Restoring the centre

... perjury is not a good way to start a ministry.

Harsh but necessary words from Angela Tilby in last week's Church Times concerning the Declaration of Assent taken by candidates for holy orders in the CofE.  What particularly attracted my attention to the column was her focus on the Articles of Religion, recounting her panic and confusion when at her pre-ordination retreat the bishop asked her to explain her understanding of Article VI.

Tilby continues:

It shocks me now that, even thought I had been worshipping in the Church of England from the age of five, had been confirmed at 16, and had been a Reader for ten years, I still needed prompting to be able to give an account of one of the most fundamental of the Thirty-Nine Articles.

It is hardly surprising that such a context resulted in a widespread dismissive approach to the assent required of candidates for holy orders:

Twenty-odd years ago ... the precise details of the legal framework for ministry were unimportant.

Alongside such institutional liberalism, Tilby points to another challenge, the conviction that charismatic experience or private reading of Scripture overrides any requirement to assent for the Formularies:

I can remember one candidate who was so scandalised by the Bishop's Charge that he nearly went home.  He believed that the call of the Holy Spirit overrode any legal (which he typically misunderstood as "legalistic") requirements.

What makes Tilby's column particularly significant is that she would be routinely identified a theological 'liberal'.  Here she is, however, calling for a greater, more enthusiastic engagement by contemporary Anglicans with the Articles of Religion.  This, it might be suggested, reflects what might be the stirrings of something significant: a wider desire to re-engage with the Articles of Religion as a means of renewing the doctrinal centre of Anglicanism.

Take, for example, the Young Peoples' Theology initiative in TEC, presently publishing daily blog posts on each of the Articles, with the authors representing a range of theological perspectives.  To highlight two particular contributions, see those by two women on Article XVII, both ordained, one a Barthian, the other a radical Anglo-Catholic.   What has most enthused me in recent years on Twitter has been seeing younger Anglicans and Episcopalians enthusiastically engage with the Articles and Homilies, perceiving in them sources for renewal.  Nor has this merely been the usual suspects, the younger TradCons. To use words from Wesley Hill, it has also included those "left-of-center in their politics, LGBTQ-affirming, and committed to all manner of other progressive social-justice causes".  This also reflects a recent study of LGBT seminarians in TEC:

we learned that the shape of their theology is creedal. There is, it seems, little sympathy for the Spong vision of a faith beyond theism ... Our LGBT seminarians are clearly grounded in the tradition ... we discovered that they have a high view of Biblical authority ... It is clear that Spong is going to be disappointed. His support for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church is not going to be progress his theological agenda. Having worked so hard to be included, LGBT seminarians want to be included in the robust, traditional faith.

And this is what the Articles can restore to Anglicanism, a robust, traditional faith: creedal, Augustinian, catholic and reformed.  Put bluntly, we need the Articles to provide this centre.  Without the Articles - as the High Church tradition consistently warned during the historic debates concerning subscription - the Trinitarian and Christological, Augustinian and sacramental centre is too easily obscured and forgotten.

This concern is, as has just been implied, a historic characteristic of Anglicanism.  The Articles of Religion have had much greater significance in providing a doctrinal centre for Anglicanism than certain accounts of the Anglican tradition have conceded.  Thus, in the words of Canon V of the English Canons of 1603 and Canon I of the Irish Canons of 1634:

Whosoever shall hereafter affirm, That any of the Thirty Nine Articles ... are in any part Superstitious or Erroneous, or such as he may not with a good Conscience subscribe unto: Let him be Excommunicated ipso facto, and not restored but only by the Archbishop, after his Repentance and publick Revocation of such his wicked Errors.

And therefore if any hereafter shall affirm, that any of those Articles are in any part Superstitious or Erroneous, or such as he may not with a good Conscience subscribe unto, let him be excommunicated, and not absolved before he make a publick Revocation of his Error. 

No, this is not to suggest that we reinstate excommunication for those who refuse to subscribe to the Articles of Religion (it would be a far too time-consuming exercise ...).  It is, however, to urge that after a generation of confidence-sapping theological confusion, Anglicans and Episcopalians rediscover the deeply Augustinian catholic and reformed orthodoxy of the Articles, and drink joyfully from this source.


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