by Charles A. Collins, Jr.
As I write this it is late in the evening on August 17. On this date thirteen years ago I knelt and had the late Bishop James West and Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison and a number of presbyters lay hands upon my unworthy head and ordain me a priest. On or about the anniversary of that date I have taken the advice of John Charles Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool, and read through the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the statement of belief of the Church of England and those churches historically descending from it (in other words, all Anglican churches). While I have occasion to refer to the Articles throughout the year, I make a point of marking this date with reading through all of them in one sitting (most of them are brief, but profound, and with 39 of them it takes less than an hour).
I have found it to be a profitable exercise. While the Articles are subordinate to Scripture, they are a summary of its teachings and determine the boundaries within which I, as an Anglican priest, am to live and teach. They, and other confessional statements, provide a system with which to understand Scripture (hence the term “systematic theology,” which I will confess to being one of my favorite subjects in seminary). Actually the Articles played a not inconsiderable role in my becoming an Anglican – while it was the beauty of the Liturgy that drew me in that was aided considerably when I, as a young Presbyterian seminarian, took in the Reformed Catholicism of the Articles and found it understandable (not surprising as the Thirty-nine Articles formed the basis for Archbishop Ussher's Irish Articles of Religion which in turned formed the basis for the Westminster Standards of the Presbyterian Church).
Some may think that confessions such as the Articles are dry as dust reading. That that opinion is common may be borne out by visiting most Christian bookstores (or the religion section of most secular ones) and comparing the amount of shelf space given to devotional works to that given to dogmatic ones – the difference will be profound in almost all cases. My own experience has been similar to that described by C.S. Lewis in his classic Introduction to St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation (an essay that I would recommend reading even if one is not going to read Athanasis's work at that moment and which I'm glad I was given as a seminary-bound undergraduate long ago):
For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion
than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may
await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when
they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart
sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.
And I would, for the record, recommend reading On the Incarnation.
Regardless of whether they share the Calvinist outlook of the Heidelberg Catechism,
how could any Christian's heart not be warmed when they read the answer to the first
Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
By the way, if you're an auditory learner and even if you're not, visit http://www.rcus.org/audio-heidelberg-catechism/http://www.rcus.org/audio-heidelberg-catechism/ to hear my friend the Rev'd George Syms, who has one of the best preaching voices ever, read that work – you'll be blessed.
I've spent a lot of time extolling the Anglican Articles of Religion but I'm aware that most of my readers, even around Charleston, aren't Anglicans or Episcopalians. I'd still encourage those who've not done so to read their church's confessional statements. Presbyterians, check out the Westminster Standards, Lutherans, dust off your Concord Books, Methodists, read over your own Articles (lightly edited by Wesley to soften the Calvinism found in the Church of England's Articles), Baptists, review your copies of the Faith and Message and the London Confession of Faith, Roman Catholics, read your Catechism. The Church as a whole has done a poor job of Catechesis and Christians of all stripes need to ground themselves in the teaching of their churches to combat at least two forces: secularism and modernism.
We live, as we are often reminded, in a post-Christian age. The veneer of respect that was accorded the Church in previous generations is rapidly dissipating and a Christian who doesn't know what they believe or why they believe it is and easy target for those who would seek to minimize the impact of Christianity upon society. Doctrinal statements help to provide just that kind of knowledge.
There are, sadly, also those forces within the Church who would subvert the historical teaching of the same. While traveling under the brand of historic churches, there are those who teach anything but and are often in staunch opposition to the church's teaching. When clergy and others who teach are familiar with their confessional statements then they can check themselves to be sure that they are teaching people the faith; when laity are conversant in them they can be sure that they are getting that historic faith.
Delve deep into the knowledge of God – it is effort that will be richly rewarded as you learn more of Him who knows us intimately and loves us profoundly.
The Rev'd Charles A. Collins, Jr., currently serves as the Vicar of The Church of the Atonement, a Reformed Episcopal parish of the Anglican Church in North America in Mount Pleasant. He may be contacted at: drew.collins (at) gmail.com and more information about the parish may be found at: https://www.facebook.com/atonementrec/