THE Church of England — like almost all Churches — requires its ministers to assent to a formal body of Christian teaching. These commitments assist the health and unity of the Church, in the midst of its diversity, and help to guarantee that the Christian message is taught in every parish.
Authorised ministers — whether clergy or laity — are not at liberty to believe and teach anything they choose. These corporate commitments are expressed in the 1975 Preface and Declaration of Assent.
The Declaration of Assent is made whenever clergy are ordained, instituted, installed, licensed, or admitted to other public office in the Church (Canon C15). Most clergy therefore will make this Declaration on many occasions during their ministries.
Understanding the Declaration’s origins is important for appreciating its distinctive emphases, including its purpose and shape.
The doctrinal commitments of the Church of England were recast and renewed in the light of developments in understanding holy scripture during the 16th-century Reformation, expressed in summary form in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.
These were promulgated under Elizabeth I in 1571, reaffirmed at the Restoration in 1662, and for centuries have been published in a single volume with the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. Taken together, these three historic texts (often called “formularies”) remain the formal and legal basis of Church of England teaching.
The canons declare: “The Thirty-nine Articles are agreeable to the Word of God and may be assented unto with a good conscience by all members of the Church of England” (Canon A2).
And: “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, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal” (Canon A5).
FROM the 1570s, subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles was expected of all Church of England clergy (and some other groups like schoolteachers, and members of Oxford and Cambridge universities). The precise form of subscription varied over the years. By the Canons of 1604, all clergy had to affirm “willingly and ex animo” — that is “from the heart”, without mental reservation — that the Articles were “agreeable to the Word of God”.
In the 1960s, this declaration was still in force, but increasingly under pressure from clergy who found it problematic or a burden to their conscience. Some protested publicly at being required to subscribe in this form, which brought the doctrinal discipline of the Church of England into disrepute.
Among 20th-century Anglicans across the globe, there was a very wide range of views concerning the Thirty-Nine Articles. Some rejoiced in them as a beautiful and succinct summary of Anglican doctrine and the best expression of Anglican theological identity. Others were dissatisfied with them on the following grounds:
- The Articles assume an Augustinian/Reformed theological framework.
- They offer propositional teaching, not fluid theology which wrestles with puzzles and perplexities.
- They focus on Reformation questions concerning justification and the sacraments.
- They are polemical, pointing out the errors of other Christians.
- They belong to a very different cultural and philosophical context, with no consideration of more recent questions such as the secular state, urbanisation, technology, race, ecumenism, other religions, lay ministry, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The place of the Articles in modern Anglicanism was a major debate at the Lambeth Conference in 1968. There was increasingly diverse practice around the Anglican Communion — some Provinces retained the Articles in their constitutions, while others revised them, replaced them, or abandoned them altogether. Some have never adopted them in the first place.
The Church of England’s Doctrine Commission considered these questions in Subscription and Assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles (1968). They concluded that revising the Articles, or replacing them with a new authoritative doctrinal statement which would gain the enthusiastic backing of the whole Church of England, would be too difficult, too lengthy, and itself soon out of date.
Abandoning subscription to the Articles altogether would also be counterproductive, as it would give the impression that the Church of England was not concerned for the biblical faith of its ministers. Therefore, the Doctrine Commission proposed a new approach to subscription which, if it was to win wide acceptance, must satisfy several conditions.
- It must recognise that the Articles are an historic document and should be interpreted only within their historical context.
- It must leave room for an appeal to the Articles as a norm within Anglican theology.
- It must not tie down the person using it to acceptance of every one of the Articles of 1571.
- It must preserve the comprehensiveness characteristic of the Church of England.
- It must not put the Articles in isolation, but must acknowledge that Bible, Creeds, Prayer Book, Ordinal, and the developing consensus of Anglican thought also have their own contribution to make to the doctrine of the Church of England. It must also indicate that these possess different degrees of authority.
- It must not only declare in what ways the Church of England is distinctive, but must indicate the doctrines it shares with all Christians.
- The possibility of fresh understandings of Christian truth must be explicitly left open.
The agreed way forward was for the new 1975 Declaration of Assent to be kept very brief, but now introduced by a fuller Preface which sets out the context in which the Declaration is to be understood. This was intended to allow a more open interpretation of the historic Reformation formularies and to make clear that the Church of England is both reformata (reformed) and semper reformanda (always to be reformed; or “always patient at being reformed”).
Thus clergy and licensed lay ministers continue to affirm their loyalty to the classic doctrine of the Church of England, while also being guaranteed liberty to ask new doctrinal questions.
This is an edited extract from To Proclaim Afresh: Declaration and oaths for Church of England ministers (Church House Publishing, £5.99 (Church Times Bookshop £5.39); 978-1-78140-254-2)
Preface: The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?
Declaration: I, A.B., do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.
The Declaration . . . is a compact theological text that draws together some essential threads of what it means to be Anglican, and how we express this Anglican identity — through our liturgy, our scriptures, our creeds and our historical formularies
Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
View the full list of ordinations and pictures in the Gazette