THE DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES
Their Historic Context and Intention
‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’ (1 Peter 3:15)
Christians have always given summaries of their faith. Often these have been in response to particular circumstances or doctrinal controversies. Some such summaries – notably the Nicene Creed - have been adopted universally by the Church. Others are more local statements, identifying the stance of a section of the worldwide Christian community.
The Declaration of Principles of the Free Church of England arose out the situations in North America and the United Kingdom in the 19th century. It was not, however, intended to say anything new, but simply to reaffirm biblical and patristic teachings which, it was felt at the time, were being obscured. As a text it derives from three different sources, and these are themselves an insight into its primary concerns.
The oldest strand derives from William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877). Muhlenberg was a presbyter of what was then called the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA – now simply called The Episcopal Church). He was ordained deacon on 18th September 1817 to serve at Christ Church, Philadelphia, as chaplain to Bishop William White, and ordained presbyter on 22nd October 1820.
Muhlenberg was what was then a rare type of Churchman – a committed Evangelical who did not believe that Evangelical faith could only be expressed in a starkly Protestant ecclesiastical culture. His vision was of an ‘Evangelical Catholicism’ that would marry the fervour of Evangelical faith to Catholic Church order. For a few years he produced a journal called The Evangelical Catholic. In it he defended his chosen nomenclature: ‘we believe in Christianity, not as an abstraction, but as an institution – a divine institution, adapted to all mankind in all ages; in other words, the Catholic Church. This we declare in calling ourselves Catholics’. The word ‘Catholic’, however, had become identified with Rome: ‘Speak of Catholics, and not one in a hundred would suppose you mean any others than members of the Roman Church. If we will have the name, and surrender it we can not, we must qualify it, we must explain it … therefore we style ourselves Gospel, that is Evangelical Catholics’. This, for Muhlenberg, was the distinguishing mark of the episcopal communion he believed in – ‘we go at once to the Gospel, and assert ourselves Gospel (i.e. Evangelical) Catholics’. Moreover, it was a concept with a long and distinguished history. This, argued Muhlenberg is what the 16th century English Reformers were, Gospel Catholics, helping the Catholic Church discover its Gospel roots.
Muhlenberg passionately believed that such an Evangelical Catholicism could unite the increasingly divided Protestant denominations of North America. In October 1853, he sought to put his vision of Christian unity into effect by, along with a number of other presbyters, presenting a Memorial to the House of Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Memorial recommended making episcopal ordination available to clergy of non-episcopal Churches. This would be on the basis of a brief doctrinal test which Muhlenberg set out in ‘An Exposition of the Memorial’, published in November 1854. The first clause of this required clergy seeking episcopal ordination to declare their belief in the Holy Scriptures as the word of God, in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, in the divine Institution of the two sacraments, and in the ‘doctrines of grace’ substantially as they are set forth in the Thirty-Nine Articles.
This text was to be taken up nearly twenty years later by a bishop for whom Muhlenberg was a beloved mentor. George David Cummins was consecrated as Assistant Bishop of Kentucky in 1866. He strongly shared Muhlenberg’s vision that the Christians of North America should unite in an episcopal Church which unashamedly preached biblical doctrine, and that a shared faith in Jesus Christ itself created an essential unity among believers. In 1873 Bishop Cummins gave expression to his convictions by taking part in a service of Holy Communion in a Presbyterian Church. The strength of the criticism he received for doing this made it impossible for him to continue his ministry as a bishop in the Diocese of Kentucky. He therefore issued a rallying call for the formation of an episcopal Church which would be more open and more robustly true to ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’ than PECUSA had become. In November 1873 this became a reality when the Reformed Episcopal Church was formally constituted, with Cummins as its first Presiding Bishop.
Bishop Cummins added to Muhlenberg’s Memorial a number of clauses that addressed pressing doctrinal issues of the day. The statements about episcopacy and ecclesiastical polity were intended to express a conviction that members of Churches without bishops are nevertheless true Christians. This seems obvious today (and is formally admitted by the Roman Catholic Church, for example) but there were those in the 19th century who were prepared to deny it. The Declaration’s position is also in line with historic Anglicanism as expressed by Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and by other English divines.
The 1785 Book of Common Prayer would, Bishop Cummins believed, be more congenial to Protestants who were not used to liturgical worship, than the 1789 Book of Common Prayer then in use in PECUSA. In practice the 1785 book did not come into general use and seems never to have been used in the UK.
The denials of the 4th Principle address what were commonly perceived to be mediaeval Roman Catholic teachings which had been corrected in the 16th century but were being re-introduced into PECUSA. From a 21st century perspective, it is difficult to appreciate just how strongly non-Catholics believed that Roman Catholic doctrine and worship (which were of course in Latin) were incompatible with the plain teaching of the Bible. Radical changes in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s have substantially modified this view, though there are still important differences. Many decades of dialogue between Churches have identified much common ground between them and enabled more positive expressions of biblical teaching on the ministry and sacraments to be affirmed.
In 1877 a branch of the Reformed Episcopal Church was established in the British Isles (alongside the pre-existing Free Church of England). The Declaration of Principles was adopted, but additional material was added to that deriving from the work of Muhlenberg and Cummins. Most of this new material was taken from the Constitution of the Church of Ireland. The disestablishment of that Church in 1870 had required it to define itself and draw up new governing documents. As a ‘free’ episcopal Church in the British Isles it was seen a model for the UK branch of the REC (itself a ‘free’ episcopal Church). The clause about resisting innovations to ‘the primitive faith’ reflects the Church of Ireland’s sense of its historic continuity, which the REC shared. The commitment to maintaining communion with all Christian Churches is remarkable in its 19th century context, when, sadly, denunciation and division were more common. When the REC in the UK and the Free Church of England united in 1927 the Declaration of Principles in its British form was adopted as the common statement of faith.
Thus, the Declaration of Principles is not an attempt to depart from historic Christian beliefs or produce a new definition of the Christian faith. Rather, it is an expression of a desire to unite Christians around the ‘old paths’ of historic biblical Christianity within an episcopally-ordered community. The language reflects the era in which the Principles were composed, but their teaching is grounded in Scripture and the Fathers, and is therefore timeless.
Currently the Free Church of England is preparing a restatement its core beliefs in an Affirmation of Faith. This, with its accompanying Commentary, will be an authoritative explanation of The Declaration of Principles.
The Declaration of Principles.
1. The "Free Church of England otherwise called the Reformed Episcopal Church in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland", holding "the faith once delivered unto the saints", declares its belief in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God, and the sole Rule of Faith and Practice; in the creed "commonly called the Apostle's Creed"; in the Divine institution of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper; and in the Doctrines of grace substantially as they are set forth in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
2. This Church recognises and adheres to Episcopacy, not as of Divine Right, but as a very ancient and desirable form of Church polity.
3. This Church, retaining a Liturgy which shall not be repressive of freedom in prayer, accepts the Book of Common Prayer, as it was revised, prepared and recommended for use by the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, A.D. 1785, reserving full liberty to alter, abridge, enlarge and amend the same, as may seem most conducive to the edification of the people, "provided that the substance of the faith be kept entire".
4. This Church CONDEMNS and REJECTS the following erroneous and strange doctrines as contrary to God's Word:
- That the Church of Christ exists only in one order or form of ecclesiastical polity;
- That Christian Ministers are "priests" in another sense than that in which all believers are "a royal priesthood";
- That the Lord's Table is an altar on which the oblation of the Body and Blood of Christ is offered anew to the Father:
- That the Presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper is a presence in the elements of Bread and Wine:
- That Regeneration is inseparably connected with Baptism.
In accordance with the liberty given in Clause 3 of the above Declaration of Principles, this Church accepts the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, with such revisions as shall exclude sacerdotal doctrines and practices.
This Church, as a Reformed and Protestant Church, doth hereby re-affirm its constant witness against all those innovations in Doctrine and Worship whereby the primitive Faith hath been from time to time defaced or overlaid, and which at the Reformation were disowned and rejected.
This Church will maintain communion with all Christian Churches, and will set forward, so far as in it lieth, quietness, peace and love, among all Christian people.