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A Congregation of the Faithful

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 3 Sep 2019

Can Anglican polity rightly be said to be Congregationalist? Lee Gatiss takes a look.

In recent days, there has been some confusion about Anglican polity amongst evangelicals. Some have made the claim that Anglican polity is congregationalist, as part of an attempt to justify the avoidance of heretical super-congregational authorities. That is, they claim that if we wish (quite rightly) to distance ourselves from false teachers within the diocese or national church, we can easily do so, because in Anglicanism the church is really only the local congregation.

Now, it is true, that the Church of England has never seen local parishes as merely “lesser groupings of the faithful”, subordinate to the bishop and diocese, the “real” church. That is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church as seen, for example, in Vatican II which teaches that “the bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent. Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers.” (Sacrosanctum Consilium, E41-42)

The parish is truly the heart of the Church of England. However, that does not mean the parish, or local congregation, is all. Neither does it mean that the bishop and diocese is nothing. The claim some have made, however, is that Article 19 of The Thirty-nine Articles supports the idea that Anglican polity is Congregationalist.

It says in Article 19 that “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men.” But does this mean that a particular local congregation is the church, and the only thing that matters? The article continues “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in 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.” It then talks about some visible churches which have fallen short of this ideal standard. But it doesn’t talk about congregational gatherings in specific buildings, or even small groups meeting in homes. It says “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.”

So the Article is talking about the essential elements, or marks of a church, but not just in a local sense. Cardinal Bellarmine listed 15 marks of true church in De Notis Ecclesiae, part of his massive refutation of Protestantism, De Controversiis Christianiae Fidei (Ingolstadt, 1588). But the Articles give us a snappier definition. The church is a group of faithful Christians with the word of God and the sacraments duly administered. Churches err and go astray if their understanding of the faith, of ceremonies, or of Christian living deviate from the word of God.

It doesn’t say here that bishops or cathedrals are necessary for there to be a church. But equally, it isn’t making the point that every individual congregation is “an island entire of itself” either, or that church is only a local assembly. It can’t be saying that. After all, in the context of the Article itself, the word Church is used of 4 entities far larger than a parish gathering — the Church of Rome, that is, the Roman Catholic Church, being one of them!

The Meaning of “Congregation”
In the historical context of Article 19, the word “congregation” was not used (as some may imagine) exclusively of a small local gathering of Christians anyway. In English during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this could be used not just of particular local meetings, but of the whole visible church on earth. (See this common use in the Congregationalist, John Owen, Works 11:66-67 for example). In Latin, congregatio meant a union, society, or association of various sorts, although the word used in the Latin edition of the Articles is not congregatio anyway, it is cœtus — another general word for a coming together of some sort, a conjoining (yes, including the sexual kind), or just for a company of people.

The word congregation was much employed by Tyndale and other English reformers to translate the biblical Greek word ekklesia. Yet they did this not to restrict the word to a local setting, but actually to widen its meaning. Their point was that the church is not just the Roman clergy under the Pope. As Tyndale says in “In as much as the clergy… had appropriated unto themselves the term [Church] that of right is common unto all the whole congregation of them that believe in Christ… therefore in the translation of the new Testament where I found this word Ecclesia, I interpreted it by this word congregation.” (Section 2 of his Answer to More, from 1530) This is why the Oxford English Dictionary lists Article 19’s use of the word under its definition of congregation “in the sense of the whole body of the faithful, the Church of Christ”, as distinct from the contemporary clericalist connotations.

We can glimpse this essential background to Article 19 in the work of Luther’s Roman Catholic nemesis, John Eck, for example. As he responded to Luther’s teaching on the fallibility of the Pope and the cardinals, he claimed that “the church does not err”, and that “It is clear that, representatively, the Church is her prelates, and leaders gathered together.” To attempt to prove this biblically, Eck points to 1 Kings 8. There it is said that King Solomon “blessed all the church of Israel” (verse 14), which group in verse 1 had been defined as “all the elders of Israel… with the heads of tribes, and the leaders of the families of the children of Israel”, rather than the entire population as such. So, he concludes, “the prelates of the Church are called ‘the Church,’… The Church is shown to you in councils, in the Apostolic See, in bishops and leaders of individual Churches.” (Chapter 1 of his Enchridion of Commonplaces against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church from 1525)

The Protestant Reformers objected to this definition of church. Martin Bucer called Eck’s exegesis of 1 Kings 8 a “stupid subtlety” to prove a “newly-devised fabrication” (see his Commentary on Ephesians 1), though he spoke positively of the biblical and ancient place of bishops rightly understood (Concerning the True Care of Souls, chapter 4). For the Reformers, the church is all those who believe in Christ, not just the clergy, those who even now are sometimes loosely described as having “entered the church.” All who believe in Christ are the church, which is a congregation of faithful, godly people living under the word of God and biblically ordered leadership. That’s what the Reformers were getting at with their use of the word congregation in these contexts. Just as Luther, in the same way, used the German word Gemeinde instead of Kirche sometimes to make the same point.

So, we might gloss Article 19, “The visible church of Christ is not just the clergy and the clerical hierarchy, but a congregation of faithful men.” Or as the Homily for Whitsunday (1563) puts it, “The true church is an universal congregation or fellowship of God’s faithful and elect people.”

This chimes in perfectly with other Reformation-era definitions of the church. So in the Lutheran Augsburg Confesssion (chapter 7), we are told that the church isn’t defined by its hierarchy or its allegiance to the Pope and Cardinals, but by its profession of faith. “The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere.” Outward conformity to the same external practices is not the essence of church unity, which is properly “confessional.” But note, as Article 8 puts it, “Strictly speaking, the Church is the congregation of saints and true believers”, not the clerical hierarchy.

This does not make Lutherans into Congregationalists, of course! Nicholas von Amsdorf became the first Lutheran bishop in the Holy Roman Empire, twenty years after Luther famously mentioned how the Reformation took hold “while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf.” (LW 51:77) Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession talks in detail about the authority of bishops, which is based on their preaching of the word and refutation of error. While “bishops have no authority to decree anything against the Gospel, and should not burden the church with traditions and ceremonies which ensnare people’s consciences,” it says, they can exercise certain powers given to them by the civil power (to hear certain cases of marriage law or tithes, for example). What’s more, they do have, by their spiritual authority, the right to exclude people from the communion of the church. The Lutheran confession was careful to say, “It is not our intention to take oversight away from the bishops.”

The Structure of the Church
The fact that our Article 19 says that the church is a congregation where the word of God is purely preached, does not mean that every gathering to hear God’s word is thereby a church. It is not saying that the church only exists when midweek small groups assemble or Sunday morning congregations get together either. As Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600) explains, the church is a society (the meaning of the Latin congregatio as mentioned above), and it exists regardless of whether it gathers or not. He said, “the Church is always a visible society of men, not an assembly, but a society. For although the name of the Church be given to Christian assemblies, although any multitude of Christian men congregated may be termed by the name of a Church, yet assemblies properly are rather things that belong to a Church. Men are assembled for performance of public actions, which actions being ended, the assembly dissolves itself and is no longer in being, whereas the Church which was assembled, does no less continue afterwards than before.” (Ecclesiastical Polity, 3.1.14)

In the wider context of the Articles, and the Prayer Book in which they are found, it is blindingly obvious that they do not consider a congregation to be “the highest tribunal to which an aggrieved party may appeal”, to quote Congregationalist theologian Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), in his argument against Samuel Rutherford’s Presbyterian church structure (A Survey of the Summe of Church-Discipline, 4.19). Why else do the Articles talk about the jurisdiction of the monarch over the church (Article 37)? Why else do they talk about archbishops and bishops, priests and deacons (Articles 32 and 36)? Why else does the Prayer Book consecrate bishops and archbishops to preach, drive away erroneous doctrine, and administer discipline across their dioceses, in accordance with the canon law of the Church?

Articles 33 and 34 speak about the Church and excommunication (which is reserved to bishops, not local gatherings), and about particular national churches having authority to ordain, change, and abolish rites and ceremonies (which has never been a power given to each parish meeting within Anglican polity). So understood in their own context, the Articles cannot be singling out the local parish assembly in Article 19 as self-contained and supreme, apart from the wider Church, unless they are contradicting themselves rather blatantly. More likely, a more recent narrowly-Congregationalist definition of the word “congregation” has been read back into the Articles and unnaturally imposed upon them.

The proposed Reformation of Church Law (contemporary with the Thirty-nine Articles and drafted by Cranmer and others) was very clear about this. It explains the system of church government and discipline which the Reformers intended to put in place alongside the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. It said,

“Bishops, because they hold the chief place among the other ministers of the church, must therefore govern and pastor the lower orders of the clergy, as well as the whole people of God, with sound doctrine, sober authority and wise counsel, not indeed in order to lord it over their faith, but that they might prove themselves to be true servants of the servants of God. And they shall know that the government / authority and ecclesiastical jurisdiction has been specially entrusted to them for no other reason than that by their ministry and hard work / dedication as many people as possible may be made rich in / joined to Christ…”

It also speaks about the obedience to be shown to such bishops, “to foster harmony” and “for the sake of Christian discipline.” Indeed, Cranmer’s committee outlines the tasks of a bishop as: passing on sound doctrine; conferring holy orders and instituting ministers to benefices as well as removing those who are unworthy; settling complaints and quarrels between ministers and their churches; correcting vices by ecclesiastical censures and excommunicate persistent offenders; visiting the whole diocese regularly; holding synods; confirming people (Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, 20:10-12).

It is very clear from all this that, according to our sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, a local congregation is not the highest tribunal to which an aggrieved party may appeal in Anglican polity. Some people may later have taken the view that Anglican polity is biblically incorrect on this point; but they were always a minority, even amongst the Puritans.

The Ongoing Need to Reform the Church
According to the Reformation of Church Law, a crisis in church leadership requires urgent attention. “Just as the condition of the state is ruined when it is governed by people who are stupid, demanding, and burning with ambition,” it says (and how right it is!), “so in these times the church of God is struggling, since it is committed to the care of those who are totally incompetent to assume so important a task, in which respect it has fallen very far short indeed of those rules of the blessed Paul, which he prescribed to Timothy and Titus. Therefore we must find an appropriate remedy for so serious a plague on our churches.” (Reformatio, 11:1)

I spoke more about the remedy for this plague in my exposition of Titus 1 at the recent JAEC conference. But one of the roles of a bishop, therefore, is to train up godly and effective ministers. In particular, a bishop should also appoint people to “make up for the defects and negligence of the parish priests when need be” (Reformatio, 20:13).

This is the problem today, as it was then: there are defects in the church and some are negligent in their duties when it comes to preaching and living in accordance with the true profession of the gospel, the Protestant Reformed religion. Some are even deliberately undermining that religion, despite having publicly pledged their loyalty to it at their ordinations and consecrations.

So, we must fight valiantly against such strategies of the world, the flesh, and the devil and continue as Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants in the church today. However, we will not do so effectively in the long run if we have a faulty understanding of what Anglican polity actually is, and always has been.

Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society and author of Light After Darkness: How the Reformers Regained, Retold, and Relied On the Gospel of Grace (Christian Focus).

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