Friday, July 04, 2008

Indefinite articles

Douglas Chaplin is a priest of the Church of England who describes himself as one who has "a particular academic interest in New Testament study (especially Paul) and a pastoral interest in creative liturgy but I am, of working necessity, a generalist" He went to an evangelical seminary but sees himself within the catholic traditions. "My liberal friends think I'm conservative, and my conservative friends think I'm liberal."

In other words, my kind of guy.

Chaplin keeps a blog called meta-Catholic. I have added it to my lengthy blog roll to the right, immediately above a site devoted to the preservation of arcane English practice in the Americas.

If you go to the home page, you will find a tab pointing you to an exposition and discussion of the 39 Articles of Religion. The Articles carry slightly higher force in the ordinal of the CofE (and if someone did not tell a casual observer, they might not be aware that they are included at all...but I digress) than in the Episcopal Church, where the ordinal mentions them not at all.

Many of us in the States are unfamiliar with them. But now that the 39 Articles have been thrust upon us once again as the be-all-and-end-all of Anglican theology, we may need some brushing up and some contextualizing.

But before you dive in, you may want to get out your magnifying glass and turn to page 874 of the Book of Common Prayer. Keep in mind that the Episcopal Church did not adopt the Articles until 1801 and then we only adopted 38 of the 39, and even then with revisions. Then go back to Chaplin's series and learn something of where we have come since their development.

I was particularly drawn to an essay in the middle of his article-by-article discussion. Here Chaplin pauses and discusses the relative authority of the 39 Articles today ("Stranded articles in ecclesial limbo"). He describes how the centrality of the liturgy with the frequent repetition of the Nicene and Apostles Creed and the daily application of the maxim Lex orandi, lex credendi in the life of the Church has formed Anglicanism with greater force than all of the 39 Articles combined.

Historically, the 39 articles, as a light revision of Cranmer's original 42, and coming at the beginning of the Elizabethan period, seem to me to represent in some ways the high-water mark of Calvinism in the Church of England. One could construe the theological politics of the Elizabethan era as a conflict between those who wished to advance that position (those who came to be called Puritans) and those who, led by Richard Hooker, were rowing back to a very moderate Calvinist position, that was also open to strands of mediaeval thinking on revelation and reason, and especially to the spirituality and theology of the Fathers. They were effectively aided and abetted by the ritual of set liturgies, and the persistence of the liturgical drama and choral tradition of the cathedrals, that in practice gave a more traditionally catholic feel to things than the bare text of either the liturgy or the articles would suggest. Whether one calls this the via media or schizophrenia is a nicely balanced question. The subsequent history of the Church of England has often seen the see-saw tipping one way and then the other.

The mutual relationship of articles and liturgy meant that in practice the articles never achieved anything like confessional status. In form they are not unlike the Augsburg Confession, and indeed they borrow substantially from it. They could, in principle easily have developed in the direction of the Westminster Confession, as the Puritans wanted. But, bound up as they were with the liturgical material of BCP and Ordinal, they effectively took on a different character, almost as an addendum to the larger work of liturgy, both affirming the church's anchor in the great creedal tradition of the early catholic and apostolic Church, and setting out what were a number of boundary markers in relation to Reformation controversies. Unlike other Reformation confessions, some of which they resembled in form, they never stood in isolation as a confession themselves. Most Anglicans' doctrine would be far more affected by the weekly (and daily) affirmations of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds held in common with the Great Church, than by the controversy-engaging statements of the articles.

When it comes to the present day, we unfortunately enter la-la land. The officially stated position (especially beloved by conservative evangelical groups) is that the doctrine of the Church of England is to be found in the aforementioned articles, BCP and ordinal. Yet the major rounds of liturgical revision that have been going on for the last half-century have in part happened because these traditional sources no longer seemed adequate to meet either the theological demands or spiritual needs of the contemporary church. Officially, all modern services are "alternative" to the BCP. In practice they are a replacement. (And some churches, especially evangelical ones, sit quite lightly to them, finding even this updating not up-to-date enough) Although the articles are in principle revisable, since they themselves point to scripture as their underlying authority, and also confess that even Church Councils (how much more then Cranmer) may err, the Church has never summoned the courage, wisdom or means to consider how this might be done.

The articles are therefore increasingly stranded as an historical curiousity, divorced by language and ethos from the liturgical material which continues to shape theology, worship and mission. Unfortunately, historical accident, poor theology, and hopelessly sprawling diversity means that the Church of England has no real means of working out how to set about revising its formularies, not any real clarity about its doctrinal development. Because the new liturgies are texts agreed by representatives of all traditions (even down to debating the minutiae of how to translate the Greek preposition ek in the Nicene Creed – from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary – if you really want to know) they are probably the nearest thing the Church of England has to a repository of doctrine as it is currently understood, prayed and believed. The articles look more and more resident in some kind of limbo, in my view well worth engaging and updating (hence my series), but in practice a shibboleth to be called on in time of need by those who feel they are losing the argument.

Fr. Chaplin has collected his series on the 39 Articles here.

No comments: