By the Rev. Gavin Dunbar
The following is the second of a two-part series from the Parish Paper of St. John’s Church in Savannah, GA.
The Articles established by the Episcopal Church in 1801 were a conservative adaptation of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion within the new political circumstances of the church in the United States of America. These Articles, originally forty-two in number when drafted in 1553 by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were revised under Queen Elizabeth I and eventually adopted as Thirty-Nine Articles in 1571. Replaced in 1647 by the Westminster Confession, they were restored in 1662 under Charles II. Ex animo (‘from the heart’) subscription to the Articles was required of all the clergy, as well as of graduates of the Universities, so they functioned like other Protestant confessions of faith, as a doctrinal standard or ‘formulary’.
The English reformation did not begin with doctrinal reform, but with institutional reform. Under Henry VIII, the papal supremacy was replaced by a royal supremacy, and the monasteries were dissolved, but no significant further changes were made. Doctrinal and liturgical reform began only under his successor, the boy king Edward VI. Images were removed from the churches, and the elaborate splendor of the Latin liturgy replaced by the chaste simplicity of the English Book of Common Prayer. A book of Homilies was published to promote the two principal doctrines of the Reformation: the sufficiency of Scripture and justification by faith alone.
Along with the Prayer Book and the Homilies, a more precise doctrinal standard was required for the clergy and the theologically educated, “for the avoiding of diversities of opinions and for the establishing of consent touching matters of religion”. The Articles were a key element in forging a comprehensive theological consensus to unite an entire nation in a common faith as it was also in common prayer.
Since the 19th century, there has been a nationalistic tendency to distinguish the English reformation (supposedly more ‘moderate’) from the (supposedly more ‘extreme’) continental reformation. The distinction is historically dubious. The distinctive features of the English reformation, its retention of conservative features (three-fold order, diocesan structure, cathedral foundations, and the Prayer Book liturgy), owes more to the special historical circumstances of the English reformation than to a policy of ‘moderation’. (It was led by bishops, and so there was no need to abolish the three-fold order or diocesan structure to proceed with reformation.)
Though later Protestantism degenerated into denominational sectarianism, in its original impulse the reformation both in England and on the continent was ecumenical in spirit, determined to build and to live within a scripturally-based consensus of reformed churches about matters of faith.
So when we turn to the Articles, we find a document largely shaped not by the sectarian or nationalistic agendas so common in the church today, but rather by a desire to anchor the English church’s place in a transnational fellowship of churches sharing a consensus of faith. In turn, this consensus itself did not present itself as an innovation, but as a faithful expression of the ancient faith set forth in Scripture, and taught in catholic antiquity.
Like their counterparts on the continent, the English reformers introduced some bold reforms; but they were careful to anchor these reforms within a large community both of time and space. Like their partner churches on the continent, the English church would not define its faith on its own terms, but in terms shared with the larger Christian world both in the past and in the present.
This spirit eventually shaped the Anglican Communion, and the principle was acknowledged in the American church’s Constitution. Now apparently forgotten, it is the first lesson the Articles have to teach us: to locate ourselves in a community of faith that is much larger than us both in time and space. The narrow Americanism of the Episcopal Church today is not progress, but regression.