Article XIX: Of the Church
This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.
Article XIX: Of the Church
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.
This Article, of course, provides the justification for the Reformation itself. The Church, it claims, is present when God’s word is correctly proclaimed and the sacraments are rightly offered. If these conditions are not present, then neither is the Church present. In order to free itself from the error of the Church of Rome, the Church in England needed to assert its independence and to restore the Gospel. You see the same sorts of arguments playing out today in lots of places, not least within the Anglican Communion. Some will say, “your church has erred, and so we must distance ourselves from you”.
Back in the 16th century, the Church in England used these claims without any acknowledgement that no gathering of the Church is perfect, and plenty of folks continue to make this mistake. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” could apply equally well to ecclesiology. This is not to say that it is wrong to point out error when we see it. But we should be careful in how we do this.
The Church is a wonderful place, filled with God’s presence in a palpable way so much that the Church becomes an icon of God’s Kingdom. And the Church is also a terribly disappointing place, where human avarice, pride, and hypocrisy are quite real as well. Just as we should see both God’s presence and our own sinfulness within ourselves, we should do the same within the Church.
History should teach us that, while the Church has clung steadfastly to much of our faith, we have also grown in our understanding of certain matters. “Christ is risen!” has been claimed from the beginning. “War is always wrong!” and “War can be right at times!” have both been claimed at one moment or another, and some portions of the universal church still claim each of these today.
Now, all this said, I have no particular objection with someone claiming that their own church best represents Christ’s mission. I, for example, am passionate about Anglican Christianity. But I think it is one step too far for me — or anyone else — to claim that one’s own church is wholly holy and others are wholly wrong.
So while I agree that the Churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome have erred, I must also assume that the Church in England and everywhere else will also err. But then, when we allow ourselves to be purified by God’s word and healed by the right administration of the sacraments, we can banish error and find truth. It’s a constant struggle. If we say we have no error, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sin, then the Church can be made real.
Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:
- Is one branch of the Church filled with error or truth more than others? Why?
- Where is error found in our own branch of the Church? What about your own congregation?
- Is the Church universal filled with truth (and error)? What truths transcend our error?
- How can we purify our church from error?
Gracious Father, we pray for they holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.
Image courtesy of flickr user Leo Reynolds.