover, examining them in their linguistic contexts…[the Cambridge School seeks] to introduce a reflexive historical sensitivity to the process of interpretation.ʼ16 Not only is the documentʼs original purpose and historical context crucial to discover and reconstruct but one must attempt to recreate the linguistic context within which particular words or phrases were used. For example, surveying what has been said about liberty from Plato to Mill is rather meaningless unless one is acutely aware of how the meaning of the word liberty has shifted and developed over time.

Giles Harp explains (p. 10):

The methodological concerns of intellectual historians should alert us to how naïve and biased Anglicans have been in interpreting our formularies. Both Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals have been guilty of ahistorical and partisan readings (although because Evangelicals have more often been in sympathy with the central concerns of the Reformers, they have often been fairer interpreters than their High Church opponents).

How laypeople view the Reformation and the Articles

The clergy’s reinterpretation of the foundation of the Anglican Communion has had a profound effect on how churchgoers view the Reformation and the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Harp rightly deplores the current mindset of our church members (pp. 2, 3). I have witnessed this myself since the 1980s:

The vast majority of American Episcopal layfolk (and, in my experience, many of its clergy) are woefully ignorant of the Reformation. If the defining documents of Anglicanism, the Reformation formularies (Articles, BCP, Ordinal and Homilies) are products of an era that most Anglicans know little or nothing about, we do have a problem. And the problem is not solely one of ignorance but of unease or downright hostility. Episcopalians are embarrassed about Henry VIII. Many take pride in that Anglicanism broke with Rome but ʻavoided Lutherʼs extremesʼ (whatever that is supposed to mean!). I have been struck with how other churches of the magisterial Reformation show a much greater knowledge of and appreciation for their Reformation roots. Lutherans and Presbyterians celebrate Reformation Sunday and sing ʻA mighty fortressʼ with gusto. Why shouldnʼt Anglicans do so also? Episcopalians seem vaguely embarrassed by it all. In the ECUSA calendar, the Oxford martyrs are lumped together in a single day—is it ever observed in Episcopal churches? (At least in Canada and England, Cranmer has his own day and Latimer and Ridley appropriately share one.) Much of this myopia regarding the Reformation stems from the Tractarian movement and its Anglo-Catholic successors but one must frankly recognize it as a serious problem undermining the recovery of authentic Anglicanism in North America.

Not only there but in the rest of the world as well!

It is no wonder that the laity view the Articles as being obsolete (p. 1):

Forgetting the Thirty-Nine Articles has, of course, been part of a larger assault on traditional doctrine. Relegating the Articles to the ʻHistorical Documentsʼ section of the 1979 American BCP was a small part of this shift but a revealing one nonetheless.

They were also excluded from the Church of England’s Alternative Service Book 1984 — much parodied in the London-based Private Eye magazine — and the current Common Worship which appeared nearly 15 years ago.

A vestryman of my parish church stated recently in writing that people are not interested in theology or Scripture, nor should they necessarily be, rather, let them focus on being good men and women. Hmm. Anyone can do that.

Conversations with my neighbours and clergy over the decade reveal the same outlook. Furthermore, they question any traditional or historical liturgy. They conclude that they are Anglicans, therefore, they can believe anything they wish.

As a result, they hold to a Universalist redemption of all, liberation theology, Anabaptist salvation through works, Holy Communion for the unbaptised and no mention of sin other than a brief confession during the Sunday service.


Giles Harp strongly advocates a return to the Thirty-Nine Articles via a thorough study of 17th, 18th and pre-Newman 19th century works written about them. He admits this will not be an easy task. I would ask, ‘Who, but a handful of laymen and clergy, will assume it?’ That said, they must do so for the health of our denomination.

He rightly concludes (p. 15):

Surely much of the dissension within Anglican churches since the mid-nineteenth century is the bitter fruit of not respecting the original intent of our framers. When the Anglican formularies become a kind of wax nose that can be shaped by partisans who were avowed enemies of the principles of the English Reformers, then is it any wonder that Anglicanism is in dire straights? As many of us are now involved in the recovery of authentic Anglicanism in North America, let us not shrink from the hard work of understanding the original intent of the Articles and the even harder job of really applying them to the teaching and practice of our congregations.

May every Anglican and Episcopal seminary and congregation come to know the biblical truths expounded upon in our Articles of Religion. May we also begin to believe and follow them.


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