An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Thirty-Nine Articles, or Articles of Religion

The Thirty-Nine Articles were the result of a long process in which the Church of England attempted to provide a theological foundation for its existence during the doctrinal conflicts of the sixteenth century. The conflicts arose from the competing views between Protestants and Roman Catholics as well as controversy within the Church of England itself. The Articles are not a creed nor are they a confessional statement such as those produced by the churches of the Reformation. They seek only to provide a basic consensus on disputed points and to separate the Church of England from certain Roman Catholic doctrines which were regarded as medieval abuses or superstitions. At the same time, however, they affirmed other aspects of Christian belief which were held in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Articles have always been subjected to a variety of interpretations by those who emphasized their Reformation heritage and by those who interpreted the Articles in a more catholic manner. The most controversial interpretation of them was made by John Henry Newman in his Tract 90. He was at that time a leader of the Oxford Movement. Newman interpreted the Articles virtually in accordance with the teaching of the Council of Trent. Shortly after writing Tract 90, Newman joined the Roman Catholic Church.

The Church of England required the clergy to subscribe to the Articles until the last century. Subscription to the Articles is now required only in a general sense in the Church of England. The Episcopal Church has never required subscription to the Articles. They now appear in a section called “Historical Documents” in the back of the BCP (pp. 867-876). The status and authority of the Articles has often been a subject of debate among Anglicans. The Articles have also been a source of confusion for those non-Anglicans who want to know what may be the authoritative teaching of the Anglican Church.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.