This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 20 states:
XX. Of the Authority of the Church
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. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.
One of the contentious issues during the Reformation (which has in recent times again become a subject of great controversy and debate) was the extent of the Church’s authority. Some, like the Roman Catholic Church, argued for an unquestionable authority alongside that of the Bible. Others, such as many of the early Anabaptists, rejected the institutional church almost entirely, preferring an extreme form of individualized Christian freedom. Various Protestant traditions took their stand on various points in between those extremes. The Anglican teaching described here in Article 20 was among the more conservative positions.
By decreeing “Rites or Ceremonies” this Article particularly refers to liturgy – we believe the Church has the power to assert a common liturgy, or form of worship, to be used in the local churches with all due obedience. (This was one of the points of the Anglican faith which eventually caused the Puritans to separate from the English Church, especially some of the early Separatists who settled Plymouth and the most of the rest of Massachusetts Colony.) An example of Scriptural backing for this level of Church authority is in St. Paul’s 1st epistle to Timothy where he described the Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
The Puritans, as well as the majority of Protestants out there today, were reluctant to afford such esteem to the authority of the Church, preferring the “Bible only” as our rule for worship. This came to be known as the “Regulative Principle” – the Bible is the rule for worship, we can only do what is expressly commanded therein. We Anglicans, instead, along with the witness of historic Christianity, hold to the “Normative Principle,” of which Article 20 here is a clear expression. The Church as a whole is free to worship as she sees fit, so long as nothing is “contrary to God’s Word written.” This is consistent also with how the Church teaches from the Scriptures: we may not “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” Hearkening back to Article 6, the language of things being “necessary of salvation” is once again limited to the bounds of “holy Writ,” that is, the Bible.
This Article is perhaps one of the most important ones Anglicans today need to revisit. For many Anglicans have been heavily influenced by other church worship traditions, and frequently import things from other places, especially the “prayer and praise” tradition from popular evangelicalism, with little regard for its compatibility with our liturgy. As a Church with “decreed Rites and Ceremonies,” namely, the Book of Common Prayer, the order of how we worship is already settled. Local innovation and variance is not in the hands of the individual congregations, but of the Church on a larger level, particularly the diocese, under its Bishop.