Thirty-nine Articles

A doctrinal statement of the sixteenth century arising out of the controversies of the period, and defining the position of the Church of England* in relation to them. The Articles were not intended to be creedal, or a complete theological system. Their origin can be traced to the Ten Articles* of 1536, a compromise statement designed to establish Christian “quietness and unity” at a time of revolution, when the separation between church and state was just beginning. These Articles were followed in 1537 by the Bishops' Book (revised in 1543 as the King's Book), which expounded certain tenets of Christian doctrine, and dealt with the relationship between the Church of England and Rome. In 1539, when Thomas Cranmer's* influence was declining, the Six Articles* were brought in by Henry VIII* to check the growth of Reformed theology and practice. The year 1553 saw the publication under Edward VI* of the Forty-two Articles,* which were intended to avoid controversy and establish unity “in certain matters of religion”; they were largely the work of Cranmer and Nicholas Ridley.

The history of the Articles was interrupted by the reign of Mary Tudor* and began again under Elizabeth I.* Matthew Parker,* now archbishop of Canterbury, drew up as an interim measure his own profession of faith in the Eleven Articles of 1561. In 1563 Convocation* revised the Forty-Two Articles into thirty- nine-although Elizabeth struck out Article 29 (dealing with the “wicked, who do not eat the body of Christ”) to placate the Romanists, and added an opening clause to Article 20, asserting the authority of the church to decree rites and ceremonies. The Convocation of 1571 restored Article 29, to give us the Thirty- Nine Articles as we now have them. Despite subsequent Prayer Book revision, the Articles have remained unchanged ever since.

The main reasons for enforcing the Articles at that time are set out by Matthew Parker in a letter to the queen dated 24 December 1566: (1) they are concerned with the advancement of true religion; (2) they are agreeable to God's Word; (3) they condemn doctrinal errors; (4) they establish unity. The Articles chiefly cover the Catholic and Reformed doctrines of Scripture, the triune God, salvation, and the church's sacraments and ministry. They should not be regarded as a compromise statement midway between Rome and Geneva, but as an answer to Roman and Anabaptist* extremities.

Assuming that the Thirty-Nine Articles have an interest which is more than historical, their positive function now, as well as in the past, may be conceived as fivefold: (1) to preserve the dogmatic order of the Anglican Church and Communion; (2) to exercise a purifying influence on liturgical and canonical action: (3) to test new teaching; (4) to provide a framework for continuing debate; (5) to maintain the challenge of a biblical and apostolic norm (G.W. Bromiley).

Clerical subscription to the Articles has been required since 1865. In the Report of the Archbishop's Commission (1968), the revision of the Articles, subscription to them and the formula of assent were discussed with an eye to Christian unity; but few positive proposals were made (see esp. pp. 38-45).

W.R. Matthews, The Thirty-Nine Articles (1961): for a critique of the doctrine of the articles; H.E.W. Turner (ed.), The Articles of the Church of England (1964); R.T. Beckwith, “The Problem of Doctrinal Standards” in J.I. Packer (ed.), All in Each Place (1965), pp. 116-27; G.W. Bromiley, “The Purpose and Function of the Thirty-Nine Articles” in P.E. Hughes (ed.), Churchmen Speak (1966), pp. 82-87; D.B. Knox, Thirty-Nine Articles (1967); Report, Subscription and Assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles (1968).