As we've seen in our ongoing study of "The 39," when the articles discuss essential doctrine, they begin with the general principles of the doctrine before continuing to a more specific examination. Article 25 set out the general principles on the nature of a sacrament. Now article 26 answers the question of the relationship between the work of God and the minister of God making some important distinctions that are applicable today.
XXVI—Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which Hinders not the Effect of the Sacrament
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.
Article 26 remains virtually unaltered from Cranmer’s 1553 original. Archbishop Parker’s 1563 and the final 1571 promulgation made only slight changes for clarity. We can find a parallel in Article 8 of the Augsburg Confession:
Although the church is, properly speaking the assembly of the saints and those who truly believe, nevertheless, because in his life many hypocrites and evil people are mixed in with them, a person may use the sacraments even when they are administered by evil people. This accords with the saying of Christ [Matt. 23:2]: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat…”. Both the sacraments and the Word are efficacious because of the ordinance and the command of Christ, even when offered by evil people.
The question of the relationship between the work of God and the minister of God has come up from time to time in the history of the church. Simply stated, is the effectiveness of the communion with God in the sacrament in any way hindered, prevented, or dependent upon the morality of the one who administered them? Early church Donatists, some late medieval Catholic reform movements, and Reformation Anabaptists said, “Yes.” Article 26 replies instead with a qualified “no.” Although the efficacy of God’s grace is in no way hindered by the fitness of his ministers, Christ as the head has established a proper order to his church. Wicked ministers may be ejected after a biblically faithful due process of godly discipline. This concern for discipline in the last part of article 26 again highlights the importance of sola Scriptura that grounds all Thirty-Nine Articles. Specifically, here it is the commands that are found in the Apostle Paul’s letters about breaking fellowship in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 and in his letters to Timothy and Titus. In the same way, we have seen the articles applied in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer, its Ordinal repeats the command that priests (presbyters) are to be “ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word." And the Collect or special prayer for setting apart a presbyter to episcopal office refers specifically to his responsibility to administer a godly discipline.
John White, a parliamentary member of the Westminster Assembly publicly cataloged the failings of a hundred ministers who were deposed from their cures by the proper due process of the church from the area of greater London [VanDixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors 4-5]. The tawdry list began with a minister accused of buggery and attempted bestiality, accounts of drunken ministers and "popishly affected” pastors (the two most common complaints) as well as accounts of clergy who were womanizers, rapists, thieves, gamblers. There are accounts of battery, sexual assault, verbal abuse in the home, bribery, neglect of the pulpit, flirting from the pulpit, misogynist jokes from the pulpit, making a business out of burials, begging for money during Communion, throwing Communion elements to the ground, name-calling from the pulpit, public cursing, even excommunicating a handicapped man who could not kneel at Communion. White's pamphlet focused on ministers near London, but of course, wickedness does not end with the capital but was scattered across the realm. Such wickedness also does not end with the Reformation, but continues to the present day, as the sad catalog of pastor's failings makes the regular news.
We must also be clear in what the article does not say. Article 26 is the one article quoted by liberal Anglicans who usually dismiss the articles as an artifact from a more unenlightened age from which we have evolved. They argue that the unworthy minister does not hinder the effect of any Sacrament they administer. Therefore a congregation should accept any minister carte blanche that is lawfully called by the church. Such a conclusion is a gross distortion of what the articles have already taught on the nature of the church: the regulative nature of sola Scriptura that make such position untenable.
The article addresses the error of misguided zeal for the purity of the church. It is about a legalism that leads to a breaking of fellowship with faithful Christians. The error creates divisions between Christians. At the dawn of the Reformation, many reform movements had focused on the immorality of many Roman priests. The Augsburg Confession specifically mentions the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe teaching that Christians should only be baptized or receive the sacrament from a godly minister. Cranmer, therefore, understood from recent English church history that this error is likely to arise when the church does not take seriously its responsibility to exercise discipline on what he terms here “Evil Ministers.” Cranmer wrote the last sentence which underlines how a lapse of biblical fidelity will eventually lead to a lapse in private and public morality.
This is exactly the issue that most faithful Anglican ministers have faced in making their decision to separate from The Episcopal Church and seek alternative episcopal oversight in the Anglican Church of North America and the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Once the gospel cannot be defended within the assemblies of the church, that church has lost the key marks of the word and discipline (Articles XIX and XXVI). It is not a church any longer. It is thus no sin to separate from such a body. If the responsibility which the Ordinal expects of presbyters and bishops is not discharged, then one will have no option but to express the break in fellowship in appropriate ways. The St. Matthias Day Statement of the Church of England Evangelical Council put it this way:
5 - God’s people united in and by God’s word
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
The visible church of Christ is a congregation of believers in which the pure Word of God is preached and in which the sacraments are rightly administered according to Christ's command in all those matters that are necessary for proper administration… (Article XIX)
5a. The visible Church of Christ is a place where the life-giving and life-changing word of God is faithfully proclaimed.
5b. Redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships or affirming or blessing sexual activity outside marriage is contrary to God’s word.
5c. When a church does either of these things it therefore becomes difficult to recognise it as part of the visible Church of Christ. Consequently, such matters fall outside the scope of acceptable ecumenical diversity and are a legitimate ground for division between churches.
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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)
- The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 6 (Art. 24)
- The Sacraments: Part 1 (Art. 25)