This was originally published as an introductory piece for a lengthy series on the 39 Articles of Religion. The series includes writers from the Anglican Church in North America and the Episcopal Church in a collaborative effort. You can find my original post here or click here to see the whole series (still being published daily at the time of this post) because it is very much worth your time!

Like many elements of Anglican theology and practice, the 39 Articles of Religion are often used as a means of division rather than having a unifying effect. You can divide Anglicans into any grouping you desire (i.e. High, Low, and Broad or 4 streams, or Anglo-Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical, and Classical etc. etc.) and you will find the 39 Articles at the core of each grouping. It is not that the Articles are a driving factor in the distinctives and charisms of a particular Anglican sub-set, but that one’s churchmanship often drives how one reads, interprets, and values the Articles.

Let the reader be warned from the outset: this blog series is not designed to value or highlight one reading over another. This is not a series for Anglo-Catholics, Reformation Anglicans, or cradle Episcopalians. This is a blog for anyone who is an Anglican Christian and is looking for a resource to accompany their reading of the ArticlesIn particular, this introductory post will not settle anything but rather seeks to provide a lens through which or a framework by which we read this historic document together.

One of my mentors in the earliest days of my ministry training, Bishop Fitzsimmons Allison, would often remark that, “Those who think the English Reformation was about King Henry’s marriage(s) deserve Henry.” I believe we should add to this statement that such people would also be deserving of Henry’s 6 Articles.

As with many elements within Anglican thought there is little to no agreement as to what the Articles are, what they mean, or why they matter. To quote the famous philosopher, Humpty Dumpty, words can mean anything we want them to as long as we “pay them enough.” Sadly, or perhaps confusingly, the language of the Articles has been paid a great price by every stripe and corner of the Anglican Communion and extant are a plethora of interpretations, applications, and meditations as to how they should function in our common life.

Though a tiresome analogy, the concept of Anglicanism as being a “big tent” is not entirely worn out and can be useful in the proper setting.  One can take shelter under the expansive covering inside the tent and feel at home. As Anglicans, we organize ourselves based on our reception of the prayer book, our understanding of ordination, our theological interpretation of the sacraments, our vestments, and so on and so forth. We treat the Articles as something by which we can organize once inside the tent and I believe this is where we get into trouble. We have expended and exerted such great energy in making sure that the tent is large and exhaustive, but we have done this to the detriment of making sure the tent is held up by sturdy posts and nailed down around the outside with stakes and markers.

If you will allow me to continue using the analogy here, my goal is to provide this significant blog series with the framework by which we can read the Articles together. This introductory post is not an attempt to settle the meaning of specific Articles once and for all, but rather to attempt to look through and beyond the varying camps of churchmanship in order to see the foundation underneath. Originally, I intended this essay to be a setting of the table for the other authors in the series but I now see that it is more of a fencing of the table (liturgical pun intended). At the end of the day, we may still disagree as to the importance of the Articles and what some of them may mean, but when we honestly read them together in their proper context, we are engaged in something that is building up the community of faith rather than tearing it down.

Context is everything. Many Anglicans get themselves into trouble when they begin ripping the Articles out of the historical context in which they were originally compiled and for which they were intentionally written. The same is true of biblical interpretation but we have no problem labeling such carelessness as “proof texting.” This ought to be applied universally when it comes to the Articles. Any interpretation of an individual article or the whole collection which does not pay attention to historical context is automatically starting from a place of deficiency and bias. The unique and precise historical situation which is the English Reformation, as seen through the lens of Cranmer’s liturgical revolution, the long-standing tradition of translating the Bible into English, and the need for the Elizabethan Settlement all provide the rich soil out of which our Articles grew.

We must treat the Articles as a contiguous collection, as a text which was written by a specific people, for a specific people, and during a specific historical, political, socio-economical, and theological context. Just as one cannot ignore Romans 9-11 while interpreting Paul’s letter to the church in Rome or neglect to pay adequate attention to the more “difficult” verses, passages, and books (has anyone read Job, Leviticus, or Ecclesiastes?!) of the Bible, so too must we take the Articles as a whole and not just the sum of its parts.

The language of the Articles can also provide an interpretive battle ground. We find ourselves caught up in asking questions such as, “But what does it mean when the Reformers used the word ‘transubstantiation?’” or making comments about “what they really meant to say was…” No text is without interpretation, but we find ourselves on faulty ground when we ignore the literal, grammatical meaning of the document in an attempt to “pay” it enough to make it say what we want it to say.

For those of us today who are worshipping in the Anglican tradition around the globe, the 39 Articles provide the boundaries within which we find ourselves existing ecclesially. The tent is held up by those truths which we cannot ignore, the commitments we have made as Anglican Christians for centuries. We are held up by Scripture, Prayer Book, Creed, historic episcopate (locally adapted), sacraments. There can be no argument here. The tent is staked to the ground (Cranmerian pun intended) by the Articles because together as one cohesive and comprehensive unit do they provide the boundaries and fencing we so desperately need.

What then do the Articles provide for us? With the understanding that they are neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, one can see that the Articles provide the rules for our own language game, the building blocks for our distinct way of doing theology, and the stakes which hold down the tent. Perhaps our attention would be better spent figuring out what it means to wrestle with the issues and questions of our present day along the same lines as the Reformers of the 16th century instead of arguing about what the Reformers actually meant as we seek to parse out Rome, Canterbury, Geneva, and Wittenberg.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer includes the Articles within the section “Historical Documents” sandwiched between the Athanasian Creed and Preface to the First BCP on one side and the Lambeth Quadrilateral on the other. Do we find this to be a coincidence? The Creed and Preface are foundational to our belief and the Quadrilateral is a measuring tool for ecumenical relationships…and the Articles float betwixt the two. That they are included in the BCP at all suggests they are important for our common life and worship; that they are included in the “Historical Documents” section implies that they are a historical hook upon which we can hang our hats; that they are next to the Quadrilateral could be seen as an attempt to use the Articles as a means of differentiating ourselves from other Christian traditions. Is this not in fact the very situation the Reformers were in? Were they not trying to differentiate the Church of England, the ecclesia Anglicana, from the Church of Rome and the reformations on the continent? You would be hard pressed to argue otherwise.

There is more, much more, to be said on many of these important issues but the Reformers have helped us by providing a standard against which we cannot nor should not seek to wander. The questions asked and answered in this blog series have a great deal to do with living and applying the Articles within a 21st century, North American Anglican context and exploring what they may mean for our common life together. Join us on this journey as we read together, setting aside biases of churchmanship and school theology, and allow yourself to ponder answer the pressing questions of today as read and examine through the guiding framework of the Articles.

The tent is as big and as expansive as ever, friends, but it is not limitless. We have boundaries, stakes if you will, which outline the tent as if saying, “You may go no further.” There is freedom within fences, as the adage goes, and plenty of room to run and play, but the markers are always and only meant to protect, guide, and ensure the passing along of tradition as we have received it. Do not cast the Articles aside as irrelevant because that is lazy; do not make them into more than they are because that is proof texting; do not continue the arguments over language and theological minutiae because that only isolates within the community. Let them be what they are: a theological response to distinct controversy and unique division within a historical context…and a model by which we can continue living as Anglican Christians in the world today.

This is a sonnet I penned for the Writer’s Guild at our church. The prompt was “Rite of Passage” and my mind immediately turned toward baptism. Enjoy! It was originally published here on my old blog, “The Liturgical Theologian.”

Rite of Passage: A Sonnet

A journey through water and into lightThe response of faith to the beckoning call

A night brighter than any day or night

The riteful passage offered one and all

Death and life, descent and ascent

The grace of our Lord ne’er will relent

Draw near the font, feel the water cover you

Into the triune name you are now placed

The glory of the Lord shines around you

A joy so palpable you can almost taste

As you’re washed by his love, grace may astound you

Come sinner, come beggar, make haste

It’s a rite of passage, a loving initiation

New birth, new life, beloved, new creation

This piece was first published on my previous blog, “The Liturgical Theologian,” on July 12, 2017 and can be found here.

Perhaps it’s just me and my upbringing in northern Virginia, but I can distinctly remember thinking the local our Catholic parish was weird because when I received communion there is was always and only a wafer. No wine. Anyone else with me? A few confessions are in order here: first, by “my upbringing” I simply refer to the fact that I was part of a fairly low Episcopal Church and had no personal real commitment to Anglican worship, polity, or anything during my youth. Second, I definitely received communion at a local Catholic parish despite being a baptized Episcopalian. Third, I only attended Saturday evening mass at St. James because I played on a successful, travel soccer team and we often had games on Sunday mornings. Arrest me, I know (alas, perhaps another post for another time).

Seriously though, I often thought to myself growing up—and can unfortunately remember numerous conversations attempting to proselytize others—that the Catholics were both weird and wrong for withholding wine from the Faithful. And the current articles/essays/blog pieces going around about the Vatican saying “no” to Gluten-free bread creates the potential for a seemingly interesting “one kind” situation for those with Gluten intolerance. You can read Sarah Pulliam Bailey here and Emma Winters hereon the issue for further information (hint: they both dispel the idea that low Gluten wafers are bad for those with an intolerance).

Fast forward twenty years: I am now an Anglican priest, PhD student in liturgical theology, and I haven’t had communion in both kinds in over 16 months. Why? Because I’m an alcoholic.

Before we go off the deep end here, please read my words clearly: I am not suggesting that all alcoholics in recovery must abstain from partaking the blood of Christ every Sunday. That is way above my pay grade and none of my business. I am also similarly aware that the Vatican has approved the use of mustum (grape juice with less than 1% alcohol content) for use during Holy Eucharist.

That said, being one who partakes of only the bread for 16 months has caused me to reflect on my childhood naiveté and more recent experiences.

You would assume that I would be the first person to insist upon having wine at Eucharist. And no, not because I’m an alcoholic, despite that being the obvious logic! You would make that assumption because my doctoral research is devoted to liturgical theology and what happens in worship, particularly sacramental worship. As I priest I regularly administer the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, to the faithful. Wouldn’t I—nay, shouldn’t I—partake as well?

Here’s what I’ve learned…

  1. I am not receiving a lesser Sacrament or being robbed of a sacramental experience. My involvement in the Eucharist is the same as it always has been: active, prayerful, grateful, expectant. I’m not missing out on anything by virtue of having only one element instead of two. There is no noticeable shift in my own awareness and no less grace conferred, either.
  2. The Eucharist, for me, has become more about the giving of thanks rather than the reception or partaking of elements. I have much to be thankful for in my life: an incredibly supportive and loving wife, three amazing children, a business, a PhD program, my sobriety…the list goes on and on. I have the opportunity to give thanks to my Heavenly Father during the Eucharist for this and for so much more. The point of the Eucharist, first and foremost, is for the church to gather for the source and summit of her worship by giving thanks, directing the praise of creation back to Creator, and self-offering before the Lord. Have we lost sight of this in our post-Reformation debates upon substance, change, and consecration?
  3. The significance of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not a matter of elemental change or discovering the moment of consecration. My awareness of Christ’s presence, or at least my openness to his activity and agency in worship has changed. Christ is present in the Eucharist, with his people, in the act of thanksgiving, in the offering of praise and prayer, and in the breaking of bread. Jesus is not somehow absent to me and more fully present to another because I no longer drink from the chalice or intinct my bread. The Eucharist is a whole service, not just one part of something larger. In the prayers of God’s people, in the reading of Scripture, in the sermon, and in Communion, Christ is present. My job is to encounter him there and not to locate him solely in bread or wine.

The focus on Eucharist in one kind or in two shifts radically the meaning of the Eucharist from what it should be. I’m not arguing for an anything goes mentality when it comes to sacramental worship, far from it! I’m advocating for a deeper, more robust, thicker sacramental experience and encounter. I’m learning on a Sunday by Sunday basis, and one day at a time, that Jesus beckons me—and all of us—to his table not simply for bread and wine or Body and Blood but for participation in the wedding feast, joining the Eschatological banquet table in a foretaste, participating in the self-giving, overflowing love of the Trinity.

My appreciation for the Eucharist—and I daresay my understanding—has grown significantly in the last 16 months. It feels as though things have been put into sharper perspective by virtue of opting out of the wine and that primary issues have once again become primary (and therefore secondary issues have returned to being secondary). I’m sure that I’ll have more to say on the subject as I am further changed by the liturgy and my lengthening time in recovery, but at this point I can say that it is “right to give him thanks and praise.”

“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”[1]

You May Also Enjoy: On Being an Alcoholic and Liturgical Muggles and Losing the Sacramental Imagination

[1] Taken from the 1979 BCP, Rite II.