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Scripture wins in the Church of England

Jesus answered, “It is written…” // What then shall we say…? What does Scripture say?

At a recent gathering of local clergy, the hot topic of the Church’s teaching on marriage came up. A vicar stood up and told us, with great confidence, that the Church of England has always held to four authorities for its decisions: Scripture, tradition, reason and lived experience. In other words, the Bible, whose teaching is of course inconvenient to those who want change in these matters, is only one of at least four sources the Church should look to for God’s guidance.

I’ve heard, and read, this view stated many times. Some see it as at the heart of Anglicanism, and attribute a version of it to the great theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600). But is this actually the position of the Church of England?

I hope what follows doesn’t sound too dry and boring – but it really matters.

Canon A5 of the laws of the Church says: 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 [the ordination service]. The ancient Fathers and the Councils of the Church – whose teachings going back over 2,000 years we might call “tradition” are of much value, but only insofar as they are agreeable to Scripture.

What about the 39 Articles themselves? Article 6 says Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought necessary or requisite to salvation. Here is articulated the sufficiency of Scripture for salvation: we don’t need anything else.

That is not to say that the Church cannot write liturgies or rule in controversial matters. But these must sit under Scripture. Article 20: 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 any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written… (General Synod, please note!)

This, surely, settles the matter. In the official teaching of the Church of England, Scripture does not sit alongside other authorities, but is supreme over them. (For examples of this in the Articles, see Articles 8, 18, 19, 21).

What, then, of the place of ‘tradition’ and ‘reason’? In a posthumously published chapter, distinguished theologian J.I.Packer shows that in Anglicanism, respecting ‘tradition’ means taking account of how Christians of the past have read Scripture and fitted together its doctrines: this will enrich us, and guards us against unbiblical innovation. As for ‘reason’, this is means using our heads to study Scripture carefully; Packer calls this ‘receptive’ reason to distinguish it from a concept of ‘reason’ as autonomous personal views which could be set against the Bible. Richard Hooker, argues Packer, took this view himself, and has been misrepresented.

The Church’s ‘collect’ or official prayer for this coming Sunday is justly famous:
Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.