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Reversing the Reformation?

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Posted by Adam Young, 17 May 2019

Adam Young looks at some recent events in the Church of England which seem to ignore the biblical, and Reformed Protestant, basis of the Church of England.

A number of events have happened in the past few weeks which make one wonder what on earth has happened to this nation’s “Protestant Reformed Religion established by Law.”  This phrase is, of course, is taken from the Coronation Oath, and is meant to describe the Church of England.

More often than ever it seems important to remember what is actually established by law and what is commonly found to be contrary to it.  Canon A5 tells us that:

“The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.  In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.”  — Canon A5

In other words, the doctrine of the Church of England is that of the Bible and those who agree with it. When asked “what do those people who agree with the Bible look like?” — the Church of England replies, “they look like those who uphold the 39 Articles of Religion, the 1662 BCP, and the Ordinal.”

There are no prayers to Mary, or asking for Mary’s prayers, in the BCP. There is no veneration or adoration of statues or images in the BCP. Indeed there are no images or statues at all, nor are there pilgrimages, or a sacramental confession.
Quite the contrary in fact.

“The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, worshipping and adoration as well of Images as of Reliques, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God.” — Article 22 of The 39 Articles

This Article condemns all worshipping and adoration (the Latin version uses the word veneration) of images, be they two dimensional icons or three dimensional statues.

Further teaching on images in relation to the church is found in what Article 35 calls the “godly a wholesome doctrine necessary for these times” of the Homilies. In the three part Homily on Idolatry, most likely written by Bishop Jewel, there is outlined how the use of images in worship is:

1. forbidden by God in the Old Testament and the New Testament, with there being no biblical distinction between religious images and idols or different kinds of worship and veneration (latria and dulia);
2. was absent and opposed in the early church;
3. that men like the apostles and creatures such as angels baulked when people tried to adore them;
4. historically always leads to idolatry.

The Homily “Of Prayer” likewise expands on how the invocation, praying to, or asking for prayers from the departed saints is unhelpful and unbiblical. Instead we must lift up our hearts and put our trust solely in Christ Jesus who alone is our mediator and advocate in heaven.

With such clear rejection of images and statues and the invoking, venerating, or communicating with the departed saints it is easy to understand why the past few weeks have been somewhat bewildering.

I struggle to find anything Protestant or Reformed (or legally established) about the recent parading and placing of the statue of “Our Lady of Walsingham” before the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey, along with the associated devotions before, and pilgrimages to, images.

Likewise, it is odd that the Archbishop of Canterbury would promote a guide for Thy Kingdom Come—itself a great and worthy initiative— helping us to be “praying with Mary for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit.” This ‘Journey with Mary’ would have us petition Mary to “Be with us now as we await his Holy Spirit. Pray with us now ‘Come Holy Spirit’” and includes the classic “Hail Mary” including the invocation asking Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

In addition to these Marian-focussed events, Lichfield Cathedral began a drive to raise £300,000 to purchase a bronze statue of St Chad. The Cathedral seems to have missed the irony of calling for such a sum for a statue of a man they gladly tell us “maintained a life of poverty and simplicity”! 

Finally, the report from the Church of England on the so called ‘Seal of the Confessional’ was released.  This report fails to take seriously the fundamental question of whether or not the Church of England has ever taught the Seal of the Confessional or even ever had a ‘Confessional’ as such would generally be understood.  The whole report seems rather wrongheaded, based on unproven assumptions, and relies on circular arguments to reach its conclusions—see Andrew Atherstone’s stellar article addressing this here.

The statues, the images, the invocation of saints, and the elevation of Mary to what the Walsingham Blog Facebook page called “the centre of our National Life both physically and spiritually” it would seem that the words of the Homilies are once again, sadly, “necessary for these times.”

See also this previous article by Lee Gatiss, expressing similar concerns a few yers ago.

The Revd Adam Young is a minister in the Diocese of York

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