This is the final instalment of a series of posts on the Thirty-nine Articles. Before some concluding comments, we need to work our way through the final six articles. It won’t take as long as you might think.

Keep in mind that we are primarily interested in the Articles as a witness to ‘the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures’ (as in the Declaration of Assent), and in the ‘doctrine’ which ‘is to be found in the … Articles’ (see Canon A 5). So, in the remaining articles, which are primarily concerned with church and civil government, we will skim fairly quickly over anything that does not count as doctrine.

32. Of the Marriage of Priests

Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.

Those looking for the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage, as articulated in its historic formularies, need to look elsewhere (for example, to the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer). In terms of doctrine, Article 32 simply asserts that clergy need not be celibate.

33. Of Excommunicate Persons, how they are to be avoided

That person which by open denunciation of the Church is rightly cut off from the unity of the Church, and excommunicated, ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful, as an Heathen and Publican, until he be openly reconciled by penance, and received into the Church by a Judge that hath authority thereunto.

The language of ‘Heathen and Publican’ is taken from Matthew 18:17, which says that when other efforts to bring about repentance have failed, a persistent sinner should be treated as an outsider to the church. Article 33 simply affirms this, and lays down the means by which such a person may be restored to the church’s fellowship, namely, by a judge, and only after the offender has shown evidence of a change of heart, ‘which is what is meant by the reference to “penance” here’ (Bray, 184).

34. Of the Traditions of the Church

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever through his private judgement, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

Most of Article 34 is concerned with the discipline of the Church of England. In terms of doctrine, it states that the church’s ceremonies should be ‘edifying’ (see 1 Cor 14:26), and that ‘only what is mandated by Scripture is immutable’ (Bray, 190).

35. Of the Homilies

The second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times, as doth the former Book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth; and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.

Of the Names of the Homilies […]

Here we are faced with an interesting question: Are the two Books of Homilies (600 pages or so) authoritative for determining Anglican doctrine? It would seem that they are, because Article 35 declares that they contain ‘godly and wholesome Doctrine’. But the situation is less clear than that. The Homilies are not contained within the Articles, even if the Articles refer to them. So when we are looking for the doctrine which is to be found ‘in’ the formularies (as in the Declaration of Assent and Canon A 5), we need to limit ourselves to looking in the formularies in order to find this doctrine. If you have a standard edition of the Book of Common Prayer in your hand (which will include the Articles and the Ordinal), then you have all you need to find the doctrine contained in the Church of England’s historic formularies.

This doesn’t mean that the Homilies are of no relevance at all, however. Gerald Bray writes that ‘The Homilies are best understood as a commentary on the Articles’ (in Heresy, Schism and Apostasy, 43), but also cautions that ‘no homily should be cited as an authority for Anglican doctrine if it can be shown to go against one of the three official formularies of the church’ (Bray, 197).

36. Of Consecration of Bishops and Ministers

The Book of Consecration of Archbishops and Bishops, and Ordering of Priests and Deacons, lately set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth, and confirmed at the same time by authority of Parliament, doth contain all things necessary to such Consecration and Ordering: neither hath it any thing, that of itself is superstitious and ungodly. And therefore whosoever are consecrated or ordered according to the Rites of that Book, since the second year of the forenamed King Edward unto this time, or hereafter shall be consecrated or ordered according to the same Rites; we decree all such to be rightly, orderly, and lawfully consecrated and ordered.

It is difficult to find much doctrine in Article 36. Apparently, ‘there was some dispute about the status of those who had been ordained between 1549 and 1552’ (Bray, 199).

37. Of the Civil Magistrates

The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.

The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.

I can’t find any reference to England in my Bible, so any statements in the Articles about England specifically do not count as doctrine, as such.

Civil government in general, however, certainly is a topic of Christian doctrine. So perhaps the best way of gleaning doctrine from Article 37 is to see it as an example of civil government that is ‘not repugnant to the Word of God’. To pick the clearest examples, if you think that Scripture categorically rules out (1) the death penalty or (2) warfare, then your doctrine is out of step with that of Article 37.

38. Of Christian men’s Goods, which are not common

The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

The main point is clear, and not likely to be very controversial: that the church is not a society in which believers hold all things in common.

39. Of a Christian man’s Oath

As we confess that vain and rash Swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his Apostle, so we judge, that Christian Religion doth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the Magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet’s teaching, in justice, judgement, and truth.

As with the previous article, Article 39 is a response to certain Anabaptists, who were forbidding people from taking oaths, in court, for example. Although Jesus and James spoke against swearing, this is understood to be of the ‘vain and rash’ variety, while ‘the Prophet’ is Jeremiah, who said: ‘and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, “As surely as the Lord lives,” then the nations will invoke blessings by him and in him they will boast’ (4:2).

And so we reach the end of this, ahem, Lent series on the Thirty-nine Articles. (‘Lent’ is related to ‘lengthen’, so perhaps it is appropriate that it has dragged on a bit!) What is the conclusion? Do I believe in the faith to which the Articles bear witness? Do I believe the doctrine of the Church of England, as found in the Articles? Yes! Do I fully understand every minor nuance? Not quite.

But what if I find myself disagreeing with the Articles? What then? I do think there is a bit of wriggle room. In centuries gone by, anyone seeking ordination would have had to declare about the Articles of Religion ‘that he believeth all the articles therein contained to be agreeable to the Word of God’ (Bray, 221). There is no doubt that the current declarations are more relaxed about the Articles than they used to be. So there does appear to be space now at least for minor quibbles about points of detail. But the Articles, it seems, articulate a coherent set of convictions, focused around the idea of justification by faith (as opposed to justification by works, including works performed by the church and its ministers). I don’t think it is possible to reject part of that without rejecting the whole package. And if I was in that position, I don’t think I could, in good conscience, make the declarations that will, God willing, be posed to me at my ordination.