The basis of any church’s theology lies in its doctrine. Other churches have been quite clear about this. Most Protestant bodies have a confession of faith to which its ministers (at least) are expected to subscribe, and the Roman Catholic Church has a large body of official teaching that is expounded and monitored by the pope, whose interpretation is definitive for all Catholics, even if many of them reject it in practice.
Can Anglican Theology be defined?
Anglicans, by contrast, have often been reluctant to define matters of faith too closely. Today, many would claim that Anglicanism does not have a confession of faith, and there is certainly no teaching authority equivalent to the papacy, but this claim needs some qualification. There is no Anglican confession that is theologically comprehensive and no document that defines the tradition in the way that the Westminster Confession does for Presbyterianism.
The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion
But there is a statement of faith that was produced at the time of the Reformation and remains fundamental to Anglicanism as a distinct type of Christianity because it expresses the Anglican position on the main points that caused the Church of England to maintain a stance independent of Rome and distinct from other Protestant churches. This is the text known as the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
The Thirty-nine Articles are seldom studied nowadays, but many Anglican churches, including the Church of England and the American Episcopal Church, print them as an appendix to the Prayer Book, and in wider Anglican circles they are still cited as a touchstone of Anglican orthodoxy. The nineteenth-century inventors of Anglicanism disliked them because of their Protestant origin and tried to minimize their importance, but in recent years they have reappeared, both in ecumenical discussions and in global Anglican contexts, and ignoring them in a definition of Anglicanism is no longer acceptable.
. . .
The Articles do not contain the sum total of Anglican theology, some of them now appear rather dated, and there are certain subjects that they (perhaps unfortunately) omit. But while they are neither comprehensive nor perfect, the Articles are the fundamental starting point for any serious discussion of Anglican theology. Properly analyzed and understood, they offer us a handy framework onto which additional material can be grafted in order to give us a reliable picture of what can legitimately claim to be Anglican. Individual Anglicans may disregard them or dissent from them to varying degrees, but the Anglican tradition as a whole continues to be shaped by them in both subtle and more obvious ways.
Perhaps the best way to understand how the Articles function is to think of Anglican theology in three parts—its sources, its content, and its application to the life of the Church and its members. If we structure our presentation in that way, we shall be able to locate particular elements within the overall scheme and consider how they relate. Let us look at each of these three parts in turn.
The ultimate source of all Anglican theology is God. Without his self-revelation, there would be nothing to say, and Christianity itself would not exist. Who God is and what he is like must come first, since everything else flows from that. God has revealed himself in the Bible, the message that he has given through the prophets and apostles to the people of Israel and then to the Christian church. All Christians have received this revelation, but not all understand it in the same way. This is a good example of how Anglicans are at once one with the universal church and distinct, because, although we share the sources of our knowledge of God with all Christians, we interpret them in ways that set us apart from others at different points. The Articles, therefore, begin with the doctrine of God and expound it in a way that connects Anglicans with the wider church, before going on to expound their own distinctive approach to the subject.
Anglican theology has inherited a vast body of knowledge and understanding from the early church. In principle, it is open to considering any doctrine, idea, or practice that is part of the universal church’s tradition, only reserving the right to evaluate it according to the degree that it conforms to the revelation contained in the Bible. If it is not found in the Bible, it cannot be imposed or adopted as a necessary part of Anglican theology, though that would not necessarily exclude it from consideration. For example, the veneration of icons that is practiced in the Eastern Orthodox churches is not found in the Bible, and Anglicans have not adopted it as part of their worship, but they do not condemn it or reject it outright. There is nothing in Anglican theology that says that an individual cannot use icons for spiritual edification, but because there is no biblical warrant for that practice, their use cannot be officially adopted or encouraged, let alone made compulsory.
On the other hand, there are some things that are clearly taught in the Bible and that Anglicans cannot ignore—like celebrating the Lord’s Supper as central to regular public worship. The break with Rome in the sixteenth century was not just a schism; it was also a new departure in the way we do theology. The questions raised then were and still are fundamental to Anglican identity, even if they are not always in the forefront of discussion, and even though many people have never engaged with them personally. To be an Anglican is to belong to a tradition that has wrestled with certain issues and drawn particular conclusions from that struggle. Individuals today, and even whole churches, may have other priorities, but the founding principles of Anglicanism cannot be ignored. New ideas come along from time to time, but they fit into an existing framework and are inevitably shaped by that. The Articles set out what these founding principles are and explain how they have been received by Anglicans.
Anglicans apply their theology through an episcopal structure of church government. They do so in a collegiate manner, involving clergy and laity as the bishops’ equals. They do not conceal their faith in a foreign language like Latin, but instead speak in the language of ordinary people. Above all, they do not just talk about their theology; they turn it into a vehicle for worship.
This is why the Prayer Book has such a central place in the Anglican world.
What about The Book of Common Prayer?
The Book of Common Prayer, as it is properly called, manifests a pattern of theology that Anglicans absorb every time they attend a service of worship. Inevitably, this will be the way in to the riches of Anglican theology for most people, but caution is required here. The Prayer Book is not a source of Anglican theology but a witness to its application. The principles on which it is built come from elsewhere, and its doctrine must be determined in light of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and the sources that they regard as authoritative (Scripture above all, and, in so far as they reflect its teaching, the three creeds, the Homilies, and the Ordinal).
The Articles themselves recognize other authorities, in particular the canonical books of Holy Scripture, and in that sense, Anglican theology extends well beyond them and acknowledges sources that are more authoritative than they are. There is no conflict here. If Scripture (or the creeds) can be shown to teach something that contradicts an article, then it must be the article that gives way. But in practice, Anglican theologians usually maintain that the Articles are faithful to Scripture and the creeds and that they merely supplement them on matters that were deemed to be important at the time that the Church of England separated from Rome.
To some extent, therefore, any introduction to Anglican theology has to include common foundations on which different edifices have been constructed by people who have believed (and often tried to persuade others to believe) the foundations were originally designed to support. In this sense, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion remain the blueprint for the later work of Anglican divines. And it is by the Articles that the theological stability of the structures added by later work must ultimately be judged.
It will be objected by some that the Thirty-nine Articles are a historical document of little relevance to the modern Anglican Church, and that they are largely unknown to most Anglicans today. This is true, but until 1975, incumbents of English parishes had to read them at their institution, and so congregations would have heard them from time to time, even if they did not know why they were being read. More importantly, ordinands (candidates for ordination) had to subscribe to them, and still do, if in a somewhat attenuated form.
General ignorance of the Articles is therefore a failing of the modern Church, and it is not because they have been abolished or relegated to a secondary status. One of the encouraging signs of recent Anglican renewal is the increased attention that is now being paid to them again. Whether that will continue and where it might lead remain unknown, but it is too early to proclaim their demise, and now that more Anglicans are aware of the need to recover the common foundations of their identity, it may well be that they will regain some of the prominence that they have lost in recent times.
What does seem certain is that no new confession of faith is likely to appear anytime soon, and so, with all their admitted limitations, the Thirty-nine Articles will remain the most important single source of distinctively Anglican doctrine for the foreseeable future.
Want to learn more from Gerald Bray? Check out these resources:
- Doing Theology with the Reformers
- History of Biblical Interpretation I: Second Temple Judaism through the Reformation (8 hour course)
- Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God
This post on Anglican theology is adapted from Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition by Gerald Bray, available now on pre-order from Lexham Press.
Looking for Bible study resources and tools curated especially for Anglicans (and anyone interested in Anglicanism)? Take a look at the Anglican packages in Logos—you’ll find top-notch books and commentaries bundled with the leading Bible software to help you explore Scripture and the Anglican tradition in greater depth.