Article XIX of the Thirty-Nine Articles, ‘Of the Church’, describes the church as ‘a congregation’. It’s not unusual for people to understand this as referring to a local congregation, and hence to assume that Anglican renewal is all about ‘healthy local churches’ (as opposed to healthy dioceses, or healthy national churches, for example). But is that what Article XIX actually means?
A few quotes should suffice for the time being. First, the article itself:
XIX. Of the Church
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.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
To argue that article 19 defines the church as a local congregation and no more is a profound mistake. To do so is to read the word ‘congregation’ in this context anachronistically. Such an understanding of the church by any of the Reformers is untenable. The use of congregation to refer to the whole Christian community is common in this period. For example, Bishop Hooper writes, ‘I believe and confess one catholic and universal church, which is an holy congregation, an assembly of all faithful believers.’ While in the Belgic confession, the affirmation is: ‘we believe and confess one catholic or universal church, which is the holy congregation of true believers’ (art. 27). This usage is also seen in the Authorized version of 1611, where ‘congregation’ is used to translate the Hebrew word edah, meaning all Israel, the covenant community.
Next, Gerald Bray (The Faith We Confess, p. 107):
The word ‘congregation’ is also difficult. To us it suggests a parish church, but although some people argue for this interpretation, it is doubtful whether Cranmer intended it in that sense. His concurrent mention of the great patriarchates of the ancient world suggest that he thought more in terms of national or regional churches, which were ‘congregations’ in a wider sense, and it is even possible that he was speaking of the universal church as a single ‘congregation’ formed of believers from around the world.
Finally, Paul Avis (The Anglican Understanding of the Church, p. 97):
[T]he word ‘congregation’ in Article 19 almost certainly does not mean the local worshipping congregation. The Latin text of the Article has the phrase coetus fidelium (assembly of the faithful). This Article is based on Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession of Luther’s Reformation, in which the equivalent expression is congregatio Sanctorum (assembly of the saints). Coetus is virtually a synonym for congregatio (assembly, society), which corresponds to the Greek ekklesia, which we have already seen means an assembly of people. The Article is not primarily referring to what we understand by a worshipping congregation in a parish (though this is certainly not excluded, since it too must have an ecclesial integrity grounded in word and sacrament), but to a ‘particular’ Church, which for the English Reformers meant a national Church made up of dioceses. That is the flock within which word and sacrament are administered and pastoral oversight is exercised.
It should be clear from those quotes that, whatever the precise intended meaning of ‘congregation’, Article XIX provides no warrant for restricting the Anglican understanding of the church to the local parish church.
The relative importance within Anglican ecclesiology of parish church, diocese, national church, and global Christian community is a big topic, and requires more than a simple ‘proof text’ from the Articles. But, for one perspective on the issue, here is a continuation of the Paul Avis quote:
The ‘local church’ in Anglican ecclesiology denotes (as we have already seen) 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.