I’ve recently been in correspondence with a bishop who is quite influential in the process surrounding the Prayers of Love and Faith. It has led to a revealing conversation around Article 26 of the 39 Articles of Faith.
The 39 Articles are a brief and condensed statement of what Anglican Christians believe and teach. The English Reformers compiled these carefully summarised statements of biblical theology to guide and guard our identity in Christ. Adopted by the Church of England in 1571, the 39 Articles assist believers in thinking, discussing, applying, and sharing “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). These theological principles remain relevant for our spiritual health and maturity as we follow Jesus Christ today.
The discussion arose because a parish passed a resolution that they would “not allow anyone who is unable to affirm the statement above to officiate, preach or otherwise exercise authority at [ ]”. The statement they asked people to affirm read as follows.
“The PCC of [ ] affirms the current Church of England doctrine that the only place for sexual activity is in marriage between one man and one woman, which is intended to be for life, since we believe this to be the pattern given to us in Scripture. We affirm the beauty, as commended in Scripture, of both marriage and celibate singleness. We seek to provide good pastoral support for those who may struggle to live by this teaching and welcome all people to [ ], regardless of their sexual status or orientation. We seek to be a Church which is a loving Christian community, an extended family, and a place where we hold to a traditional Christian view of marriage, as set out in Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer, 39 Articles and Ordinal, and to do so with grace and love.”
Asking those who minister in the Church of England to consent to the Church of England doctrine of marriage and sexuality would seem logical.
However, the bishop with whom I’ve corresponded disagrees. He argues that such a resolution is unnecessary and has told me it could be challenged on grounds of discrimination.
More worryingly, the bishop rejected the biblical basis of such a resolution, quoting part of Article 26 of the Articles of Faith, which reads as follows:
“26. The Sacraments are Not Rendered Ineffectual by the Unworthiness of the Minister
Although in the visible church, the evil are always mingled with the good and sometimes evil people possess the highest rank in the ministry of the Word and sacraments, nevertheless since they do not do these things in their own name but in Christ’s and minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing God’s Word and in receiving the sacraments. The effect of Christ’s institution is not taken away by the wickedness of these people, nor is the grace of God’s gifts diminished, so long as the sacraments are received by faith and rightly. The sacraments are effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise, even though they may be administered by evil men.”
He extrapolated from the Article that because the validity of teaching and holy communion is not affected by the evil character of the person preaching or administering the sacrament, the PCC should not be concerned about either the character or beliefs of those who teach or preside at Communion (as long as they hold the bishop’s licence or Permission to Officiate). The bishop used Augustine’s interpretation of Matthew 13:24-30 to support his argument.
But this would appear to fly in the face of Cranmer’s intention  for a number of reasons, not least because the bishop did not quote the whole of Article 26 – which ends with these important words:
“Nevertheless, it belongs to the church’s discipline to investigate evil ministers. Those accused by witnesses knowing their offences and who are ultimately justly found guilty should be disposed of.”
Far from being a license for evil ministers to go unchallenged, it is obvious that Cranmer sought to ensure that, through the use of the Book of Common Prayer and the reading of the homilies, heresy would be avoided, and where there was malpractice it would be addressed without falling into the errors of Donatism.
Further, Article 26 must be read in the context of Article 20, which says.
“20. The Authority of the Church
The church has authority to decree forms of worship and ceremonies and to decide in controversies concerning the faith. However, it is not lawful for the church to order anything contrary to God’s written Word. Nor may it expound one passage of Scripture so that it contradicts another. So, although the church is a witness and guardian to Holy Scripture, it must not decree anything contrary to Scripture, nor is it to enforce belief in anything additional to Scripture as essential to salvation.”
To be fair, the bishop in question did not comment on whether or not the Prayers of Love and Faith are “contrary to God’s written Word”, instead he argued that it was to the creeds he would look to define the boundaries of orthodoxy. He went on to explain that, because sexual ethics are not included in the creeds, he sees no reason why the blessing of same-sex couples would be a matter for church discipline. It remains a mystery whether this bishop would use the same argument for adultery, prostitution or other matters of sexual ethics but what is clear is that having already erased the last two sentences of Article 26 from the record, he then effectively strikes a line through Article 20.
The bishop does have the humility to recognise that others would disagree with him but there is no doubt that in practice he intends for his view to prevail.
If this is a view that is widely held within the College and House of Bishops, orthodox Anglicans should be deeply concerned. It appears that the last ropes, which allow us to be moored safely to our historical faith, are being cut, and that anything goes in this new and radically relativistic world.
Cranmer’s intention when drafting Article 26 was to recognise both that the church is a mixture of wheat and tares and that appropriately motivated discipline is needed for those who continue to teach and live contrary to Scripture.
My greatest concern is that we have reached a place where the desire for unity now trumps everything, including logic.
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