We have reached a juncture in the history of Anglicanism in North America where a number of North American groups claim to be “Anglican.” The first two groups are Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the United States. These two groups rest their claim upon their formal recognition as Provinces of the Anglican Communion.
The third group, which is itself a cluster of groups, is the Anglican Continuum. This group largely rests its claim on its maintenance of what was regarded as “Anglicanism” in some quarters of the Episcopal Church in the 1950s. Most of the groups in this group trace their origin to the exodus of “traditionalist” congregations and clergies from the Episcopal Church over Prayer Book revision and women’s ordination in the 1970s. At least two groups trace their origin to the formation of the Orthodox Anglican Church in reaction to the Episcopal Church’s support of racial integration in the 1960s.
A fourth group is the Anglican Mission in the Americas, which now calls itself the Anglican Mission. It rests its claim of being “Anglican” upon its connection to the Anglican Church of Rwanda, of which it is an extraterritorial missionary jurisdiction. The Anglican Church of Rwanda is a member province of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Mission traces its origins to a group of "conservative" congregations and clergy that broke with the Episcopal Church over its growing apostasy and its non-Biblical stance on homosexuality in 1999.
A fifth group is the Anglican Church in North America. It rests claim of being “Anglican” upon the its establishment in response to the call of the GAFCON Primates for the formation of an “orthodox” Anglican province in North America and its subsequent recognition by the GAFCON Primates as “a genuine expression of Anglicanism.” It traces its origins to the exodus of “conservative” congregations and clergy from the Anglican Church of Canada and Episcopal Church in the United States over the rejection of the authority of the Bible, the normalization of homosexuality, and the acceptance of religious pluralism in liberal quarters of these two denominations. This exodus followed in the wake of the election, confirmation, and consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson was a divorced man openly involved in a same sex relationship.
The Anglican Church in North America includes among its founding entities the Reformed Episcopal Church, which traces its origin to a group of Evangelical Episcopalians who broke with the Protestant Episcopal Church over the growing influence and spread of Tractarianism and Ritualism in that denomination in the nineteenth century. In recent years Anglo-Catholicism and Ritualism have made such inroads in the Reformed Episcopal Church that it no longer merits the description of “Reformed.” In 2005 its General Council adopted a new Prayer Book that is far from Reformed in tone and celebrated the new Prayer Book's adoption with High Mass.
Despite their claims to being “Anglican” none of the foregoing groups embody historic Anglicanism. The Lambeth Conference of 1888 established the principle that no missionary church should be recognized as Anglican unless the clergy of the missionary church subscribed to Articles “in accordance with the express statements of our standards of doctrine and faith.” The Jerusalem Declaration issued by the Global Anglican Future Conference upholds the Thirty-Nine Articles “as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.” In Being Faithful: The Shape of Anglicanism Today the GAFCON Theological Group observes that the Thirty-Nine Articles “have long been recognized as the doctrinal standard of Anglicanism, alongside the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal.” Referring to Clause 4 in the Jerusalem Declaration, they go onto to emphasize:
“The Clause should not be interpreted to suggest an equivalency of the authority of the Articles with the authority of the Bible. The authority of the Articles comes from their agreement with the teaching of Scripture. The Articles themselves insist that whatsoever is not read therein [i.e. in Scripture], nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.’ (Article VI). The Articles make no attempt to bind the Christian mind or conscience more tightly than Scripture does on matters of doctrine and Christian living.”
The GAFCON Theological Resource Group stress that acceptance of the authority of the Thirty-Nine Articles is constitutive of Anglican identity.
The Thirty-Nine Articles have a central place in the teaching and life of none of the foregoing groups. Some congregations and clergy in these groups may give a more central place to the Thirty-Nine Articles but they are the exception, not the rule. In the "Basis for Full Communion" that the Victoria Congress of Traditional Anglicans issued this week, the Thirty-Nine Articles is unmentioned. The statement, however, affirms doctrine that the Articles and authentic historic Anglicanism reject.
The general attitude of the groups in the United State toward the Thirty-Nine Articles may be traced to the early days of the then Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church adopted its own revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles in 1801 and ordered that the revised Articles should be bound up with the Book of Common Prayer in all future editions. It was 1871 before the latter was done.
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion had its opponents in the Protestant Episcopal Church from the outset. In 1799 the following resolution was brought to the floor of the General Convention: "Resolved, That the articles of our faith and religion as founded on the Holy Scriptures are sufficiently declared in our Creeds and our Liturgy as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, established for the use of this Church, and that further articles do not appear necessary." The House of Bishops voted against the resolution. The Bishops favored adopting the Articles.
When the revised Articles were adopted in 1801, the clergy of the Protestant Episcopal Church, however, were not required to formally subscribe to the Articles, as were the clergy of the Church of England. Communicants of the Protestant Episcopal Church were not required to subscribe to the Articles in order to receive Holy Communion, as were the communicants of the Church of England. They consequently had no binding force upon the beliefs of clergy and communicants in the Protestant Episcopal Church.
Although the clergy and communicants of the Protestant Episcopal Church were not required to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Anglo-Catholic and Broad Church wings of the Episcopal Church were highly critical of the Articles. Their favorite criticisms of the Thirty-Nine Articles were that the Articles were foreign to the genius of the Church of England, “the adoption of such a detailed system of theology was contrary to her history and traditions” and the Articles are no longer relevant for today and represent “a watermark of a previous tide.” These same criticisms are echoed in the twenty-first century in all of the foregoing groups, in Canada as well as the United States.
Both church parties disliked the Thirty-Nine Articles because the biblical and Reformation teaching of the Articles did not support their beliefs and practices. Anglo-Catholics would produce fanciful reinterpretations of the Articles from John Henry Newman’s Tract 90 on, and downplayed their importance. See Gillis J. Harp’s "Recovering Confessional Anglicanism" for an examination of the Tract 90 and the Anglo-Catholic ahistorical approach to the Articles. Harp attributes the widespread ignorance of Episcopalians of the Thirty-Nine Articles and their Reformation heritage to the influence of Anglo-Catholicism in the Episcopal Church. Broad Churchmen would simply ignore the Articles.
This negative attitude toward the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Episcopal Church is reflected in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886, which was adopted by the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishop. It contains no mention of the Thirty-Nine Articles. The House of Bishops was at that time dominated by Anglo-Catholic bishops.
Bishop J. C. Ryle gives an account of Tractarian and Ritualist agitation against the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Church of England in the nineteenth century in “The Thirty-Nine Articles” in Knots Untied. The Tractarians and the Ritualists, the spiritual progenitors of the Anglo-Catholics, sought to replace the Articles as the Church of England’s statement of faith with the Book of Common Prayer, which they misinterpreted in “a Catholic sense,” and called for the abolition of the Articles. They were, however, unsuccessful in doing away with the Articles. They remain to this day the official standard of faith and doctrine in the Church of England.
In the Protestant Episcopal Church the opponents of the Thirty-Nine Articles were more successful. In 1925 the General Convention under the denomination’s then Anglo-Catholic leadership passed a resolution removing the Thirty-Nine Articles from the back of the American Prayer Book. The Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church required the passage of the resolution at two successive General Conventions before it would be binding upon the denomination. In 1928 the General Convention adopted the first major revision of the American Prayer Book and with its adoption the resolution abolishing the Articles was quietly dropped. The 1928 revisions made far-reaching and even radical changes in the American Prayer Book, moving it in a decidedly Anglo-Catholic direction.
With the 1928 revision embodying Anglo-Catholic views of confirmation, unction, and ordination and the sacraments of baptism and the Holy Communion, the Anglo-Catholic leadership of the Episcopal Church no longer saw a need to drop the Thirty-Nine Articles from the American Prayer Book. They now had an unreformed Catholic liturgy that they could claim expressed what Episcopalians believed. This explains in part the strong attachment of traditionalist Anglo-Catholics to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
The 1968 Lambeth Conference would reinforce the negative attitude of the Episcopal Church toward the Articles with the adoption of Resolution 43. This resolution was the result of a rushed half-hour’s debate held during the close of the Conference’s final morning, which were extended for that purpose. Clause (b) was an amendment proposed from the floor and adopted by a snap vote.
The Conference accepts the main conclusion of the report Subscription and Assent and in furtherance of its recommendation
(a) suggest that each Church of our communion consider whether the Articles need to be bound up with its Prayer Book;
(b) suggests to the Churches of the Anglican Communion that assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles be no longer required of ordinands;
(c) suggest that, when subscription is required to the Articles or other elements in the Anglican tradition, it should be required, and given, only in the context of a statement which gives the full range of our inheritance of faith and sets the Articles in their historical context.”
Only clause (c) was consistent with the recommendations of the Church of England’s Archbishops’ Doctrine Commission’s report Subscription and Assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles. In regard to clause (a) the report recommended the retention of the Articles in the Prayer Book. If the furtherance of the report’s recommendations had genuinely been the intent of the resolution, “need” ought to have read “should not.” Clause (b) was a direct contradiction of the report’s recommendation. What role the bishops of the Episcopal Church played in the introduction of this last-minute resolution and its passage I have not been able to ascertain.
In 1979 Anglo-Catholic and Broad Church wings of the Episcopal Church would again join forces to relegate the Thirty-Nine Articles to the historical documents section of the next revision of the American Prayer Book. During the same period “Protestant” was dropped from the name of the Episcopal Church. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer follows in the footsteps of the 1928 Prayer Book and moves the American Prayer Book further away from the Reformed liturgy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and in an even more unreformed Catholic direction. The 1928 Prayer Book and the 1979 Prayer Book are the two most commonly used service books in the foregoing groups in the United States.
Just as one type of bacteria can acquired genes from another type of bacteria, one ecclesiastical tradition can acquire elements from another ecclesiastical tradition. The Episcopal Church has been particular vulnerable to picking up elements not only from other ecclesiastical traditions but also from other religious and spiritual traditions and from secular culture. Its boundaries have at various times proven very permeable and we see the result both in the Episcopal Church and the groups that broke away from the Episcopal Church. They have mutated to the point that their doctrine and practice bears little relationship to the doctrine and practice of the Protestant Reformed Church of England. They all have become ecclesial bodies in which the Scriptures as the primary standard in actuality play a diminished normative and interpretative role in relation to the rest of the inheritance of faith, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, and the Thirty-Nine Articles as the subordinate standard play no role at all.
Does it matter? In this writer’s estimation, it not only matters but it also matters a lot.
The Thirty-Nine Articles were at the time of their adoption intended to fulfill four primary functions. First, the Thirty-Nine Articles were meant to serve as the theological identity card of the Church of England. They were intended to show what the Church of England stood for. They were meant to back her claim that she was, in the words of the 1604 Canons, “a true apostolic church, teaching and maintaining the doctrine of the apostles.”
Second, the Thirty-Nine Articles were intended to preserve the true Gospel, which had been lost during the Middle Ages and recovered by the English Reformers, and to pass it on to future generations.
Third, the Thirty-Nine Articles were meant to establish unity and order in the Church of England “in the realms of both doctrine and discipline.” They were intended to protect the Church of England from heresy and false teaching. They were also meant to provide doctrinal standards by which the Book of Common Prayer was to be interpreted.
Fourth, the Thirty-Nine Articles were intended to set the limits of comprehensiveness in the Church of England. To this end, they kept doctrinal requirements down to a minimum and allowed the maximum of flexibility and variety on secondary matters.
All four functions still need doing today. Without the Thirty-Nine Articles an Anglican Church is like a ship without an anchor. It drifts with every wind and current. The Articles not only provide an anchor but they provide the ship’s company—its officers, crew, and passengers—with a compass, a sexton, and chart to ensure that, when it sails, it is on the right course and reaches its destination.
The concept of a “continuously developing Anglican tradition” is inherently flawed. It is like using a constantly moving light as a guide. English folklore is full of tales of benighted travelers following such lights, mistaking them for the friendly light of a distant cottage window, only to be led off the path and onto the moors or into a bog.
Does historic Anglicanism—“the true Gospel” and “the Protestant Reformed religion established by law,” to which the Coronation Oath Act of 1688 refers and which English monarchs to this day at their coronation swear to uphold—have a future in North America? If we use the place of the Thirty-Nine Articles occupy in the teaching and life of the foregoing groups, which may be described collectively as the North American Anglican Church, the answer is “no.” The North American Church has no group that has truly maintained continuity in doctrine and practice with the Protestant Reformed Church of England. One or two groups may claim that they do. But their use of the 1928 or 1979 American Prayer Book belies their claim. If the Articles were used as the doctrinal standard for their interpretation, both Prayer Books would require a major revision of their content. Both are open to interpretation as teaching the doctrines of Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Real Presence. Both in a roundabout way affirm the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church, which the English Reformers disowned and rejected at the Reformation. Both foster an ecclesiastical culture that is not consistent with the Biblical and Reformation doctrine of the Thirty-Nine Articles.
A number of my readers have told me that the alphabet soup of the North American Anglican Church does not need any new additions. North American Anglican Church is too fragmented as it is. When I look at the North American Anglican Church, I observe not only its fragmentation but also the lack of any group that accepts the authority of the Thirty-Nine Articles and interprets them in their plain and intended sense. This leads me to believe that a high potential for fragmentation existed in the North American Anglican Church from the outset. The Elizabethan bishops sought to bring unity and order to the Church of England with the adoption of the Thirty-Nine Articles and they were to a large part successful. The Episcopal Church adopted its own version of the Articles but never put them to that use.
Only a tiny segment of the North American Anglican Church accepts the authority of the Thirty-Nine Articles and interprets them in their plain and intended sense. This segment is scattered among the groups that form the North American Anglican Church. It is not confined to one particular group. A tinier segment recognizes the authority of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Deacons, priests and Bishops of 1661, which along with the Articles form the historic doctrinal standard of Anglicanism.
If Anglicanism is defined in terms of adherence to the doctrine of these three historic Anglican formularies, only a very tiny segment of the North American Anglican Church is Anglican! Does this very tiny segment of the North American Anglican Church qualify the rest of the North American Anglican Church as Anglican? While my readers may disagree with me, I do not believe that it does. When being Anglican is understood in terms of being of the Protestant Reformed Church of England or in continuity with the Protestant Reformed Church of England, it is clear that they are not. This, I would add, extends to members of the modern day Church of England who do not uphold the doctrine of the three historic Anglican formularies and would include the present Archbishop of Canterbury! My readers may protest that this is too narrow a definition of Anglicanism but it was the definition of Anglicanism that 1604 Canons affirmed with their requirements of subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. It is also the definition of Anglicanism that the Church of England’s present canons in their own way continue to affirm.
Archbishop Bob Duncan, the Primate of the Anglican Church in North America, makes reference in his sermons and speeches to “American Anglicanism.” He is applying the term “Anglicanism” to something to which it is not rightly applied. Paul Zahl, the former Dean of the Trinity Episcopal for Ministry, coined the term “contemporary Episcopalianism” to describe the prevalent ideology in the Episcopal Church. I would suggest that this term is applicable to what Archbishop Duncan is describing as “American Anglicanism.” Like ice cream, it comes in several flavors. While the flavoring agents may vary, the basic ingredients are the same. The proportion of these ingredients may be different but they all are present. By describing ACNA-flavored contemporary Episcopalianism as “American Anglicanism,” Duncan can perpetuate the false notion that ACNA-flavored contemporary Episcopalianism stands in continuity with historic Anglicanism where in fact in its non-adherence to the doctrine of the three historic Anglican formularies it does not. It has over a period of 225 years mutated into something different from historic Anglicanism and only bears a superficial resemblance to the latter, e.g. the use of a Prayer Book, the retention of the threefold ministry of deacon, priest, and bishop, the observance of the Church Year, etc. The likelihood that reverse mutation would occur and it would return to something approximating historic Anglicanism is very slim if non-existent. The will to recognize and accept the three historic Anglican formularies as the authoritative doctrinal standard of Anglicanism that they are is not there. The Thirty-Nine Articles is really not a part of the legacy that contemporary Episcopalianism has inherited. Contemporary Episcopalianism is heir to a different Prayer Book tradition. Contemporary Episcopalianism is at best a distant cousin of historic Anglicanism, twice removed.
Those who value the “true Gospel” and “the Protestant Reformed religion established by law” are faced with a choice. They can abandon North America to the different flavors of contemporary Episcopalianism or they can proclaim that Gospel, champion the Christian faith as the Church of England received it and as it is set forth in the Catholic creeds and the Anglican formularies, make fresh converts to Anglican Christianity, enfold them in new churches, and form those churches into an association of churches committed to advancing the cause of the Gospel and genuine Anglican Christianity. This is something about which they need to pray. It is not an easy choice. They need to ask God, “What would you have us do?"