13 May 2008

Putting the 39 Articles in their context

Members of the General Synod gathering in Galway today. The photograph includes Mrs Averil Forrest and Dean Leslie Forest of Ferns, Archbishop John Neill, Mrs Betty Neill, and Lady Sheil

Patrick Comerford

I often wonder what strangers visiting our parish churches think when the open the Book of Common Prayer, pore over its pages, and read some of the words and language in the 39 Articles.

I’m happy that the Church of Ireland owns and enjoys its history. But is a prayer book the appropriate place to publish the words written in another age without explaining their original context?

The Dean of Armagh, the Very Rev Patrick Rooke, and Mr Dermot O’Callaghan, one of the leading lay members of the General Synod, tried to put things to right on Tuesday afternoon with a proposal that all future editions of the Book of Common Prayer should include a Declaration immediately preceding the Articles of Religion.

The declaration would put the 39 Articles in their historical context. The language used about Roman Catholics and Anabaptists were typical of the polemics of the day, but it sounds offensive today.

We cannot deny our historical past – indeed we can rejoice in it. But we should be able to explain ourselves, and accept that they do not “represent the spirit of [the Church of Ireland] today.”

The Rev Dr Eric Culbertson couldn’t accept that there had been any change in either the Church of Ireland or the Roman Catholic Church since the days of the Reformation. He did tell us he was speaking “the truth in love” … but then went on to misrepresent the Roman Catholic position, saying that Church “worships” the Virgin Mary. Eric wants us to use only the words of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, without any watering down.

Eric’s misrepresentation of Marian doctrine was challenged forcefully by the Bishop of Cashel and Ossory, the Right Rev Michael Burrows. He wondered how Anglican understandings of truth are best defended by being rude to others.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill, pointed out it was impossible to rewrite historic documents that have been important landmarks on the journey.

This declaration boldly states: “The Church of Ireland seeks the visible unity of the Church. In working towards that goal, this Church is committed to reaching out towards other Churches in a spirit of humility and love, that together all Christians may grow towards unity in life and mission to the glory of God.”

A two-thirds majority, voting by orders, was needed to allow the introduction of a bill in the General Synod next year. Resolution No 1 was passed with overwhelming majorities among both the clergy and the laity (Clergy: 102-7; Laity: 143-24).

The seven members of the house of clergy who opposed this move included the Archdeacon of Down, the Ven Philip Patterson, and Dr Culbertson.

Amendments to the Bill have to be lodged within 30 days, and we still have to debate any drafted legislation next year. But thank goodness we have taken the first long-needed steps towards making those strangers from other churches welcome when they visit our parishes and pore over the pages of the Book of Common Prayer.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Dean of Connor, the Very Revd John Bond, said he was delighted to be in Connacht and Galway for the General Synod. But commenting on the heat in the synod hall, he said he now understood why Cromwell had said: “To Hell or to Connacht.”

Dean Bond was introducing the bill that makes provision for the Archdeacon of Belfast to be the Precentor of Belfast Cathedral ex officio.

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