Future Church of England: Thinking About the Thirty Nine - Part 1

What place, if any, should the 39 Articles of Religion, or for that matter any confession of faith, take in the future of the Church of England?

I mentioned in a previous post that we're preaching a few at a time through the 39 Articles, which is part of the formularies of the Church of England and I think is rightly seen as the historic confession of faith of the Church of England.  Reading them and about them, as well as thinking of their Scriptural foundation has caused me to reflect on their purpose and their value today.

Some of you may know of the Latimer Trust booklet by Packer and Beckwith on this topic, which was originally from 1984 I think and has been updated.  I have to admit to not having read that yet (it's on the list!), but I would imagine that it is considerably more reliable than these blog posts.  These are simply my reflections working as a pastor in the Church of England today.

I wanted to start by summarising what I see as the attitude to the Articles.

In congregations, I would suggest there is one, almost universal position on the Articles, which is simply that they know almost nothing about them.  I sure there are honourable exceptions to that, but I expect that there are very few churches now that make any reference to the Articles.

I think that is largely because clergy now fall (in generalized terms) into one of three groups.


  1. By far the smallest group are those who know the Articles and are convinced of their theology. Although these clergy are likely to teach their congregation at least part of the doctrine of the articles, they are still unlikely to actually get the Articles themselves out in any congregational situations.
  2. There is then a group of clergy who know the Articles and in part or in full reject them, despite declaring their belief in them before ordination in the Declaration of Assent.  I remember an Anglo-Catholic declaring after making the Declaration of Assent that he had to cross his fingers about a good number of the Articles.  I'm told some get around this declaration by saying they believe in them in the sense that they exist!  These clergy are unlikely to mention the Articles, except perhaps to disagree with them!
  3. A third group simply don't know much about the Articles.  I would suggest cautiously that this is increasingly the majority.  When training is done part time and less rigorously, things like the Articles are likely to get short shrift (especially if the training is done by those in group 2). Even where training is still rigorous, it is questionable what place the Articles will actually take.  Clearly this group are very unlikely to even know the Articles let alone mention them!
This is, I think, a problem.  The woeful lack of a clear message from the Church of England on just about anything lies largely in the fact that the Church has lost a commitment to a defined set of beliefs.  So the best it can offer up is qualified and weak statements.  "The Bible is quite important. The Resurrection narratives are deeply significant, at least at a spiritual level..."

Christians are called to fight, confess and contend for "the faith" (1 Timothy 6:11-16; Jude 3). Perhaps behind the many crises on the Church of England at the moment is the lack of unity in the faith, as taught in Scripture and summarised in the 39 Articles.  I think there are issues with the Articles, which can be discussed as actually they sit under Scripture even within them (e.g. Articles 6-7) and so can be reformed, but the wholesale ignorance of and/or rejection of them is a recipe for disunity.

We read this passage from Paul on unity in the faith this Sunday at church:

1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6 ESV)

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