No-one disputes that The Thirty-Nine Articles, as a Statement of the Reformed Catholic Faith, is a Formulary of the Church of England (along with The Book of Common Prayer and The Ordinal) and also of most other Provinces of the Anglican Communion of Churches. It is found at the back of pew editions of The Book of Common Prayer (see, e.g., those of 1662, 1928 [USA] and 1962 [Canada]); and in the C. of E. clergy are still required to subscribe to it before being admitted into a parish or cathedral. In contrast, lay officers are not required to subscribe.
Before the extremes of Anglo-Catholicism and Latitudinarianism [Liberalism] came along in the late 19th century and persisting into the 20th., both openly rejecting this Formulary, there were, generally speaking, two basic attitudes or mindsets with regard to the meaning of subscription to The Articles. These are still with us amongst the serious-minded and would-be orthodox and faithful Anglicans, who have studied the Formularies in relation to sacred Scripture.
First of all, there is the attitude that subscription has basically negative force – its doctrines are not openly to be contradicted in the Church by its clergy as the teachers of the Faith. To illustrate this we may cite two famous Anglican theologians, Bishop George Bull (1634-1710) and Archbishop John Bramhall (1594-1662).
The Church of England professeth not to deliver all her Articles as essentials of Faith without the belief whereof no man can be saved; but only propounds them as a body of safe and pious principles, for the preservation of peace to be subscribed and not openly contradicted by her sons.[Works, Vol.2, Oxford 1846, p.211]
We do not hold our Thirty-Nine Articles to be necessary truths ‘without which there is no salvation;’ nor enjoin ecclesiastic persons to swear unto them, but only to subscribe them, as theological truths, for the preservation of unity among us, and the extirpation of some growing errors.[Works, Vol. II, Oxford 1842, pp.201 & 476]
John Keble of the Tractarian and Oxford Movement held this position – see his Catholic Subscription to the XXXIX Articles.
Secondly, there is the approach that subscription has positive force – the doctrines are to be embraced and taught in a definite way. Here the purpose of subscription is to obtain consent for a recognized statement of doctrine that is authoritative. The late Dr. W.H. Griffith Thomas may speak for this position. After reviewing the forms of subscription required in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – ex animo – and early commentaries on them – e.g. by Thomas Rogers (1607) – he wrote:
It is clear, therefore, that subscription to the Articles is to be regarded as a definite adoption of their doctrines and something very much more than the negative position of restraint within their limits. [Principles of Theology, 1930, p. 1vi ]
Such active societies in England as The Church Society still hold this position.
What would be interesting to know is the attitude of the Primate, Archbishops and Bishops of the Province of Nigeria to The Articles for this Province in 2005 re-affirmed in a deliberate and clear way its commitment to the classic three Formularies of the Anglican Way.
For the future of the Anglican Way in the whole world, it would seem that if it is to remain biblically based and orthodox, and at the same time be distinctively Anglican and not generically ecumenical (or something else), then it must hold on to its Formularies. However, the way that they are received (and subscribed) will have to be reasonably wide-ranging to admit the two schools of thought stated above. However, what is clear is that there is no room in the Anglican Way for those at the far right or the far left, that is extreme Catholicism or extreme Liberalism, for these reject The Articles out of hand – one because they are Reformed Catholic and the other because they are traditionally Orthodox.
Closely related to this generous and comprehensive approach to The Articles is the much-quoted description by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) of the basis of the Anglican Way (not its possible perimeters but its agreed basis):
One Canon reduced to writing by God himself, two Testaments, three Creeds, four General Councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period – the three centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the border of our Faith. [ Opusc. Posthuma. p.91.]
And in the light of all this and more, I have recommended to the Common Cause of the Anglican Communion Network (based on the Canon A5 of the C of E) the following for their theological basis:
We accept the doctrine of the Anglican Way as it is grounded in the holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular, we receive such doctrine as is to be found in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal (as all three of these are printed in the English edition of 1662, the American edition of 1928 and the Canadian edition of 1962 of The Book of Common Prayer).
Unless it can lose the extremes of the right and left, the Anglican Way in the USA and Canada has little chance of either stability or prosperity. Only as based upon unity in essentials and basics, and with comprehensiveness in churchmanship, does the Anglican Way have any future as a meaningful branch of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church in North America.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)