The phrase “Prayer Book Catholic” has come to characterize those Anglo-Catholics who not only use the Book of Common Prayer but believe it to be the liturgy par excellence for Catholic worship and teaching the Catholic faith. This is opposed to those Anglo-Catholics who only ever use the prayer book out of necessity but see it as at best incomplete and feel the need to gussy it up with affectations from the liturgies of Rome, the East, or wherever. Prayer Book Catholics believe that Anglicanism is Catholic by its very nature. In that respect, they are the inheritors of the old High Churchman tradition which stressed fidelity to the prayer book as a matter of faith, not simply discipline.
Prayer Book Catholics strenuously defend the catholicity of the prayer book liturgies, but what about the 39 Articles of Religion that are appended to the back of the book? Is it possible for Catholics to defend the Articles or are they simply a relic of the Church of England’s Protestant past that is better off discarded?
The Articles are Arti-Cool
For the Anglican reformers and early divines, the Articles were essential, not as a comprehensive confession of faith but as a clear articulation of the ways in which the post-Reformation Anglican Church sought to keep the Catholic faith from being poisoned by outside influences. Sixteenth century figures like John Jewel and Richard Hooker upheld the Articles as a clear expression of Anglican theology, but in the early decades of the seventeenth century there arose a concerted effort on the part of some disgruntled members of the Church of England to muddle their meaning, so much so that in 1628 King Charles I had a note appended to the Book of Common Prayer that the Articles were always to be understood in their “plain and grammatical sense.” Peter Heylyn explains why in a treatise from 1660:
Each of the parties in those curious points in which the present differences do most consist conceive the Articles of the Church to speak for them, exclusive wholly of the other, but with a notable difference in the application. The Calvinists, by which name they love to be called, endeavor to captivate the sense of the Article and bring it to the bent of their own understanding; but the true English Protestants (whom for distinction sake we may call Confessionists) accommodate, though they do not captivate, their own sense to the sense of the Church, according to the plain and full meaning of the Articles in the points disputed.
Like many seventeenth century divines, Heylyn was attempting to advocate a position of fidelity to the theological principles of Anglicanism that came prior to any other distinctions. Of course, his particularly strong critique of the Calvinist interpretation of the Articles may or may not be correct, but his fundamental point was that the Articles ought to be able to set the terms of theological debate, not Calvinism or any other foreign school of theology or philosophy. He went on to imply that we ought to read the Articles the same way we read the Scriptures, by seeking their meaning in the context of the historical teaching of the Church and plain reason. This follows the position of many of the best and brightest minds in the Church of England in the seventeenth century, including William Beveridge whose brilliant Ecclessia Anglicana Ecclesia Catholica systematically explained each of the 39 Articles using just such an approach.
Tract 90 Blows Up the World
Such an appeal to the primitive Church is consonant with Anglo-Catholic ideals as well, and yet the Articles are thoroughly rejected by many if not most Anglo-Catholics today who have come to accept the same Calvinist interpretation of the Articles that Heylyn attempted to debunk so many centuries ago. Historically, it is not hard to see how such a disregard and even disdain for the Articles developed. In 1841, John Henry Newman’s Tract 90 attempted to convince people of a Catholic interpretation of the Articles, but instead it set off such a firestorm within the Church and English society that Newman never quite recovered from the shock. It became the catalyst for his eventual conversion to Rome.
Admittedly, Tract 90 is a flawed document that sometimes works exactly the kind of magic upon the Articles that Heylyn accused the Calvinists in his day of supplying. Rather than starting with the plain sense of the Articles themselves, the tract starts with a desire to show that the Articles are not quite as unreceptive to Catholic ideas as they might appear. For this reason, both Newman’s supporters and critics have often conceded far too quickly that Newman did not really believe in the Articles, that he was simply trying to make them workable for his already established position. This, however, fails to account not only for Newman’s surprise and despair upon seeing how others reacted to his tract, but also his longstanding defense of the Articles prior to the tract’s writing. In 1834, when Dr. Renn Hampden began arguing that Oxford University ought to do away with its requirement that students subscribe to the 39 Articles, Newman wrote an excoriating fifty page essay called Elucidations in which he defended subscription to the Articles as a good and necessary part of living under the Church’s authority. Many other early Anglo-Catholics followed suit.
Pusey to the Rescue
After the controversy over Tract 90 had begun in earnest, Edward Bouverie Pusey wrote an extensive defense of the tract called The Articles Treated On in Tract 90 Reconsidered and Their Interpretation Vindicated. Despite the title, Pusey’s work does far more than simply defend Newman. In over two hundred pages, Pusey carefully and painstakingly goes through the same subset of the Articles that Newman treated, showing how a Catholic interpretation roots the Articles in both the Scriptures and the mind of the early Church. While Newman’s tract can be accused of working too hard at trying to harmonize the Articles with Roman Catholic teaching, even going so far as to suggest that there is no essential difference between the teaching of the Articles and the teaching of the Council of Trent, Pusey explicitly denies that the Articles have any “Romanism” within them and happily points out the various ways in which they are “anti-Romanist.” He insists, rather, that the Articles are to be understood in light of the universal witness of the early Church to the meaning of Holy Scripture. “This view,” wrote Pusey, “so far from relaxing the meaning of the Articles, gives them greater stringency, and lays us under a deeper obligation ; since now we are bound to receive them not only on the authority of our immediate mother, but of her, ‘the Jerusalem from above,’ who is the common ‘mother of us all.'” In other words, we do well to remember that whatever we teach in our small Anglican corner of the Catholic Church only has meaning if it is consonant with what the Church as a whole has always taught. Since the Articles reflect that very ancient teaching, Pusey believes they need to be not only upheld but given a full-throated proclamation.
The Articles and a Catholic Future
Alas, for far too many Anglo-Catholics today, Pusey’s words are forgotten. But for Pusey, Newman, F.D. Maurice, and many others in the early days of the Oxford Movement, the catholicity of the 39 Articles meant that upholding them was a non-negotiable. Just as we have Prayer Book Catholics today, it would surely be to the Church’s benefit if we also had 39 Articles Catholics today who do not assume that the discussion on how to interpret the Articles properly ended in 1841. Likewise, it would be good if Anglicans of all stripes today would begin to celebrate the place of the Articles within our tradition, not by figuring out how to bend them to our whims, but by approaching them on their own terms as a distillation of the teaching of the historic Catholic Church.