It does seem rather strange. And how might it end? For example, might it be that one day clergy have only to assent to their belief in some such book, the Bible, existing, without actually having to consent to being bound to what lies therein?
Actually, as I write this, I am hearing the voices of liberal protestants saying, 'exactly' - it exists but we all interpret it differently so we decide for ourselves to what we assent. I know Anglicanism is wonderful because it is 'the via media' par excellence but we need to have some integrity surely?
So, how do we go about this?
Rowan Williams has written about how churches in the West are deeply restless. As a consequence of this, we sometimes rush to positivism, even fundamentalism. We have to express that there is one statement of the truth. Are we doing so for the right reasons, all of the time? If we are overly wary about doing this, we should be equally cautious about swallowing the western liberalist agenda. We have to be critical. We actually need to be modest about claims to be right.
The ethos of classic Anglicanism is a historical spirituality as expressed in the 39 articles and the BCP. It is authoritarian. We have attempted perhaps to make it less so.When we make these changes, it is necessary as we seek to proclaim the message afresh but we still need for that continuity with the past.
Scripture is central. Even reformers like Cranmer preserved the Bishops, Deacons and Priests and reused some medieval liturgy. But he was also sure to communicate the justifying grace of God. Cranmer also had a heart for the equality of the members of the body of Christ. His emphasis lay less on preaching and more on scripture and he dreamed of the whole commonwealth gathering daily around the daily office and around the sacraments on a Sunday.
The via media is about a modesty about human knowing about God. We are limited and sinful and we need to remember that whilst He is certain, we are not. The Church is a fallen and corrupt institution. Accordingly, it must be a modest Church about what it claims to know. Compared with Lutherism or the Reformed Confessions of faith, the 39 articles is thin, it has a flimsiness which is good, it only contains strong statements about the few things that really deserve it.
We need to be modest about what we know about God and the authority of the Church. We are all working it out together. God communicates perfectly but we hear imperfectly.
Hooker believed in the infallibility of the scriptures but he also believed that God has made his ways known to the Church in other ways. And you have to admit that there are a number of things left free to the church to work out. The Bible does not give us a blueprint for organising his church. We have to work it out under the guidance of the Spirit.
Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation but lest we fall into fundamentalism, we must also see that it acts to take us to Christ in whom we have salvation and we have to work out how to be church now, today!
Sola scriptura, perhaps, but it is not simply Bible alone. We refer to the Bible as the word of God but the Word is Christ. His is the authority of the Bible, pointing to a triune God as authority. If you look at the first five articles of the 39, they are about God before they are about the Bible.
Hooker contrasted Moses and Christ. Can we talk of Moses as the law-giver, where Christ was not? The word of the Lord in the Old Testament was temporary but we have the living word – Jesus Christ.
In a sense, the Daily Office helps us to appreciate the Living Word and guards us against a sola scriptura funadamentalism because when we encounter Scripture as Church and not as individual believers it reminds us that we are community. We are accountable to each other and to God. We read the scriptures Christocentrically because Christ is the centre.
In view of this, I am pretty sure I will assent to more than just the existence of the 39 articles.
Some of what I have written here follows my reflections after a morning spent with Alan Bartlett. Author of 'Humane Christianity' and lecturer at Durham.