The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England are a series of statements of Anglican beliefs concerning certain religious teachings, some of which were subjects of great controversy in Europe in the sixteenth century. These articles are not a complete summary of the Christian faith for Anglicans (see anglicanism).
In 1536 Henry VIII directed the Convocations of Canterbury and York to approve the Ten Articles, which were then issued under royal authority with a preface by the King. In 1539 the promulgation of the Six Articles Act defined six beliefs. Any opposition to this act by either Catholics or Protestants was to be punished by burning the offender alive. In the reign of Edward VI, Archbishop Cranmer published in 1553 with royal sanction the Forty-two Articles. These articles, which were influenced by Lutheran teaching, attacked the doctrines of both Catholics and extreme Protestants, like the Anabaptists. They were revised by Convocation in 1563 and reduced to 39. A further revision, attributed to elizabeth i, caused some small changes, together with the striking out of article 29 as being too hostile to Catholicism. Nevertheless, when these articles were again officially promulgated later in Elizabeth's reign, in 1571, No. 29 was restored. Since that time the Thirty-Nine Articles have been an official statement of the beliefs of the Church of England with regard to the doctrines touched on in them. A wholehearted acceptance of them was demanded of every ordinand in that church and until 1871 of every oxford and cambridge graduate. Notable among the articles was one that declared that Holy Scripture contained all necessary teaching for salvation. The traditional creeds were to be received as they were proved by Scripture. General councils were declared to be not necessarily infallible. Much fundamental Christian teaching on the Holy Trinity, and the Incarnation and the Redemption achieved by Jesus Christ was included. Only two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, were recognized. The Tridentine doctrine of transubstantiation was categorically denied. Catholic teachings on purgatory, indulgences, and the invocation of saints were said to be false and repugnant to God's word. What Catholics believed about the Mass was stigmatized as "a forged fable and dangerous deceit."
Cranmer's Forty-two Articles of 1553 had declared the King to be supreme head on earth, next under Christ, of the Church of England and Ireland. In the 1571 edition of the Thirty-nine Articles this declaration of the royal supremacy was restated as follows: "The Queen's Majesty hath the chief power in the Realm of England and other her dominions, unto whom the chief government of all estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign jurisdiction." The articles also stated that the Bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction in the realm of England.
In 1841 John Henry newman, then vicar of St. Mary's, Oxford, a leader of the Tractarian Movement, wrote in his famous Tract 90 concerning the Thirty-Nine Articles that "it is often urged … that there are in the Articles propositions or terms inconsistent with the Catholic faith … the following Tract is drawn up with the view of showing how groundless the object[ion] is." Despite the great influence of Newman his tract was condemned by the heads of the various Oxford colleges and more importantly, by Newman's ecclesiastical superior, Richard Bagot the Bishop of Oxford, who pressured Newman into promising to write no more tracts. This incident had a great effect on tractarianism and contributed to Newman's decision to enter the Catholic Church in 1845.
Anglican ordinands are no longer required to give a wholehearted assent to the articles. It is now sufficient if they subscribe to them in the sense of regarding them as not contrary to the word of God and on the assumption that they will not publicly attack them.
Bibliography: a. p. forbes, An Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles with an Epistle Dedicatory to the Late Rev. E. P. Pusey, 2 v. (5th ed. London 1887). c. a. hardwick, A History of the Articles of Religion (Philadelphia 1852), e. j. bicknell, A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles (New York 1919).
Revd Dr John R. Guy
Thirty-nine Articles: see creed5.