Principles of Canon Law on the source of doctrine.

In case there are readers who think the only thing going on in the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church is the mighty row about gay people in the church or the force of Scriptures or the terrible Episcopal Church and its unorthodox ways, here is a bit of concern drawn from the mostly unnoticed effort to find some principles of canon law in the Anglican Communion.

The Anglican Communion Legal Advisers Consultation put together a paper for the 2008 Lambeth Conference. That paper, as revised by the Conference conversation itself, is being published in two parts in The Philippine Episcopalian. Apparently the Episcopal Church in the Philippines is taking this paper seriously as informing to their own members. There has been virtually no conversation elsewhere in blog land about this text and I cannot find a full version of the revised text anywhere. I am sure learned readers will point me to a copy.

The paper is organized in sections and each section continues the numbering of principles. Principle 48, on the sources of doctrine, struck me as interesting.

Principle 48: The sources of doctrine

1. The faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ is taught in the Holy Scriptures, held in the
Primitive Church, summed up in the Creeds, and affirmed by the ancient Fathers and
undisputed General Councils.

2. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to
salvation and are the rule and ultimate standard of faith.

3. The Apostles` Creed represents the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed is recognized as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

4. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and Ordinal1662 are grounded in Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to Holy Scriptures.

5. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal 1662
represent the historic sources of lawful doctrine for a church.

The language is not particularly helpful. "The faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ" could be a reference to His faith or to the faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ as expressed by those who are his followers. I believe this section is referring to the latter.

Section 2 is a repeat of the first statement of the Chicago - Lambeth Quadrilateral, Lambeth version.

Section 3 refers to the Apostles' Creed as "the Baptismal Symbol." Again an odd usage, requiring liturgical and theological discussion of the term "symbol." Still, we get the point - it is the faith as pointed to and affirmed when a person is baptized. There is of course no mention of a baptismal covenant, such as we have in the 1979 BCP in The Episcopal Church. That is too bad. The notion of covenant in baptism is already there in previous liturgies in the renunciations and affirmations made prior to baptism. The Baptismal Covenant spells out what those renunciations and affirmations look like in practice.

Section 4 makes the case that the Thirty-Nine Articles, the BCP and Ordinal 1662 are grounded in Holy Scriptures and the Ancient Fathers and Councils. This is the wind up for the pitch, which is Section Five.

Section 5 then states that the 39 Articles and the BCP/Ordinal 1662 "represent the historic sources of lawful doctrine for a church." The chain is Word-Word written-Scripture-Creeds-39 Articles and BCP 1662-lawful doctrine.

It may be that the 39 Articles and the 1662 BCP/Ordinal are "historic sources" materials for lawful doctrine, but on the grounds admitted in the Articles themselves, all councils may err including the ones that produced the 39 Articles and the BCP 1662. So does "historic sources" mean? Surely they are not the sole sources of doctrine? Of course not. But that is not clear from the proposition, and further, given the wind up for the pitch, it would seem otherwise.

It is also important to note that the sources for "lawful doctrine," do not include sources that arise out of the practice of people... the source that arises from people praying, witnessing, sharing, coping, etc. People and their practice are not part of these "principles," in part because the possibility that people's theology and doctrine are to be judged by the linkage that gives us the 39 Articles and BCP as authoritative, rather than judged by the faith in Jesus Christ directly. Doctrine is authoritative for people's faith, not because of people's faith. Nothing in this principle addresses doctrine as a product of practice.

It is unclear just how these Principles of Canon Law might be modified or by whom. But it is clear that as they stand they are not clear enough.


  1. I am more and more convinced it is time to let the communion go its own way. TEC can maintain its relationships with those diocese and provinces (apparently not including Canterbury) where something like intelligent life has been noticed.

    The Articles were the last gasp of an exhausted effort by another centuries fundygelicals to exclude anglo-Catholics, tradition and ideas. The effort failed and they have been bellowing about it ever since. ;;sigh;;


  2. ...and your conclusion is, I suppose, that we should be like the Mormons who codified the fancies of a 14 year old and call it religion? Who is to say that his experiences were less than yours or mine? I believe that a few TEC leaders have come very close to saying that the Spirit's (or some kind of spirit)leadings in their lives trump the revealed Word.

    Somehow human experience has to have boundaries wherein the egocentric evaluations cease, or else all we are is a meditation movement rather than a Christian Church.

  3. I would agree that there are problems with that article "the" in item 5. We could argue, too, whether 1662 should be chosen instead of 1549, 1552, and 1559, on which 1662 was itself based; and just how much 1662 incorporated or amended what was received from those earlier Prayer Books.

    I think there is perhaps some value in trying to discern within the various bodies of canon within the Anglican Communion some common principles. As I recall, though, this document as presented at Lambeth was less a distillation and more a general summary, not unlike the "reports" from Lambeth. As such, it would seem to me that a good deal more reflection and work would need to be done to determine what could truly be generalized.

  4. Allen,

    So, uh...just where do you think the teachings and traditions of what you consider a "real" Christian Church came from if not human beings at some point in time trying to discern the Spirit's leading ?

  5. david,

    Excellent point. My understanding is that the Spirit does not reveal in isolation or contradiction. Gnosticism was ruled out of bounds long ago, and while this saddens some moderns, it also is refreshing to know that, despite the rumors, you or I are not the center of the universe. God calls people into a community and reveals the divine will to such a community. Thus, I can say with no hesitation that the 14 year old Joseph Smith was, er, wrong. Likewise, private revelations today, no matter how widely held and wished for, must not contradict or be revealed in isolation. Or else, we are truly just a meditation movement akin to Quakerism.

  6. I second David's question and add - from whence spring the teachings of Christians who do not have the 39 Articles? Or which councils are we talking about? Clearly, if one wishes to affirm the XXXIX, one can not affirm all 7 Ecumenical Councils. So... we are still in the A La Carte section of the Doctrinal Menu.*

    Who gets to pick and choose these doctrines? The same as always - human beings.

    *Increasingly I believe there is only an A La Carte section.

  7. The unfortunate problem is that religion takes place with an individual revelation, often in isolation, and has resulted in a religion that is largely self-contradictory.

    So, it would seem that Truth is found in majority vote when it suits Reasserters.

  8. Nom de Plume8/10/08 4:21 PM


    Your point about the absence of reference to a Baptismal Covenant is well taken. It's unfortunate. But it is also important to note that the Covenant introduced in the baptismal rite of the BCP 1979 and reproduced in the Canadian BAS 1985 remains, as far as I know, a uniquely North American approach to baptism and, hence, to the life of the baptised. (I presume the Brazlian Church has it, given their use of a Portuguese version of the BCP 1979. Similarly with Haiti, whose BCP is in French.) I believe it is helpful, and if recognized elsewhere would constitute an important gift to the Communion. But it must be confusing to other Anglicans to hear the phrase "Bapitsmal Covenant" used by North Americans in a variety of discussions. North Americans would do well to spend some effort explaining it and perhaps actively offering it as a model for Church membership.

    As to who gets to modify the Principles, it must be recognized that the document is descriptive and not presecriptive. It is about law, and is not law itself. It may be that there are areas of weakness or of oversimplification in it; in other words it may not be perfect. But as a vehicle for discussing Anglican identity it is surely a significant contribution. Anglicans are not merely people who seek to follow the Christian faith in a certain way, with a certain approach to worship and some historical connections to the Church of England; Anglicans are also people with a certain approach to the ordering of the Church with a corpus of canon law that has moved in a certain trajectory from the mediaeval antecedents. The fact that there are now 38 trajectories, given the foundational principle of Provincial autonomy, does not nullify the essential unity of canonical approach one may find broadly in the Communion.

  9. I still don't get the fetishism over the BCP 1662. The mangled Communion rite is reason enough to shelve it and forget it. Let me know when a group of Anglican traditionalists start touting the 1549 book as the "historic source of lawful doctrine" - I might sign on.

  10. But it must be confusing to other Anglicans to hear the phrase "Bapitsmal Covenant" used by North Americans in a variety of discussions. North Americans would do well to spend some effort explaining it and perhaps actively offering it as a model for Church membership.

    Maybe. I wish we would start thinking about the entire Baptismal Covenant, though. Too often it seems as if we give all the emphasis on the very last clause as the Baptismal Covenant (striving "for justice and peace among all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being") and give ourselves a pass on the rest.

  11. Nom de Plume9/10/08 8:33 AM


    The fetishism over the BCP 1662 has to do with hearkening back to a Golden Age when the liturgy was still universal throughout the Anglican world. Of course, this excludes the Episcopalians (viz., Scotland and USA), but we gloss that over. The BCP 1662 is still, by law, the official prayer book for the CofE, although in practice it has largely been displaced by Common Worship (and ASB 1980 before that).

    Incidentally, when the first Lambeth Conference was on the drawing board it was clear and self-evident to the designers that the Americans were not going to be invited, as it was meant to be a "National" gathering of bishops, including only those within the Empire. I'm not sure in some quarters whether that attitude has yet been eradicated.

    The interesting question in all this is why we still need to hearken back to Golden Ages.

  12. Nom de Plume9/10/08 9:35 PM

    I wish we would start thinking about the entire Baptismal Covenant, though.

    Do you have a specific clause in mind? What's being ignored in your life of experience?

  13. nom de plume, in my experience when people talk about the Baptismal Covenant, they often are not talking, for instance, about believing any part of the Apostle's Creed, or the necessity to proclaim the Gospel in word as well as deed, or adhering to apostolic teaching and praxis. I'm afraid that it's often simply a churchified way of denoting our obligation to respect other people's dignity and treat them with respect. YMMV.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with comment moderation but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.