faith of our fathers

Arthur Middleton on Canon A5

Canon A5 (The Canons of the Church of England, 1969) states that the doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal.

Ecclesiastical law

The laws of the Church are called canons, the word being derived from a Greek word, which signifies a rule or measure. The Church must have authority to prescribe rules and laws for the government of its own members, so it must necessarily follow that the Church has this power; otherwise disorder would result. This power was exercised in the Church before the Roman Empire became Christian, as appears by those ancient canons which were made before that time and which are mentioned in the writings of the primitive fathers.

So a Canon is the internal ecclesiastical law governing the Catholic Church, both Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches, and the Anglican Communion. Originally a Canon was a rule adopted by an ecumenical council; these Canons formed the foundation of canon law. What is expressed in Canon A5 finds a precedent in the Canons of 1571 in a memorable Canon on preaching that embodied the spirit of the Reformers that preachers shall ‘see to it that they teach nothing in the way of a sermon, which they would have religiously held and believed by the people, save what is agreeable to the teaching of the Old or New Testament, and what the Catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected from this self-same doctrine.’

Test of tradition

The Fathers had a twofold value, as witnesses to the content of the primitive faith and as a guide to the right interpretation of Holy Scripture. Scripture was the supreme standard of faith and the Fathers represented the tradition of the Church by which Scripture was rightly interpreted, The Vincentian Canon was the test of genuine tradition, what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.

This expresses the true Catholicism of the Church of England. The limits of toleration in variations of doctrine within the Church of England are, first of all, that which can be proved by Holy Scripture, and secondly, that which the Catholic Fathers and ancient bishops have collected out of that Scripture. That is the fundamental theological principle of our Reformers in requiring from clergy and laity in their submission to doctrine, nothing more and nothing less than could be proved from Scripture and which had been collected from the Scriptures by the Catholic Fathers.

The mind of the Church

As part of the Catholic Church, the Church of England bound herself to the teachings and decisions of the Primitive Catholic Church, and this placed upon it an ecumenical responsibility not to depart from the faith and order of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Hence we are bound by the Creeds which have received the sanction of Councils, and must refrain from putting upon them any sense not intended by their authors. While she may have authority to decree rites and ceremonies, she has no authority to depart from the faith and order of that apostolic tradition. It is an appeal, not to a particular individual theologian, but to the mind of the Church, the ecclesiastical mind.

This is, in itself, consistent with the method of the Fathers whose definitions of doctrine were never based on the mind of an individual but must be expressive of the mind of the whole Church. ‘Catholic Church’ never meant the ‘world-wide Church’, but ‘the orthodoxy of the Church’, the truth of the ‘Great Church’ as contrasted with the spirit of sectarian separation and particularism. It is the idea of integrity and purity that is being expressed. To live in the Catholic Faith is to live in life which is salvation, the life that the Church is, the divine life of the Blessed Trinity, the catholic process of deification, which is saving life. ND

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