The narrative of the Thirty-nine articles has set the primacy of the Scriptures as the principal means by which God is revealed and has set the details of the application of this same principle. Scripture alone determines the limits of the church’s authority in the formulation of doctrine and set the structure of ministerial calling and ordination. Article 24, the concluding article on the doctrine of the invisible and visible Church, the command to speak in a language understood by the people is no mere appeal to relevance in the modern sense but is a fidelity to the two-fold distinction of the Scriptures themselves.
XXIV—Of Speaking in the Congregation in Such a Tongue as the People Understandeth
It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded by the people.
The article was completely rewritten in 1563, most likely due to the pronouncement of the Council of Trent in 1562 that anathematized those who did not say the Mass in Latin. The 1571 final version corrected an omission in the English of the 1563 phrase in the Latin, et primitivae Eccleisae, “and the custom of the Primitive Church” also adding a revised title. To make plain the twofold distinction and the use of your vernacular language in Anglican church services, it may be helpful to read Cranmer’s original 1553 article, “Men must speak in the congregation as the people understandeth," and its reference to the Apostle Paul and 1 Corinthians,
It is most seemly and most agreeable to the Word of God that in the congregation nothing be openly read or spoken in a tongue unknown to the people, the which thing St. Paul did forbid, except some were present that should declare the same [Bray, Documents, 298].
Article 24 affirms the twofold distinction of the Scriptures in its application to our worship. Previous articles have maintained a distinction, but no separation between Scripture and the Word of God. No access to the Word is available apart from Scripture–there is the outward, or external means in the reading and preaching of the Scripture, conjoined with the inward working of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Apostle Paul's teaching that "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17) provides a normative statement for Christian worship. Our Anglican forebears insisted that the church’s worship must be in words of salvation accessible to all in their language, an outward fidelity to the unique nature of the Scriptures, and to be honoring of the Spirit inward work, as a fit instrument of his use. The task and purpose of the Holy Spirit are to make the Christian realize and gain greater clarity the meaning of their adoption as sons and daughters through Christ's redeeming work and to lead them into an ever-deeper response to God.
The writer of the Second Book of Homilies elaborated on this in Homily 9. He compares the Apostle Paul’s command that the gift of tongues should not be exercised in public worship without interpretation for the edification of the local body is compromised.
First, Paul to the Corinthians saith: ‘Let all things be done to edifying’ (1 Cor. 14.26). Which cannot be unless common prayers and administration of sacraments be in a tongue known to the people… For, saith Saint Paul: ‘He that speaketh in a tongue unknown shall be to the hearer an alien’ (1 Cor. 14.2, 11), which in a Christian congregation is an absurdity. For we are not strangers to one another, but we are ‘the citizens of the saints and of the household of God, yea, members all of one body’ (Eph. 2.19; 1 Cor. 10.17, 12-12-27). And therefore, whilst our minister is in rehearsing the prayer that is made in the name of us all, we must give diligent ear to the words spoken by him and in heart beg at God’s hand those things that he beggeth in words. And to signify that we so do, we say, ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayer that he maketh in the name of us all. And this thing can we do not do for edification unless we understand what is spoken [Bray, ed. The Books of Homilies, Critical Edition, 359-360].
Intelligibility honors God the Holy Spirit is a guard against idolatrous worship, an affirmation of our adoption and union in Christ as believers, and the usual means of our edification. As the writer of the Homilies put it, "when prayers or the administration of Sacraments shall be in a tongue unknown to the hearers, which of them shall be thereby stirred up to lift his mind to God?" Obscurity is idolatrous.
Article 24 should also be seen as an introduction to the next major section in the Thirty-nine Articles on the sacraments, and particularly for North American Anglicans, is the application to the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. In a significant departure from the theology and structure of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the ACNA standard liturgy, and its rubrics concerning gestures, and actions during the communion service, obscure rather than clarify the gospel truths to which the sacrament points. There is a deliberate ambiguity that will inevitably lead to misunderstanding on the nature of the sacraments, particularly regarding the presence of Christ. The liturgy’s concluding "Additional Directions" allow reordering of the service according to the 1662 book, but there is no readily accessible source material included. It is clear that the ACNA sees the 1662 Lord's Supper as "a [notice – not ‘the’] standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline,” “expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues converted at the time” [ACNA Article 1.6, 7]. In other words, more historical document than biblically faithful standard. But has not Article 20 reminded us of the authority of the church in liturgy is only acceptable as far as it remains the faithful expression of the teaching of Scripture?
The use of Latin in the liturgy no longer remains a barrier to a congregation, even in the Roman Catholic Church, yet fidelity to the Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit will always remain relevant. Article 24 should prompt us to ask challenging questions about our Anglican services, particularly with the 2019 publication of ACNA’s Book of Common Prayer. Are our Anglican services biblically faithful, comprehensible, and theologically sound? Do they obscure rather than glorify the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ? When we move away from the theology of the Reformation in our liturgy for the cause of an ecclesiastical party, we profess more of our factional pride than of our godliness at prayer.
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For previous articles in this series, see:
- One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
- The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
- The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
- The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 5 (Arts. 13-14)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 6 (Art. 15)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 7 (Art. 16)
- Grace Alone! (Art. 17)
- Christ Alone! (Art. 18)
- The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 1 (Art. 19)
- The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 2 (Art. 20)
- The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 3 (Art. 21)
- The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 4 (Art. 22)
- The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 5 (Art. 23)