39 Articles—The Visible and Invisible Church (5)
Mar 9, 2018
We have seen how the Reformation’s rediscovery of sola scriptura reset both the authority of the Church and General Councils (Article 20 and 21) and how necessary it is that the visible church must remain within the bounds of the invisible or serious doctrinal error is the inevitable result (Article 22). Article 23 then applies sola scriptura in the calling of ministers.
XXIII—Of Ministering in the CongregationIt is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.
The wording of the article has not changed from Cranmer’s 1553 original. The title dates from 1571 and the term “congregation” should be understood as it was in articles 19 and 20 that preceded it.
Recalling article 17 on predestination and election, article 23's position in the narrative of the Thirty-nine Articles helps us to understand “lawfully called” ministers from a more biblical standpoint. The Bible has a number of things to say about election and calling. It stresses that the first and most fundamental calling of God who had decreed by his secret counsel to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he has chosen in Christ out of mankind and to bring them through Christ to eternal salvation as vessels made for honor. Hence God calls people by his Spirit working within them (invisibly) and by grace they obey the calling (e.g., Rom. 8:28-30). They are freely justified and made sons and daughters of God by adoption. Once we have been adopted into his family, we are called to walk faithfully in good works (visibly), being made in the likeness of Christ. This is the important invisible/visible distinction of Christ's church. Because Anglican theology sets out that the church of Christ is established by an inward call and election of God into an outward and visible congregation, one must understand the nature of a ministerial call similarly.
The right to ministerial office is a right bestowed on individuals first by Christ himself, the Head of the Church, and any appointment without such a calling from him is null and void. This is the immediate and direct inward call of the minister. The right to exercise the office is conferred by Christ through the outward confirming call of the church by its authorized representatives, where the man is “tried, examined, and known to have such qualities that are requisite” [Cranmer, 1662 BCP Ordinal Preface], an ordination that solemnly sets apart (“sends”) the individual so chosen to the public office of ministry: “And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.” It would be wrong to see a minister’s inward calling merely as a subjective prompting of the Holy Spirit, countering the Anabaptist claim of the time and one that persists to this day.
Thus, the article sets its limits within sola scriptura. The office is Christ’s, and the title to enter into the office is from Christ also, “And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God” (Heb. 5:4). It is the “Lord of the harvest” who is “to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38). It is God, “who has made us sufficient to be ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:6). The first hallmark of a minister “lawfully called.” Next, we read how in Titus 1:5, Paul gives to Titus the responsibility of appointing elders in every town and is given the characteristics for which he should look. Both Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 emphasize that godliness of character is primary. This is to be looked for both in their conduct and habits as well as in their family relationships. They are to be “above reproach” and therefore have a good public reputation. What is more, they should not be recent converts (1 Tim. 3:6), lest they become “puffed up.” There is an additional vital requirement for the presbyter/overseer (priest/bishop), they must be ‘able to teach’ (1 Tim. 3:2), “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). The first duty of the presbyter/overseer is to preach and teach the pure word of God as Christ’s ministers, or the church is not established (Article 19).
A further historical note is in how article 23 sets out the office of minister in alignment with article 19 but with one subtle but significant change. Article 23 has the disjunctive “or,” “…the office of publick preaching, or the ministering of the sacraments in the Congregation… (…munus publice praedicandi, aut administrandi sacramenta), rather than article 19’s copulative “and,” “…the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments… (…Verbum Dei purum praedicatur et sacramenta…). When the articles were promulgated in 1571, it would not be unusual to go years without hearing a sermon preached. Nehemiah Wallington recorded how his father John, coming to London in 1572, went eight years without hearing a sermon preached at St. Leonard’s, Eastcheap (Hunt, Art of Hearing, 188). As Archbishop Grindal’s bold letter to Queen Elizabeth in that same year explained, “an infinite number of your Majesty’s subjects, for want of preaching of the word (the only ordinary means of salvation of souls)” are perishing [Collinson, Archbishop Grindal, 18]. All ministers were licensed to administer the sacraments and read sermons (hence Article 35), but not to preach. There was a want of preaching, more rather, of good preaching. Undermining the likelihood of systemic reform in preaching was the practice of pluralism which continued well into the 18th century. To increase a clerical stipend, pluralism granted ministers the right to hold pastoral office in multiple parishes of sufficient distance so that the pastor could not possibly officiate at each local church. It was often the case that one or more parish had no minister and no preacher. Striving to keep costs low gave the minister no real incentive to appoint an assistant curate in their place that was likely equipped or licensed to preach. The reform of the want of good preaching was glacially slow, and it would come at great cost to many godly ministers, receive many setbacks, and take many decades.