The 39: Church and State

Article 37 introduces the final topic of the 39 Articles, the relationship between the Christian and the commonwealth. It is customary for North Americans to dismiss these articles as being very specific to England, but the same principle we have observed throughout our study continues here: the faithfulness of the Anglican articles to the principle of sola scriptura. Therefore, the principles underlined in the last three articles should be read closely rather than dismissed quickly. 


The King’s (1662 – Charles II) Queen’s (1571) Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the King’s (1662) Queen’s (1571) Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.

The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.

The article first appeared in this form through Archbishop Parker’s 1563 revision of the Articles. Cranmer’s original replacing a shorter and stark statement on the royal supremacy either of the Crown: “The King of England is supreme head in earth, next under Christ of the Church of England and Ireland” or of magistrates appointed by the Crown: “The civil magistrate is ordained and allowed of God; wherefore we must obey him, not only for fear of punishment but also for conscience sake.” Parker’s revision of Cranmer’s original with the “King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England… whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil…” broadens the principle and realigns it to reflect the Scriptures more closely. 

Article 37 alludes to Matthew 22.15-22 (paying taxes to Caesar), 1 Peter 2.13-17 and Romans 13.1-7 where the Apostle Paul certainly demands, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” And the Apostle Peter likewise writes to his readers that they, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” How then are we to understand the article in the light of Scripture? This is where the 1662 Book of Common Prayer helps us. Once again, we apply our principle that the formularies must be understood as a whole for its confessional application.

First, we should consider how the pastoral prayer for the church of Christ is introduced as the minister invites the congregation to pray in the Order for the Lord's Supper: “Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here in earth.” Anglicans pray for the church of Christ here in earth. Anglicans affirm how Paul opens his epistles, "To the church of God that is in Corinth… To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints… To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus…" The formularies regularly affirm what is the doctrine of the church invisible and visible. There is no such category in the Scriptures or Anglican theology. We cannot escape God's grace exercised through the state. It is a retrograde step that most Anglican prayers for the church have excised Cranmer’s invitation to pray for the church here in earth. What we must, therefore unlearn is an understanding that the church and state are divided, making your spiritual life something of a private and individual concern. Far too much mischief and doctrinal error will certainly result!

Instead, the formularies make clear that there is a twofold understanding of God’s authority as exercised in the state and in the church militant here in earth. It is the government that bears responsibility for the ordering and shaping of society so that the gospel may flourish. The exercise of the church’s authority to preach the pure word of God and administer the sacraments according to Christ’s ordinance rests on the government's effectiveness in keeping the peace of the realm. Godly magistrates and princes establish the means for the visible church to complete its ministry. It is their God-given responsibility to ensure that true religion flourishes throughout the nation. 

Yet consider how this goal is realized. The theology of the various Prayer Book Collects for the Queen's majesty, and the Royal Family confirm the goal is not gained by a national agenda, but by the salvation of the magistrate’s or prince’s soul coram Deo. Consider the collect for the Queen’s majesty:  

O LORD, our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen ELIZABETH; and so replenish her with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that she may alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way. Endue her plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant her in health and wealth long to live; strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies; and finally after this life she may attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Notice how the collect begins in adoration and acknowledgment that our heavenly Father is the Almighty One and the fountain of all grace. They continue in the invocation of the Holy Spirit for their sanctification and growth in holiness, ending with a hope of their eternal salvation. This is why the article makes this important distinction: we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God's Word or of the Sacraments… This is allusion to article 20 that restrains an authority to God’s word written. The church militant serves the souls of the nation but cannot become a national church because the very authority the state applies is a derived authority from God as his word confirms. It, therefore, remains an authority that all believing Christians should honor. 

It is also the reason why the article underlines the scriptural foundation of the magistrates’ authority in what is lawful that is, conforming to God’s Word: It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars. The law that gives the magistrate the right to command men to bear arms is the law of God itself. The same reasoning must underpin the article’s belief that the government has the right to apply punishment for those offenses that overturn the peace of the commonwealth, up to the death penalty itself.

From time to time I am asked by younger ministers who have discovered the formularies for themselves how they are to “handle” the prayers and references to the Crown or what collect should they use if asked to open a local government assembly. I have found that my years keeping the Prayer Book daily offices have inculcated the theology of the prayers for the Crown so that I may pray extempore for a magistrate and commend the same points. The advice I have given is to study these specific collects, not abandon them. Understand them thoroughly, and you will discover the rich gospel foundation they have. The main things are the plain things within them. And it’s much easier to achieve than the “what Anglican text can I find/parrot” method – and safer than a sweep of resources that may cloud your thinking toward godliness in prayer for a person or persons of an assembly who so desperately need salvation.


Henry Jansma (@VicarsGarden) is rector of All Souls Anglican Church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and canon theologian for the Diocese of the Living Word in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA)

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Henry Jansma