On the Articles of Religion

As a United Methodist undergraduate major in theology, one of the things that prevented me from joining The Episcopal Church earlier than I did was something I read in the book Welcome to the Episcopal Church which more or less stated that Episcopalians aren't really interested in theology—they’re interested in worship. While I cannot speak to other branches of the Anglican tradition, I can say that it is an oft-repeated (and more often than not self-perpetuated) cliché in The Episcopal Church that Anglicanism is not a “confessional” tradition, with the implication (or explication) being that we do not have a core of doctrinal belief. Instead, we have a vague sense of our common appreciation for a tradition of worship and the belief that we are a via media (as though that's not an incredibly historically contested concept) between “Protestantism” and “Catholicism.”

The historical reality, however, is that Anglicanism is not a “confessional” tradition only in the most tautological sense. Indeed, we never adopted a formal set of confessions as Lutherans or (other) Reformed traditions did that explicitly laid out our beliefs in extended prose form. However, it would be highly disingenuous to claim that we are not confessional in the sense that we have no common—or extensive—confession of faith. The 39 Articles of Religion, since their finalization in 1571, have defined a core of Anglican belief and the burden of proof has been stacked in their favor against those who seek to deviate in significant ways from them. Because in The Episcopal Church they are confined to the back in the small-print “Historical Documents” section of The Book of Common Prayer, many assume that they are simply a historical oddity of no authority (never you mind that something as important to most Episcopalians as liturgical colors are contained nowhere between the covers of The Book of Common Prayer). However, through much of Anglican history, the Articles were incredibly important for defining proper Anglican belief. Until 1828, subscription to them was required not only for clergy, but for anyone who sought government work in England. Up to 1854, one could not matriculate at Oxford until subscribing. These were hardly relics of the English Reformation and were considered so important for the Theo-political entity that was England that one could not find ostensibly secular work without acknowledging conformity to the doctrine of the state Church.

I would not say subscription to the Articles is necessarily desirable today in The Episcopal Church, but I do not think this document is a mere historical oddity either. The Articles still largely represent a core set of doctrinal statements that map onto the mainstream of Episcopal belief (at least of that contained within The Book of Common Prayer). I wonder if the reason they receive so little attention is not truly that people want to continue arguing that we find our theology in prayer and not in confessional statements and more about the fact that many people do not actually want to articulate or the search for the theology they would find in our prayer—for indeed it would likely be found to have much in common with that of the Articles.

I came up with the idea of having different people write a different blog post on each of the Articles not because I want to impose some narrow dogmatism on my church nor because I see it as an interesting historical exercise. The Episcopal Church (and if we're being honest probably most of the Protestant Mainline, ACNA, and the Roman Catholic Church) in America has been experiencing a crisis of catechesis, a crisis of theological education among our people. This resourcement was an attempt to offer a vast set of accessible, digestible introductions to the key points of Anglican belief and to make people aware of these historically very important, but now neglected, statements of our English Reformation faith.

This is, and should not be seen as, a project confined to narrow doctrinal, political, or party affiliation. Certainly, the Evangelical Party has historically been the party most apt to claim full allegiance to the 39 Articles. However, we must remember that Tract 90 of the Oxford Movement was dedicated to showing the full conformity of Catholic teaching with the 39 Articles—not an argument for invalidating them. The 39 Articles are just as much a touchstone for the history of the Anglo-Catholic and High Church movements as they are for Low and Evangelical. Additionally, they are not limited to explicit Anglicans: one should remember that John Wesley’s 25 Articles given to the American Methodist Episcopal Church and still official doctrine for the United Methodist Church today are directly taken from the 39 Articles. Moreover, this series will hopefully show Lutheran and Reformed  Christians that the teaching of The Episcopal Church at its core shares much if not all of the essentials of a common Reformation heritage. I sincerely hope you will all give this project a shot and engage the various points of view with charity and openness.

I should strongly affirm that while I had the initial idea for these posts, this is no longer “my project” in any meaningful sense. I haver done very little work compared to each of our authors and especially our editor, Hannah Bowman. All I did was help act as a clearinghouse for many very insightful people. You can blogs on each of the Articles posted at yptheology.org  All the posts for one Article will be posted each day, five days a week, for eight weeks. You can follow along with the social media discussion about this project with the hashtag #39ArticlesBlog.