This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 19 says:
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.
In the midst of the Protestant Reformation, one of the critical issues that cropped up as Christians became divided from one another was the question of what the Church actually is. The Roman Catholics were insisting that the true Church of Christ was loyal to the Bishop of Rome, which was a distinct advantage in terms of recent history and organizational consistency. But as one of the primary points of Protestantism was the rejection of the Pope’s monarchial authority over the Church, and thus the Reformers returned to the Bible in order to discern what actually constitutes the true Church on earth.
This Article is generally representative of what all the major Reformers believed and taught: the visible Church is the congregation, assembly, or gathering of people whose faith is in Christ. In that congregation the Bible is preached and the Sacraments are properly observed, plus whatever things are needed in order to carry out those two areas of ministry, all in accordance with Jesus’ teachings.
What things, exactly, are necessary for the proper preaching of the Bible and the celebration of the Sacraments, however, remain points of contention between different European Reformation churches. For example, most of the Reformers maintained a strong role for Pastors as learned men who were well-trained in theology and the Scriptures in order to preach the Bible well to the congregation. In the past couple centuries, however, many Protestant traditions have increasingly abandoned the need for pastoral academic training; some have done away with it or even rejected it altogether. Meanwhile, the Anglican tradition (uniquely among the Reformation churches) maintained the historic episcopacy. This has usually (though not always) been considered an essential part of biblical Christianity and thus one of the necessary requisites for the due ministration of the Sacraments.
Finally, Article 19 observes that the Church can make mistakes in matters of holy living, in liturgical practices, and in doctrine. This was a rebuke to the Roman claims of the infallibility of the Pope’s teaching office; only the Scriptures bear the stamp of God’s absolutely unbreakable Word. The Creeds, ancient liturgies, Early Church Councils, and other such influential documents all bear great value and authority, but none of those carry the guarantee of perfection like the Bible does. Thus this Article names four of the five Early Church Patriarchs as having erred in the past, forever cautioning us against putting our faith in the Church over our faith in God.
It is an historical curiosity that the fifth Patriarchy of the Early Church (Constantinople) was not mentioned here. The Church of England, beginning in the time of the Reformation, was constantly reaching out to the Eastern Orthodox Church to explore the possibility of mutual recognition, partnership, and even unity. Though such an achievement has never been reached, relations had grown very warm by the early 20th century, only to be scuttled by the insurgent Modernism that swept across our tradition throughout the 20th century.