Ordinations of Petertide: “I affirm it”

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The Church of England—like almost all churches—requires its ministers to consent to a formal body of Christian teaching. These commitments contribute to the health and unity of the Church, amid its diversity, and help ensure that the Christian message is taught in every parish.

Authorized ministers – whether clergy or lay – are not free to believe and teach whatever they choose. These corporate commitments are expressed in the Preface and the 1975 Declaration of Assent.

The declaration of assent is made whenever clergy are ordained, instituted, installed, authorized or admitted to another public office in the Church (Canon C15). Most clergy will therefore make this statement many times during their ministries.

Understanding the origins of the Declaration is important for appreciating its distinctive accents, including its purpose and form.

The doctrinal commitments of the Church of England were recast and renewed in the light of developments in the understanding of Holy Scripture during the Reformation of the sixteenth century, expressed in summary form in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

These were enacted under Elizabeth I in 1571, reaffirmed at the Restoration in 1662, and for centuries were published in one volume together with the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. Taken together, these three historical texts (often referred to as ‘formulae’) remain the formal and legal basis for the teaching of the Church of England.

The canons state: “The Thirty-Nine Articles conform to the Word of God and may be sanctioned in good conscience by all members of the Church of England” (Canon A2).

And: “The doctrine of the Church of England is founded on the Holy Scriptures and on the teachings of the ancient Church Fathers and Councils which are consistent with the said Scriptures. In particular, such doctrine is found in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal” (Canon A5).

FROM the 1570s, subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles was expected of all Church of England clergy (and certain other groups such as teachers and members of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge). The precise form of underwriting has varied over the years. By the canons of 1604, all clergy had to affirm “voluntarily and ex animated— that is, “from the bottom of my heart,” without mental reservation — that the Articles were “according to the Word of God.”

In the 1960s, this declaration was still in force, but increasingly under pressure from the clergy who found it problematic or burdensome on their conscience. Some protested publicly against the requirement to subscribe in this form, which brought discredit to the doctrinal discipline of the Church of England.

Among 20th century Anglicans around the world, there was a very wide range of views regarding the Thirty-Nine Articles. Some hailed it as a beautiful and succinct summary of Anglican doctrine and the best expression of Anglican theological identity. Others were dissatisfied with them for the following reasons:

  • The articles assume an Augustinian/Reformed theological framework.
  • They offer propositional teaching, not a fluid theology that struggles with puzzles and perplexities.
  • They focus on Reformation issues concerning justification and the sacraments.
  • They are polemical, pointing out the errors of other Christians.
  • They belong to a very different cultural and philosophical background, regardless of more recent issues such as the secular state, urbanization, technology, race, ecumenism, other religions, secular ministry, or spiritual gifts. ‘Holy Spirit.

The place of the Articles in modern Anglicanism was a major debate at the Lambeth Conference in 1968. There was an increasingly diverse practice around the Anglican Communion – some provinces retained the Articles in their constitutions, while others have revised them, replaced them, or abandoned them altogether. . Some never adopted them in the first place.

The Doctrine Commission of the Church of England considered these questions in Subscription and sanction of the thirty-nine articles (1968). They concluded that revising the Articles, or replacing them with a new authoritative doctrinal statement which would win the enthusiastic support of the whole Church of England, would be too difficult, too long and soon outdated.

Dropping the Articles subscription altogether would also be counterproductive, as it would make it appear that the Church of England did not care about the biblical faith of its ministers. The Doctrine Commission therefore proposed a new approach to subscription which, if it were to be widely accepted, had to satisfy several conditions.

  • It must recognize that the articles are a historical document and should only be interpreted in their historical context.
  • It must give way to a call to the Articles as a norm within Anglican theology.
  • It should not bind whoever uses it to the acceptance of each of the articles of 1571.
  • It must preserve the comprehensiveness characteristic of the Church of England.
  • It should not isolate the Articles, but should recognize that the Bible, the Creeds, the Prayer Book, the Ordinal and the developing consensus of Anglican thought also have their own contribution to make to the doctrine of the Church of ‘England. It should also indicate that they have different degrees of authority.
  • It should not only state what distinguishes the Church of England, but should indicate the doctrines it shares with all Christians.
  • The possibility of new understandings of Christian truth must be explicitly left open.

The agreed way forward was that the new statement of assent of 1975 should be very brief, but now introduced by a fuller preface which sets the context in which the statement is to be understood. This was intended to allow a more open interpretation of the historical forms of the Reformation and to make it clear that the Church of England is both reformatted (reformed) and semper reformanda (always to be reformed; or “always patient to be reformed”).

Thus, clergy and licensed lay ministers continue to affirm their loyalty to the classic doctrine of the Church of England, while being guaranteed the freedom to ask new doctrinal questions.

This is an edited excerpt from Proclaim Again: Declaration and Oaths of Ministers of the Church of England (Church House Publishing, £5.99 (Church Times Bookstore £5.39); 978-1-78140-254-2)

Preface: The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshiping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in Catholic symbols, a faith which the Church is called to proclaim anew in each generation. Guided by the Holy Spirit, it bore witness to Christian truth in its historical formularies, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Order of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this heritage of faith as an inspiration and direction under God to bring the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and make it known to those you are in charge of?

Statement: I, AB, affirm this and therefore declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in Holy Scripture and set forth in Catholic creeds and to which the historical formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and the administration of the sacraments, I will use only those forms of service authorized or permitted by the Canon.

The statement . . . is a compact theological text that brings together some essential threads of what it means to be Anglican and how we express that Anglican identity – through our liturgy, scriptures, creeds and historical formularies

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

See full list of ordinations and photos in the Gazette

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