Review: The Faith We Confess

What does the Church of England believe?  The frustrating lack of an answer to that question was one part of an earlier post.  However, despite the practical evidence on the ground, the Church of England is a confessional church and its position is found in the historic formularies, i.e. the 39 Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal.

In recent times, less and less attention has been paid to these formularies, which is sad, particularly for those in the Church of England who identify with the Reformed faith which they represent.

In The Faith We Confess, Gerald Bray has provided an excellent introduction to the 39 Articles, which in particular focus on the doctrine to be believed in the church.  Anyone who reads the Articles will see how incongruous much Church of England belief and practice is with them.  Bray skillfully and engagingly takes us through the Articles reflecting on history, theology and the contemporary situation.

The main substance of the book is 39 chapters, one devoted to discussing each article.  For those who have read Griffith Thomas' Principles of Theology (a sort of systematic theology based around the articles), this is less a systematic theology (although of course theology is contained within it) and more, as the subtitle suggests, an exposition.  At the end of each chapter there are questions to reflect on, Bible passages to read and consider and further reading if your interest has been sparked to go deeper.

It is a fascinating, if at times eclectic read.  Fascinating, because Bray writes well and brings great knowledge of history, theology and the contemporary debates to the table.  Eclectic, because the chapters are not consistent in balance or focus with respect to the different areas included.  As such, it is a not a reference book for the history of each article, or the theology related to each article, but a collection of reflections challenging the reader to think about each article in turn.  Perhaps it might encourage deeper reflection on the theology with Griffith Thomas.

Around these 39 chapters are an introduction, providing an overview of the purpose and history of the articles, and two appendices on church declarations about the articles and subscription to the articles.

I have only one small gripe.  It is simply that when Bray engages with Scripture he is very good, but I don't particularly like the style of putting passages at the end of a chapter with no guidance for the reader.  I know it's common in systematic theology books (e.g. Know the Truth and In Understanding Be Men), but personally I don't find it very helpful and I can't be the only one who wondered at times how I was supposed to link the passage to the chapter.  I suspect others won't agree with me!

If you want an engaging set of expositions to introduce the Articles to yourself or others, with a mix of history, theology and contemporary reflection, then this book is very good.  Furthermore, I'm not aware of any competitors in the field.

But should you want such a book?  I think the answer is yes, because the Articles are important if:

  1. you are part of a Church of England congregation - it is a very important part of your heritage.
  2. you are an ordinand or potential ordinand in the Church of England - you need to know what you will be assenting to.
  3. you are a minister in the Church of England - you ought to know the doctrinal boundaries in which you work.
I think it is good a personal devotional resource, which was how I used it.  I also think it would make a good discussion group book - perhaps especially good for groups of ordinands in training.

I hope the book has a wide readership.  It would be especially good if it broke out from conservative evangelicals in the Church of England and was used more widely.  It could be greatly used to call the church back to faithfulness and integrity with respect to its doctrinal foundation.

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