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  • Revd. James Hughes

Councils err

An occasional series on the 39 articles

Introduction

The 39 Articles of religion may seem to belong to the sixteenth century, to a time of articles and confessions and other documents produced by Protestant churches across Europe, as they sought to define themselves against Roman Catholicism and the radical reformation. Certainly, that is their origin. However, they remain, along with the Book of Common Prayer, the foundation of Anglican Doctrine, more than just an ‘historic formulary’.


I want to illustrate that in these blog posts by reflecting on some of the articles. I’m not intending to do a systematic exposition of the articles – for that we are very well served by Gerald Bray’s ‘The Faith we Confess'. Instead, I want to highlight some of the continuing wisdom and practical relevance of the articles for Anglicans today, as we seek to be faithful to God’s Word in our generation.


Articles 19 and 21 Churches and Councils


XIX. OF THE CHURCH

THE visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.


Much of the time when looking at this article we focus on the first paragraph, where the church is identified as the place where God’s word is preached, the sacraments are rightly ministered, and where there are faithful people. This is an essential understanding of the church for all Protestants: the church is constituted by faithful response to God’s word, not by ecclesial affiliation to Rome (or Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, or even we might say, Canterbury).

But notice also what the second paragraph says: churches have erred. And not just in secondary issues, but also primary ones, matters of faith. Then look on to article 21:


XXI. OF THE AUTHORITY OF GENERAL COUNCILS

GENERAL Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.


Churches have erred, and so to the articles tell us have general councils; we might recognise the value of a Chalcedon or a Nicaea, but we do not consider ourselves bound by every council that the church or churches have gathered together. What matters is whether or not what the council proposes is consistent with scripture.


I think this has three applications for us today.


First, notice the distinctions made here between ceremonies and matters of faith. Whilst it is not spelled out, I think this at least implies a distinction between what we would call primary and secondary issues. On secondary issues we tolerate and accommodate disagreement between Christians, not because everybody is right, but because being wrong does not imperil our salvation. However, on primary issues, on matters of faith, such as how we are saved, and what constitutes sin that needs to be repented of, we must be clear on what is error.


Second, we take our stand on scripture. That means that we are not bound to go along with what the denomination says just because the denomination says it. In fact, I would argue that as good Anglicans we are duty bound to point out the errors of councils when they emerge, for the sake of the flock, for the congregation of faithful men (and women). To do otherwise would be to buy into the myth of ‘the mind of the church’ which suggests that somehow what God’s word says can change or be disregarded if the church – or enough people in the church – feel that is where ‘the Spirit leads.’


Third, we take comfort from the necessity of this article in the sixteenth century. Councils err. Not always, but sometimes. They always have, and they always will. As article 21 reminds us, not all are governed with the Spirit and the Word of God. If we find ourselves in a time and place in the twenty first century where churches and councils err – or look like they are going to – we should not be surprised or downcast. Rather, we stand firm on that which is necessary to salvation and taken out of holy Scripture.

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Revd. James Hughes is Vicar of the United Benefice of Duffield and Little Eaton. He is vice-chair of the Latimer Trust.

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