The Biblical Identity of the Church of England

Jesmond Parish Church was founded in January 1861 to be “a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth”. Our founders simply wanted us to be faithful to true and apostolic Anglicanism. With so many outside (and inside) the Church unaware of our Anglican biblical heritage and legal position, a reminder may be of some value.

The legal position

Canon A1 Of the Church of England says: “The Church of England, established according to the laws of this realm under the Queen’s Majesty, belongs to the true and apostolic Church of Christ.” But what do we mean by such truth and apostolicity? The answer is in Canon A5 Of the doctrine of the Church of England. This is the “Canon of Canons” according to the Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974. This Canon defines the doctrine of the Church of England at law. This 1974 Measure (equivalent to an Act of Parliament) was passed by the General Synod of the Church of England to allow revision and modernization of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. But the Measure insisted that any revision had to be in line with the doctrine of the Church of England as spelt out by Canon A5. So this measure and Canon is particularly important at the present time when there is so much doctrinal confusion and conflict in the Church of England. Section 5.1 of the Measure says this:

“the doctrine of the Church of England shall be construed in accordance with the statement concerning that doctrine contained in the Canons of the Church of England, which statement is in the following terms [and here it quotes Canon A 5]: ‘The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.’”

That is the doctrine of the Church of England. Any thing contrary to that whether preached by a clergyman or voted by a Synod is not the teaching of the Church of England. And that teaching says, the holy Scriptures are to be our foundation or “grounding” for all doctrine. But, it also says, you must not ignore the wisdom of the ages. So the early Church debates about the Trinity and the person of Christ are very important where that teaching is “agreeable to the said Scriptures.” But in some things the “ancient Fathers and Councils” could be in error, so they need to be checked. Canon A5 concludes by saying that “particular” importance for apostolic truth is the Reformation teaching which you find in the “The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.” And it is when you go to those documents you find the doctrine and teaching of the Church of England so biblical.

Anglican theology

Of the Thirty-nine Articles, Article VI Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation tells you that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” Article VII Of the Old Testament tells you that “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New” and is still relevant. Article XVII Of Predestination and Election tells you that in difficult doctrinal matters you are to “receive God’s promises as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God”. So you are to be concerned for the “general” sense of the Bible and God’s “expressly declared” commands, not some obscure verses.

Article XIX Of the Church defines “The visible Church of Christ” as “a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance.” Article XX Of the Authority of the Church says: “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”. That last principle is so important for biblical interpretation. Article XXI Of the Authority of General Councils says: “General Councils … when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and the Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining to God”. So the General Synod may err! And Article XXXV Of the Homilies refers to Cranmer’s (and others’) Reformation homilies (or sermons) as containing “a godly and wholesome Doctrine”. The very first Homily is on Scripture.

Archbishop Cranmer’s 16th century Homily

This is how the Homily, “a fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture”, begins:

“Unto a Christian man, there can be nothing either more necessary or profitable, than the knowledge of Holy Scripture; forasmuch as in it is contained God’s true word, setting forth his glory, and also man’s duty. And there is no truth nor doctrine, necessary for our justification and everlasting salvation, but that is, or may be, drawn out of that fountain and well of truth.”

Here are some other excerpts:

“Let us diligently search for the well of life in the books of the New and Old Testament … For in Holy Scripture is fully contained what we ought to do and what to eschew, what to believe, what to love, and what to look for at God’s hand at length. In these books we shall find the Father from whom, the Son by whom, and the Holy Spirit in whom, all things have their being and keeping up; and these three Persons to be but one God, and one substance. In these books we may learn to know ourselves, how vile and miserable we be; and also to know God, how good he is of himself, and how he maketh us and all creatures partakers of his goodness …

These books, therefore, ought to be much in our hands, in our eyes, in our ears, in our mouths, but most of all in our hearts …

And in reading of God’s word … he most profiteth … that is most inspired with the Holy Spirit; most in his heart and life altered and changed into that thing which he readeth; he that is daily less and less proud, less wrathful, less covetous, and less desirous of worldly and vain pleasures; he that daily, forsaking his old vicious life, increaseth in virtue more and more …

What excuse shall we therefore make, at the last day, before Christ, that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than his most holy Gospel; and will find no time to do that, which chiefly, above all things, we should do; and will rather read other things than that, for the which we ought rather to leave reading of all other things?

And if you are afraid of falling into error by reading Holy Scripture, I shall shew you how you may read it without danger of error. Read it humbly, with a meek and lowly heart, to the intent you may glorify God, and not your self, with the knowledge of it: and read it not without daily praying to God, that he would direct your reading to good effect; and take upon you to expound it no further than you can plainly understand it: for as St Augustine saith, the knowledge of Holy Scripture is a great, large, and a high place: but the door is very low, so that the high and arrogant man cannot run in; but he must stoop low and humble himself that shall enter into it. Presumption and arrogancy is the mother of all error; and humility needeth fear no error. For humility will only search to know the truth; it will search, and bring together one place with another; and where it cannot find out the meaning, it will pray, it will ask others that know, and will not presumptuously and rashly define any thing which it knoweth not …

Although many things in the Scripture be spoken in obscure mysteries, yet there is nothing spoken under dark mysteries in one place, but the self-same thing in other places is spoken more familiarly and plainly, to the capacity both of learned and unlearned. And those things, in the Scripture, that be plain to understand, and necessary for salvation, every man’s duty is to learn them, to print them in memory, and effectually to exercise them; and, as for the dark mysteries, to be contented to be ignorant of them, until such time as it shall please God to open those things unto him.”

Conclusion

2013 may be a critical year for Christians in the UK. We can expect the “true and apostolic Church of Christ” to be opposed or attacked by secular groups, members of the Government and, sadly, some in the “visible” Church. Jesus countered such opposition (from the devil in the wilderness) by the use of key Scriptures. Three times Jesus said “it is written” and quoted fundamental biblical principles (Matt 4.4,7and 10).

May his example and our Anglican tradition encourage us to do the same.


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