Article XX: Of the authority of the Church
This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.
Article XX: Of the authority of the Church
The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ: yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.
This is not the first time we have dealt with scripture in the 39 Articles. Again we encounter the primacy of scripture as a central Anglican claim. While some progressives might want to undercut this idea, it is clear that from the beginning, Anglican Christianity has sought truth in the scriptures first.
It is easy to say, “I follow the scriptures.” It is harder to do it, especially if one claims to be following all of scripture. Any student of scripture — that is, anyone who has actually read the Bible — will know that scriptures contain contradictions. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is an interpreter of scripture. We must make choices about which bits to follow and which bits to ignore.
When we are willing to step back a bit, we can claim to follow the arc of scripture. There are certain themes which are present from Genesis right on through Revelation. I think we are safe when we seek to be in accordance with ideas such as God’s utter holiness, our need to be obedient, and our need to love others. (This is not an exhaustive list!)
The problem with the Church claiming to follow the scriptures alone is that there is very little in the scriptures about the Church. And there is plenty in the scriptures that we seem willing to ignore. How many Christians are quick to follow the commandment to “do this in memory of me” when it comes to Holy Communion, but are much less willing to wash feet as Jesus also commanded? Not to mention our unwillingness to sell all our possessions and then give our money to the poor.
We are on much more solid ground if we acknowledge that we follow scriptures, church traditions, and reason — guided by the Holy Spirit. I think many contemporary Christians turn to the scriptures to confirm their ideas from reason, rather than using our reason to confirm what we find in the scriptures. In other words, I agree with this Article that scripture ought to be first in authority. However, it is much more complicated than “scripture says it; I believe it; that settles it.”
Recently I have heard Episcopalians say, “The General Convention is the chief authority in our church.” Bah. Our authority comes from Jesus Christ through the scriptures, two millennia of tradition, and Spirit-guided reason. One begins to understand why a counterclaim for authority made it into the Articles. The most important thing on which to agree is that the church’s authority is divine, not human. That authority may be articulated by human institutions such as General Convention or groups of bishops or the voices of laity, but the authority is not ours.
Christ has sent us an Advocate in the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. The story is surely told best in the scriptures. So with good reason we should turn first to the scriptures in our quest for what is holy, good, and true. Then let us receive the Word with our eyes and minds opened by the Spirit.
Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:
- Can the Church turn to the scriptures alone as our authority?
- Are the scriptures authoritative, or is it the Gospel they proclaim which is authoritative? How would we know the difference?
- Should the Church ever teach something that contradicts any part of the scriptures?
- Are all portions of the scriptures equally binding on us as individuals or as a Church?
Almighty and everlasting God, from whom cometh every good and perfect gift: Send down upon our bishops, and other clergy, and upon the congregations committed to their charge, the healthful Spirit of thy grace: and, that they may truly please thee, pour upon them the continual dew of thy blessing. Grant this, O Lord, for the honor of our Advocate and Mediator, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Image courtesy of flickr user Leo Reynolds.