MY MOST lasting memory of my pre-ordination retreat was the one-to-one interview with the Bishop. To my surprise, Bishop Stephen Sykes (then Bishop of Ely) opened the conversation by asking me to explain my understanding of Article VI. For a moment I panicked, until I realised that he was referring to the Thirty-Nine Articles, and then I panicked again while he explained that he wanted my take on “Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation.” So I burbled on for a bit, in a fairly uninformed way, about the relationship between scripture, tradition, and reason, making clear that I was not a biblical fundamentalist.
At the time, I found this embarrassing, and wondered why the Bishop had put me on the spot. But now I can see his point. When candidates make the Declaration of Assent at ordination, and at all subsequent services of licensing, they affirm their loyalty to the inheritance of faith, which includes the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.
It shocks me now that, even though I had been worshipping in the Church of England from the age of five, had been confirmed at 16, and had been a Reader for ten years, I still needed prompting to be able to give an account of one of the most fundamental of the Thirty-Nine Articles. I later co-ordinated the teaching of Anglicanism in the Cambridge Theological Federation, and so finally did my homework on the tradition into which I had been confirmed and ordained.
This is the ordination season, and there will again be some candidates who are far from aware of the significance of the declaration that they are about to make. Twenty-odd years ago, often through institutionalised carelessness, the assumption was that “Anglicanism” was simply caught, not taught, and that the precise details of the legal framework for ministry were unimportant.
But, today, this carelessness is regularly exploited by those whose true agenda is to undermine the C of E by cynical lip-service to the law, while inventing a supposedly more authentic Church of their own. Some will go to their ordination retreats completely unaware that they have solemn declarations to make. I can remember one candidate who was so scandalised by the Bishop’s Charge that he nearly went home. He believed that the call of the Holy Spirit overrode any legal (which he typically misunderstood as “legalistic”) requirements.
I have never believed that the C of E should be a confessional Church, and I continued to disagree with Bishop Sykes in his strenuous attempts to define the Anglican tradition more rigorously. On the other hand, perjury is not a good way to start a ministry. I just hope that this year’s candidates know what they are taking on.