This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 36 states:
XXXVI. Of Consecration of Bishops and Ministers
The Book of Consecration of Archbishops and Bishops, and Ordering of Priests and Deacons, lately set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth, and confirmed at the same time by authority of Parliament, doth contain all things necessary to such Consecration and Ordering: neither hath it any thing, that of itself is superstitious and ungodly. And therefore whosoever are consecrated or ordered according to the Rites of that Book, since the second year of the forenamed King Edward unto this time, or hereafter shall be consecrated or ordered according to the same Rites; we decree all such to be rightly, orderly, and lawfully consecrated and ordered.
Earlier, Article 23 dealt with the issue of ordination: “It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office… before he be lawfully called, and sent” and that they be “chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation”. As explained in that commentary article, these statements at face value could be found in nearly every Christian tradition; only the extreme outliers have no place for ordination and allow anyone to declare himself a pastor. But, as also explained there, the Anglican position on who those “authorized ministers” are that call and send new ministers is nearly unique among Protestants.
Article 36, here, provides the primary context to the answer to this question.
Alongside the Prayer Book and The 39 Articles sits also the Ordinal – “The Book of Consecration of Archbishops and Bishops, and Ordering of Priests and Deacons”. In modern times, the liturgies of the Ordinal have simply been printed within the Prayer Book itself. Basically, Article 36 declares that the Ordinal the Church in England had been using for the past couple decades was valid and biblical. We intend to keep the historic three-fold Orders (Bishop, Priest, Deacon), and the prayers and gestures (such as the laying-on of hands) prescribed in the Ordinal are not “superstitious and ungodly.”
This statement was issued against two opposite accusations. On one side, the Roman Catholic hierarchy had been denouncing the English Ordinal as an invalid liturgy, and therefore asserting that every Anglican ordination was invalid. Article 36 is our basic statement that we reject such claims; our ordination ceremonies may not have been as fancy and ornate as the Roman version, but they still count! On the other side were the staunch Calvinists, who would soon become known as Puritans. They argued that the office of Bishop and Priest is one and the same, and that the English Ordinal was in error to separate those offices of ministry. Furthermore, they disliked the forms of liturgy used in the Ordinal (and indeed in much of the Prayer Book as well). Article 36 is our basic statement against them, too, asserting that our ordinations are biblical and not superstitious.
To this day, the same tensions and opposition persists. Roman-Anglican relations continued to decrease over time until eventually an official proclamation from the Pope declared the Anglican order of ministry entirely invalid. Anglican Bishops put forth counter-arguments, and the debates continue to this day. Relations with Presbyterians and other Protestants also decreased over time, especially after the Puritan revolution (the English Civil War) turned religious disputes into a bloody battle for supremacy. Anglicans are among the only Protestants in the world committed to the three-fold order of bishops, priests, and deacons, which is why in several countries we’ve become known as “Episcopalians” – coming from the Greek word episkopos, from which the word bishop is derived.
Although the theological and biblical arguments have advanced over the past few centuries, Article 36 remains a solid part of our confession: we firmly believe that our Orders of ministry are valid and biblical, despite others’ arguments to the contrary.
Finally, it should be noted that Article 36 does not bind our tradition to that one Ordinal alone. The Scottish Episcopal Church (Anglicanism in Scotland) by necessity had to have its own Ordinal distinct from the Church of England. From that Scottish liturgy the American Prayer Book and Ordinal was formed, once the colonies became independent. Most Anglican Provinces across the world have their own Ordinals. The argument of Article 36 does not require us all to have Ordinals that are exactly the same in every detail, but substantially the same in content. Nevertheless, changes should not be made lightly, and to that end it was the Ordinal that the Anglican Church in North America composed first in the process of reconstructing its biblical and liturgical identity apart from the errors of the Episcopal Church, USA.