As we cross the midpoint of this series on the Thirty-nine Articles, we move from a discussion of God – who he is, how we know him, and how we relate to him – to a discussion of the church – its nature, its authority, its sacraments, its discipline, and how it relates to the state.

It is important to recall that we are primarily looking at the doctrinal content of the Articles. It is through their doctrinal content that the Articles have authority as a witness to the faith revealed in Scripture (see the Declaration of Assent), and as a source of the doctrine of the Church of England, which is grounded in Scripture (see Canon A 5).

However, as we will see shortly, there is plenty in the Articles that is not doctrine. That is, the Articles say things that go beyond what is revealed in Scripture about the Christian faith. They say things about the discipline of the Church of England: rules put in place to ensure that the Church of England functions in an orderly manner. They say things about church history and about the sixteenth-century church. And they say things about the realm of England.

The precise status of the non-doctrinal content of the Articles is not clear to me. (Are they effectively part of canon law?) Regarding the doctrinal content, I will be asked (in the ordination of deacons) whether I ‘believe’ it, and whether I will ‘expound and teach it’ in my ministry. But what about everything else? I will be asked to declare that I ‘accept the discipline’ of the Church of England, and if that includes what the Articles say about the discipline of the Church of England, then I will need to be prepared to submit to that. This doesn’t mean I necessarily need to approve of what the Articles say about non-doctrinal matters. I might wish things were otherwise. But, if I do need to submit to what they say, I would at least need to agree with Canon A 2 that, on those specific points, ‘The Thirty-nine Articles are agreeable to the Word of God and may be assented unto with a good conscience by all members of the Church of England.’

So the recurring question in what follows will be: What does this article say about doctrine? What does this article say that all Christians everywhere ought to believe, based on Scripture, about God, and about everything else in relation to God? Then, if the Articles say something non-doctrinal, it may well continue to be of relevance, but at most I may need to ‘accept’ it. I do not need to ‘believe’ the non-doctrinal parts of the Articles in the sense that I wholeheartedly approve of them, nor will I be expected to ‘expound and teach’ them in my ministry.

19. 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.

Contrary to what is often assumed, Article 19 does not assert that the Anglicanism is all about the local church. As Gerald Bray says, ‘congregation’ could be referring to ‘national or regional churches’, or even to ‘the universal church as a single “congregation” formed of believers from around the world’. So it would be ‘stretching things to suppose’ that this article was written to help an individual Christian decide whether they should separate from their local parish church (Bray, 107).

Although the second paragraph consists of assertions about church history, in terms of doctrine it makes it clear that, as with individual Christians (Article 15), no church is ever perfect. This theme will return in Article 21.

Article 19 leaves much unsaid, to put it mildly, and does not address the multitude of questions we may have in our multidenominational context. Perhaps its main point comes from reading the two paragraphs together, keeping in mind the sixteenth-century context. In order to remain part of ‘The visible Church of Christ’, it is not necessary to be under one of the ancient patriarchates, such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. Indeed, these churches have all erred in substantial matters (though they are still called ‘church’ in this article, interestingly). Even if a national or regional church (such as the Church of England) breaks its ties with these ancient patriarchates, it may still legitimately claim to be part of ‘The visible Church of Christ’, as long as it continues to preach ‘the pure Word of God’, and to administer the sacraments ‘according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same’.

20. Of the Authority of the Church

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

When it comes to doctrine, Article 20 asserts that the church sits under the authority of Scripture.

In terms of discipline, it asserts that ‘The Church’ (presumably regionally or nationally, such as ‘The Church of England’) can put rules in place for its worshipping life, and can make decisions about controversial matters. (Indeed, the Articles themselves were written ‘for the avoiding of diversities of opinions and for the establishing of consent touching true religion’.)

For the importance of the latter, we need look no further than current British politics, in which ongoing ‘diversities of opinions’ within the main political parties are draining them of any life and rendering them utterly ineffective. Perhaps the Church of England needs to learn from this?

21. Of the Authority of General Councils

General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

Doctrinally, Article 21 asserts, once again, that the church is fallible, even on doctrinal matters, and even when it makes declarations through a ‘general council’. Thus the decisions of the ‘ecumenical councils’ of the early church sit under the authority of Scripture, and ‘must be subject to proof from Holy Scripture, which is the sole criterion for determining Christian doctrine’ (Bray, 116).

In what this article says about non-doctrinal matters, it is worth keeping the historical context in mind, and noting that ‘Thomas Cranmer was writing in the aftermath of a dispute between Pope Paul III (1534-1549) and the Emperor Charles V over the convening of a council to deal with the Protestant crisis’ (Bray, 114).

22. Of Purgatory

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

Article 22 seems to have been included at this point to give some examples of how ‘the Church of Rome hath erred’ (Article 19), and how general councils may also err (Article 21). For example, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 ‘authorised the veneration of images’ (Bray, 116). When a church’s doctrines go against Scripture, they are to be rejected.

23. Of Ministering in the Congregation

It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.

And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.

Article 23 is about the discipline of the church: the way in which authority is given to particular people to fulfil the ‘office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments’. It is strikingly vague about the details of this, and seems deliberately not to mention bishops. Although in the Church of England it is bishops who confer this authority, this article suggests that other churches might legitimately do things differently, such as those Reformation churches on the continent that did not retain an episcopal form of government.

24. Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.

1 Corinthians 14 is the key passage on this topic. In order for speech to build up and edify the church, it needs to be understood. In England, prior to the Reformation, Latin was used for public prayer and the administration of the sacraments. But this all changed with the Book of Common Prayer. However, as Bray notes, ‘Even Thomas Cranmer was not against using Latin in worship, as long as the people understood it’ (Bray, 129).

The third ‘repugnant’ of today’s articles brings to a close what the Articles say about the church and its ministry. Again and again, it is the authority of Scripture that has been emphasised.