E.J. Bicknell on the History of Subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles
Sunday, June 2, 2019 at 02:44PM
Embryo Parson in 39 Articles, Anglo-Calvinism

One will encounter Anglicans of a specific stripe, J.I. Packer for instance, who argue that the 39 Articles are in essence a confession of faith, almost equal in importance to the Nicene Creed, if not of equal importance.  Here Bicknell belies that notion, and provides us with a clear warrant not only to interpret the Articles in light of the prayer book, and not the other way around, but to subordinate them to the much earlier and weightier authorities of the Creed and the Fathers.  Note the bolded emphases:

Up to 1571 subscription was required only of members of Convocation.  The Queen had not allowed the Articles to be submitted to Parliament.  But the open breach with Rome in 1570 and the Pope’s excommunication of the Queen obliged her to turn to Parliament in order to strengthen her hands.  In 1571 an Act was passed requiring that everyone under the degree of a Bishop who had been ordained by any form other than that set forth by Parliament in the reign of Edward VI, or the form in use under Elizabeth, should subscribe “to all Articles of Religion, which only concern the confession of the true Christian faith and the doctrine of the Sacraments.”  This was aimed at men ordained under Mary.  Further, in future no one was to be admitted to a benefice “except he ... shall first have subscribed the said Articles”.  The Act was ingeniously drawn up in the interests of the Puritans.  By the insertion of the word “only” subscription was made to include no more than the doctrinal Articles: the Articles on discipline were evaded.  However, in 1571, after the final revision by Convocation, Convocation on its own authority required subscription to all the Articles in their final form.  This was enforced by the Court of High Commission, though at times with less strictness.  In 1583, Archbishop Whitgift provided a form of subscription included in the Three Articles. All the clergy were to subscribe to these.  The first asserted the Royal Supremacy.  The second contains an assertion of the Scripturalness of the whole Prayer-book and a promise to use the said book and no other in public worship.  The third runs “That I allow the Book of Articles of Religion agreed upon by the Archbishops and Bishops of both provinces and the whole Clergy in Convocation holden at London in the year of our Lord God 1562 and set forth by Her Majesty’s authority and do believe all the Articles therein contained to be agreeable to the Word of God.”  In this way subscription was once more strictly enforced.  In 1604 the Three Articles received the authority of Convocation, being embodied after small alteration in the Canons of 1604 and ratified by the King.  The actual form ran: “I ... do willingly and ex animo subscribe to these three articles above mentioned and to all things that are contained in them.”  This form remained in force in spite of various attempts to relax the stringency of it.  In practice the form usually employed ran: “I ... do willingly and from my heart subscribe to the 39 Articles of Religion of the United Church of England and Ireland, and to the three Articles in the 30th Canon, and to all things therein contained.”  In 1865, as the result of a Royal Commission, Convocation obtained leave from the Crown to revise the Canons.  A new and simpler declaration of Assent was drawn up by the Convocations of Canterbury and York and confirmed by royal letters patent.  Today the candidate for ordination is required to subscribe to the following: “I ... do solemnly make the following declaration, I assent to the 39 Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer and of ordering of Bishops Priests and Deacons.  I believe the doctrine of the Church of England therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God and in public prayer and administration of the Sacraments I will use the form in the said book prescribed and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority.”  Two points need to be noted.

      (i) The Church has demanded subscription to the Articles from the clergy and the clergy only.  The fifth Canon of 1604 at most demands from the laity that they shall not attack them.  If other bodies such as the Universities have in earlier days required subscription from their members, they were responsible for the requirement, and not the Church.

      (ii) The change of language in the form of subscription was deliberate.  We are asked to affirm today, not that the Articles are all agreeable to the Word of God, but that the doctrine of the Church of England as set forth in the Articles is agreeable to the Word of God.  That is, we are not called to assent to every phrase or detail of the Articles but only to their general sense.  This alteration was made of set purpose to afford relief to scrupulous consciences.†  (A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of of the Church of England, pp. 20-21.  Bolded emphases mine.)

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