To what extent do the 39 articles shape modern Anglicanism? From my Church of England perspective it seems to be bordering on disingenuity to quote from them in an unqualified manner; without, for example, mentioning their almost total absence from vocational training, pulpit, and the spiritual lives of the vast majority of adherents.
The 39 Articles are not used much by a lot of modern Anglicans. In the current American prayer book, they’re relegated to fine print in a section called “historical documents.” So why pay any attention to them at all?
The answer is that we need to pay attention to them because they are important to understanding classical Anglican doctrine. Samuel is right that we cannot simply quote from them in an unqualified manner, as if they are the first, last, and only true statement of faith. Nevertheless, we have to wrestle with them if we are going to claim to be Anglicans. Some Anglo-Catholics and Liberals ignore them, hoping that they’ll go away. Many Evangelicals misunderstand them, treating them as a kind of confession. Neither of these approaches really considers the Articles on their own terms.
The Articles were forged out of the Elizabethan Settlement. In some sense, it is hard to speak of anything that can be rightly called Anglicanism prior to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The prior decades were filled with great political turmoil in which the Church of England was tossed about like a football as one regime after another rose and fell. Under Henry VIII, the Church of England was essentially an independent Latin Catholic church. Under Edward VI it became much more Reformed. Mary swung the pendulum back in the opposite direction, almost leading to a reunification with Rome. It is important to remember that as all of this was happening, the Church of England was not blinking in and out of existence. Under each monarch, the Church of England was the same Church, but with a different emphasis in her doctrine, depending on who was steering the ship.
Under Elizabeth, the focus changed from competition to comprehension. The popular gloss on the Elizabethan Settlement is that it was practical rather than theological. Elizabeth is often quoted as saying that she had no desire to peer into mens’ souls. This may or may not accurately describe the queen’s interest in the matter (there are some scholars who believe that Elizabeth was a much more insightful and crafty theologian than she is usually given credit for). Nevertheless, I think it is more accurate to describe the Elizabethan Settlement as an attempt to articulate a comprehensive Anglican vision of truth rather than as simply an attempt to get mutually exclusive voices to play nice together.
Rather than attempting to spell out every last detail of Anglican faith, in the way of the continental Protestant confessions, the narrow purpose of the 39 Articles was to spell out the differences between Anglicanism and other traditions. Thus, on the one hand we see a rejection of some kinds of Roman Catholic teaching on transubstantiation and purgatory (Articles XXII and XXVIII), while at the same time distancing the Church from the Puritans through an affirmation of tradition and the authority of the Church (Articles XXXIV and XX). Articles XXXVII through XXXIX seem to be aimed at Independents and Anabaptists, affirming the authority of the state, the use of force, and the swearing of oaths. Article XXVII also takes a swipe at the Anabaptists, affirming infant Baptism. Throughout the articles, one finds this back and forth.
The Articles became a norm for Anglican faith, not as a confession that absolutely and clearly spells out the meaning of every mystery of Church life, but as a document that provides clarity about where the edges of the Elizabethan Settlement can be found. The goal of Anglican Comprehension was to be wide enough to include what is true from the various theological schools of thought, that which can be clearly grounded in holy Scripture and the primitive Church, while being narrow enough to exclude heresy and that which contradicts the doctrine of the received tradition. This is the genius of the 39 Articles. They are surgical, carefully rooting out error while leaving the widest possible path for the Church to operate. They proscribe more often than they prescribe, and what they do prescribe is not entirely understandable outside the wider context of the tradition. The Articles help to clarify, for instance, what the Church teaches about the sacraments, but that clarification is incomplete without a careful reading of and—dare I say it—praying of the liturgy of the Elizabethan Prayer Book (itself the product of the comprehensiveness of the settlement).
This helps to explain why the American Church felt free to make certain changes in the 39 Articles when they were initially adopted by the Episcopal Church in 1801. If the 39 Articles were a proper confession, they would be unchangeable. Nevertheless, the nascent American Church felt free to make alterations to the Articles while at the same time continuing to claim, in the preface of the first American Prayer Book in 1789, that the Episcopal Church “is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship.” The Articles form an articulation of key Anglican contrasts with other traditions, but they are not an exhaustive formulation even of specifically Anglican doctrine and practice.
So then, how are we to treat them today? Certainly not as a complete confession of our faith. Yet neither is it profitable for us to simply toss them aside. They are useful today in the same way that they were when they were first developed, as a commentary upon the Prayer Book and as a measure of where the boundaries are between Anglicanism and other Christian traditions. The seventeenth century Irish Anglican Archbishop John Bramhall puts it this way:
We do not suffer any man “to reject” the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England “at his pleasure”; yet neither do we look upon them as essentials of saving faith or “legacies of Christ and of His Apostles”; but in a mean, as pious opinions fitted for the preservation of unity. Neither do we oblige any man to believe them, but only not to contradict them.
That last bit is crucial. The Articles form a boundary around our Anglican exercise of the Catholic faith, but they do not exhaustively interpret it. They should be taught and understood at least by the clergy if not the laity as well, but they should never be elevated to a station higher than they deserve. The great authority for our belief is the Bible, as interpreted first and foremost by the creeds, then the early Church Fathers in general (including in the decisive voice of the four Ecumenical Councils), then the Book of Common Prayer, and only then in the Articles as a statement of the mind of our little corner of the Church. On a wrung below that would be the history of the interpretation of the Articles themselves, including everything from the canon law of the Church of England to the interpretation of the Fathers of the Oxford Movement in the Tracts for the Times.
The 39 Articles are a valuable tool for our faith, helping us to see the ways in which Anglicanism distinguishes itself from being just another sect. Properly understood in this light, we can quote from them, study them, reflect on them, and celebrate them as a mark of Anglicanism’s unswerving faithfulness to the scriptures and to the Catholic faith.