The 19th through 24th Articles, for the most part, set out the basics of the Anglican doctrine of the Church: what it is, what its authorities are, and how it worships and functions. In many (especially Protestant) churches today, there has been great upheaval and confusion over these questions. Entire congregations have been embroiled in “worship wars” between so-called “contemporary” and “traditional” mindsets. Many evangelicals have embraced such minimalist approaches to theology and doctrine, especially where defining the Church is concerned, that even trained pastors often find themselves at a loss regarding how to answer questions about the what’s, how’s and why’s of worship. These Articles of Religion are gifts from our theological tradition, giving us a solid and biblical place to start as the American church culture’s waves of confusion crash upon our own shores. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; the answers (or at least the beginning of our answers) are already available.
We begin in Article 19 with the basic definition of the local church: a community of faith in which biblical preaching is heard and right administration of the sacraments is carried out. At its most basic level, this is a definition common across Protestant traditions. As it is explored in further depth, however, one finds this to be potentially quite demanding: what constitutes biblical preaching? What things “of necessity are requisite” to the right administration of the sacraments? How these questions are answered quickly reveals the sharp boundary lines between Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbysterians, and especially the traditions of the radical reformation (who reject the very term “sacrament”).
Articles 20, 21, and 23 address some of the basic questions of authority within the Church as a whole. The Bible is put forth as the first and foremost voice of authority to which all else must pay heed. This is often described as the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, though it is sometimes also called prima scripture (Scripture first) in recognition of the fact that the Church herself is “a witness and a keeper of holy Writ” and “hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies,” and may exercise “authority in Controversies of Faith.” These are faithful applications of what Saint Paul wrote of the Church – “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Along with this, the Church is thus also described to have as ministers only those who have been “lawfully called, and sent,” particularly only “by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.” As Anglicans we retain the historic and biblical practice of identifying Bishops (literally, overseers) as the men authorized to ordain and deploy other ministers in the churches.
Articles 22 and 24, then, deal with some of the worship-related controversies of the time. The treatment of Saints, their relics, the ministry of reconciliation through private confession to a priest, and adoration of the Sacrament, were areas in which medieval piety had gotten out of hand. Furthermore, the official liturgy itself was now required to be in the local language of the people, English, rather than clinging to the Latin language which was no longer readily understood by all. Once again, the appeal to the teaching authority of the Scriptures guides our decision-making regarding worship and liturgy. This is a helpful and sober voice in tumultuous times as ours, in which people are often all too quick to appeal either to “the spirit of the age” or to “revered tradition” for their worship-planning decisions.