Until perhaps thirty-five years ago the standard text for part of the Doctrine component of a seminary education was Bicknell on the Thirty-Nine Articles. Back then the Articles were described by our Constitution as being “in use” in all dioceses and missionary dioceses and commentaries on Canon Law suggested that the oaths clergy then took included the Articles in their orbit. Bicknell was first published in 1919. My copy is the one revised by Harry Carpenter, Bishop of Oxford in the 1950s. Of course Evangelicals in those days preferred a commentary by Griffith Thomas. I have no idea what is used today. I have Alister McGrath’s “Christian Theology” – he doesn’t mention Hooker even as a foot note! – which one supposes is in succession to those useful manuals once authored by people such as CB Moss and Francis Hall. I’m also fond of Geoffrey Wainwright’s “Doxology” and to return to the Articles proudly possess a copy of Bishop Forbes’ “An Explanation of the Thirty_Nine Articles: which he dedicated to Dr. Pusey. I digress, but only to make the astounding suggestion that a study of the Articles once gave us some inkling as to the levels of competence and incompetence enjoyed by the various levels of the Church.

I have no idea what texts were in the hands of our bishops when they attended seminary, or whether any sustained, systematic study of “Dogmatics” was presented to them. I have a lurking suspicion that for the past number of decades, any attempt to provide theological students with a curriculum based thoroughly on Anglican texts and of course fleshed out with other bodies of divinity has been absent. Anecdotally I am struck by the number of bright theologs I know who have stumbled upon classical Anglican authors by accident rather than intent.

In my day the onslaught on the authority of Scripture was in full swing, but study of Patristics, Church History and Anglican Doctrine Discipline and Worship hadn’t yet reached the point where any “traditional” approach to anything was deemed suspicious, and that which emerged from the Conciliar period “dissed” as the triumph of the “winners”. Mind you the present “winners” and their version, it is assumed, is pristine in its conclusions and not at all influenced by contemporary power blocks or socio-political considerations!

I bore you with all this because I am amazed how easily we all seem to speak from a level of incompetence. By “incompetence” I do not mean ignorance, but rather our asserting an authority we do not possess. Clergy and vestries make decisions to permit rites which are not permitted, or to “leave the church” as if they had the moral and spiritual competence to make such a collective decision. Bishops and diocesan officials plan to secede, nominating committees include candidates for election to the episcopate unqualified by Canon, General Conventions assume that they may do as they please, given the requisite majority vote, protesting a level of particular competence of astounding audacity. Groups of Primates presume to speak for the Communion, trotting out pious statements about fidelity to the Gospel, as if, when one feels sufficiently provoked, one may take a scalpel to separate the Gospel from the Church in order to create an ecclesial association of the like-minded.

Even Colenso, or the Kenyan Bishops in the Kikuyu Controversy, the Bishop of Hong Kong and astoundingly, the Canadian and American Churches over the ordination of women, were unable to provoke their opponents to the measure of incompetency we now encounter almost every day. One can only conclude that as no one much is intentionally formed in the basics of what Evangelicals and Catholics alike once called Churchmanship, now all may win and all may take the prize, all are competent to take what action may be deemed expedient as long as God, or the Bible or some other standard are invoked. Our new Anglican mission statement is surely the last verse of the Book of Judges!

3 Responses

  1. Let me just say that my concern about the 39 Articles how to do with the manner in which they are generally used today rather than the matter of their content. There was a time when that document was one of unity and so it was possible for one to read Bicknell of some other theologian and on the basis of that reading “sign off” on the content. The problem today, in my experience, is that the Articles are used as an instrument of exclusion rather than unity. There are many converts from less Catholic jurisdictions today and once they light upon the Articles they read them from an unconverted point-of-view – that is they read them as confessions. Thus they rush to tell Anglo-Catholics that they are in violation of the Articles by practicing personal pieties like the Veneration of the Blessed Sacrament or that they exhibit too much affection for the BVM. My personal experience is that this use of the Articles is generally one-sided. I have yet to hear from an Anglo-Catholic complaining about laymen leading Bible studies which is an Evangelical piety that surely would have been frowned upon by the most strident Evangelical churchmen of the past. I could be wrong, but I think this is why so many Anglo-Catholics are suspicious of classes on the Articles. I personally doubt that the Articles will ever function they way they used to. To my mind, if one really wants to know what Anglicans believe then look at how and what we pray in the classical liturgies: lex orandi/lex credendi.
    Fr. Glenn Spencer
    All Saints Anglican Church
    Charlottesville, VA

    “The essential thing ‘in heaven and in earth’ is,
    apparently (to repeat it once more), that there
    should be long OBEDIENCE in the same direction;
    there thereby results, and has always resulted
    in the long run, something which has made
    life worth living; for instance, virtue, art,
    music, dancing, reason, spirituality–anything
    whatever that is transfiguring, refined,
    foolish, or divine.”

    –Friedrich Nietszche,
    Beyond Good and Evil (1886)

  2. Just so you know — I took “Anglican Theological Tradition,” with readings (not the entire works) of prominent Anglicans since Hooker (well, even before, if I recall — my readings are in my office at the church). That was 1996 or 97. We also read and discussed and analyzed the 39 Articles in some detail, even though they are “historical documents” now, rather than definitively doctrinal.

  3. Tony,

    Great post. I am grateful for the Anglican history class I took at VTS with Bill Stafford who is now the Dean at Sewanee. Along with being introduced to many good Anglican divines, I had the chance to engage particularly with Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Traherne. Both to my edification.

    Still, a good deal of what familiarity I have with the theology of historic Anglicanism has come from reading on my own.

    One of the problems with the
    “incompetence” you write of is the tendency to project our own contemporary theological prejudices onto the past and declare them THE Anglicanism (as if there had ever been simply one Anglicanism).

    I know that as a high church/Anglo-catholic I have to guard against this. I have to remind myself once in a while that some of those I most admire – Andrewes, Donne, Taylor, Hobart – were much more Protestant then I am inclined to be.

    Conservative Evangelicals do this, especially when they espouse the kind of free-church individualistic Evangelicalism that characterizes that movement in the US. It is hard to find voices in Anglicanism who argue that ecclesiology is a nonessential as was suggested by Stephen Noll recently.

    And, in my experience, American Liberals are notorious for confusing the liberalism that has come to dominate the Episcopal Church in the last fifty to sixty years with “Classic Anglicanism.” Never mind that it is almost impossible to find actual historic Anglicans who espouse their views. Along with that is a simplistic identifying of American theological liberalism with classic Anglican comprehensiveness.

    Maybe we should cease and desist all debate on the nature of Anglicanism until we have steeped our ourselves in the thinking of at least one notable Anglican from each of the last four centuries.

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