Skip to main content Accessibility help

Necessary to Salvation? The Canon Law of the Church of England and the Interpretation of Scripture

  • Frank Cranmer (a1) (a2) and Tom Heffer (a3)


The canon law of the Church of England begins from the assumption that scripture contains ‘all things necessary to salvation’ but the law makes little attempt to lay down rules for the way in which scripture should be interpreted. The authors attribute this reticence to the fact that, historically, adherents of the Church of England have been inclined to disagree about the nature both of ecclesiastical and of scriptural authority; and one of the functions of the Church's canon law has therefore been to hold together a wide spectrum of theological opinions. This comprehensiveness, however, causes strains within the wider Anglican Communion and may lead to difficulties of mutual comprehension in ecumenical conversations.



Hide All

1 Cranmer, a Quaker, and Heffer, an Anglican priest, would like to thank Professor Norman Doe, of Cardiff Law School, and the Revd Canon Joseph Cassidy, Principal of St Chad's, for their comments on an early draft. An earlier version of this article was published as ‘Il diritto canonico della Chiesa d'Inghilterra: l'interpretazione delle Scritture è veramente necessaria per la salvezza?’ (2006) 6 Daimon 69–96.

2 Not least in the person of his colleague Walter Travers, the (Puritan) Reader of the Temple Church of which Hooker was the Master.

3 Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book II viii.

4 RD Williams, ‘Richard Hooker: The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity revisited’ (2006) 8 Ecc LJ 386.

5 Prayer Book (Versions of the Bible) Measure 1965, s 1 proviso; M Hill, Ecclesiastical Law (third edition, Oxford, 2007), para 3.29.

6 DG Rowell, ‘An historical perspective on doctrine and discipline in the Church of England’ (2005) 8 Ecc LJ 46. Much of Dr Rowell's argument, though focused primarily on clergy discipline, is relevant to the present discussion.

7 2 Timothy 3:16. The Greek has theopneumatos: ‘God-breathed’.

8 BD Ehrman, Lost Christianities: the battle for scripture and the faiths we never knew (New York, NY, 2003), p 245.

9Impugners of the articles of religion established in the Church of England, censured: Whosoever shall hereafter affirm that any of the nine and thirty articles agreed upon by the archbishops and bishops of both provinces, and the whole clergy, … are in any part superstitious or erroneous, or such as he may not with a good conscience subscribe unto; let him be excommunicated ipso facto and not restored, but only by the archbishop, after his repentance, and public revocation of such his wicked errors.’: G Bray, The Anglican Canons 1529–1947 (Woodbridge, 1998), p 273.

10 See N Doe, ‘Toward a critique of the role of theology in English ecclesiastical and canon law’ (1992) 2 Ecc LJ 335.

11 For the full text of the Declaration and a discussion of its status, see P Forster, ‘The significance of the Declaration of Assent’, (2005) 8 Ecc LJ 162–172.

12 Constitution I.1, quoted in N Doe, Canon Law in the Anglican Communion: a worldwide perspective (Oxford, 1998), p 197, n 46.

13 Doe, Canon Law in the Anglican Communion, 198.

14 Report of The Covenant Design Group meeting in Nassau, 15th–18th January, 2007 under the chair-manship of the Most Revd Dr Drexel Gomez, Archbishop of the West Indies, 2(5), available at <>, accessed 28 April 2007.

15 Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, ‘The mystery of salvation’ (1995) in Contemporary Doctrine Classics from the Church of England: the combined reports by the Doctrine Commission of the General Synod of the Church of England (London, 2005), p 439. A much earlier report of the Commission, Subscription and Assent to the Thirty-nine Articles (London, 1968), had concluded on p 32 that ‘nobody could claim that they are now descriptive of the doctrinal positions of more than a minority’.

16 ‘God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless but at the same time incomprehensible judgment.’ John Calvin, Institutes (translated by H Beveridge, Edinburgh, 1845), ch 26 s 7.

17 AM Ramsey, The Anglican Spirit (London, 1991), pp 23–24. The book was compiled and edited by Dale Coleman from lectures that Archbishop Ramsey gave in his retirement to students at Nashotah House, and published posthumously.

18 R Ombres, ‘Why then the law?’ (1974) 55 New Blackfriars 302.

19 After almost thirty years of campaigning on the issue, on 9 August 2004 the Sydney Diocesan Synod resolved not to proceed further; but its Resolution included the provision that ‘This Synod believes, with deep conviction under Almighty God, that there is no prohibition or restriction in the holy scriptures, or in Christian doctrine, on the administration (sometimes referred to as “presidency”) of the Lord's Supper by a suitable person, but who is not a bishop or an episcopally ordained priest.’

20 R Burn, Ecclesiastical Law (London, 1842), pp 304–305, quoted in N Doe, The Legal Framework of the Church of England: a critical study in a comparative context (Oxford, 1996), p 267.

21 Gorham v Bishop of Exeter (1850) 1 Cripps' Church and Clergy Cases 266 PC.

22 A Jordan, ‘George Cornelius Gorham, clerk v Henry Philpotts: a case of Anglican anxieties’ (1998) 5 Ecc LJ 108, quoting Lord Langdale MR.

23 Williams v Bishop of Salisbury (1864) 2 Moo PCC NS 375.

24 Doe, The Legal Framework of the Church of England, p 267. For a comprehensive historical review of doctrine cases, see Rowell, ‘An historical perspective on doctrine and discipline in the Church of England’.

25 T Briden and R Ombres, ‘Law, theology and history in the judgments of Chancellor Garth Moore’ (1994) 3 Ecc LJ 227.

26 Re St Peter, St Helier, Morden: Re St Olave, Mitcham [1951] P 303; [1951] 2 All ER 53 at 61, Southwark Cons Ct.

27 Re St Edward the Confessor, Mottingham [1983] 1 WLR 364–366 at 365, Southwark Cons Ct. Granting liberty to amend and reapply, he made it clear that he would like to see the introduction of the plaque into the church: his objection was purely to its siting. The petition was later granted, as amended.

28 Whether or not he was accurately reported in the Church Times of 4 May 1984 as saying ‘I wouldn't put it past God to arrange a virgin birth if He wanted, but I very much doubt if He would’, he certainly told General Synod in July 1986 that ‘the birth narratives are far more about the obedience of Mary and Joseph in response to the unique graciousness of God than about Mary's physical virginity’: see General Synod July Group of Sessions 1986, Report of Proceedings 17: 2 465–471 and DE Jenkins, The Calling of a Cuckoo (London and New York, NY, 2002), p 180.

29 LW Countryman, ‘Healing leaves: the Bible as a source of hope’ (2001) 83(4) Anglican Theological Review, available at <>, accessed 12 June 2007.

30 [First] Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission, Authority in the Church (Venice, 1976 and London, 1977), para 2, published in The Final Report, Windsor, September 1981 (London and Cincinnati, OH, 1982), pp 49–67.

31 Emphasis added.

32 An observation by Joe Cassidy, for which we are extremely grateful.

33 Nassau Report, 3(3).

34 RF Holloway, The Stranger in the Wings: affirming faith in a God of surprises (London, 1994), p 49.

35 JRW Stott, Evangelical Truth: a personal plea for unity, integrity and faithfulness (Nottingham, 1999), pp 53–54.

36 John Barton suggests that if the Song of Songs had turned up for the first time among the Dead Sea Scrolls, no one would have seriously suggested that it might be a candidate for inclusion in the canon of scripture – however splendid it might be as a work of erotic poetry: J Barton, People of the Book? The authority of the Bible in Christianity (London, 1988), p 60.

37 FM Young, The Making of the Creeds (London, 1991), x.

38 [Second] Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission, Mary: grace and hope in Christ (Harrisburg, PA and London, 2005).

39 Countryman, ‘Healing leaves’.

40 Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, ‘We believe in God’ (1987) in Contemporary Doctrine Classics from the Church of England, p 57.

41 Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, ‘The mystery of salvation’ (1995) in Contemporary Doctrine Classics from the Church of England, p 356.

42 J John, ‘Lent Talk’ BBC Radio 4, 4 April 2007: available at <>, accessed 27 April 2007.

43 For example, ‘Evangelical bishops attack Jeffrey John talk (without reading it)’, Ekklesia, 4 April 2007, available at <>, accessed 1 May 2007.

44 See the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, paras 3 (diocesan arrangements), 4 (regional arrangements) and 5 (provincial arrangements) respectively.

45 Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1992, s 1(2).

46 MJ Nazir-Ali et al, Women Bishops in the Church of England? (London, 2004).

47 Ibid, para 5.3.2.

48 Ibid, paras 5.3.5–5.3.6.

49 Ibid, paras 5.3.12–5.3.15, 5.3.17–5.3.20.

50 Ibid, paras 8.1.15–8.1.18.

51 Church Times, 1 July 2005. The signatories included six diocesan bishops (Blackburn, Chester, Chichester, Durham, Europe and Exeter) and the three Provincial Episcopal Visitors.

52 GS 1605: see General Synod July Group of Sessions 2005, Report of Proceedings 36(2) 327–377. An informant present at the debate felt afterwards that, though the technical effect of the motion was to begin the process of removing legal impediments so that a future decision could be implemented more expediently, many who voted regarded the motion more as a straw poll to test the mind of Synod as to whether or not there was a case for consecrating women as bishops.

53 Agreed to on a division by Houses: General Synod February Group of Sessions 2006, Report of Proceedings 37(1) 56–89.

54 General Synod July Group of Sessions 2006, Report of Proceedings 37(2) 85.

55 [First] Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission: Authority in the Church II (Windsor, 1981), para 30, published in The Final Report, Windsor, September 1981, pp 49–67.

56 The Religion Report, ‘Venerating Mary’ (ABC Radio National, 25 May 2005). A verbatim transcript is available at <>, accessed 27 April 2007.

57 D Phillips, ‘ARCIC on Mary, or things vainly invented’ (2005) 97 CrossWay, available at <>, accessed 30 May 2007.

58 J Maltby: ‘Anglicanism, the Reformation and the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission's Agreed Statement Mary: grace and hope in Christ’ (2007) 110 (855) Theology 171–172; likewise Zacharias and the recitation of the Benedictus at Matins.

59 Ibid, 172–173. Portsmouth Cathedral, for example, is dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury.

60 Ibid, 172–175.

61 Ibid, 176–177.

62 Ibid, 175.

63 One wonders, for example, about the way in which a number of mainstream Anglicans – not just evangelicals – will react to the statement in paragraph 51 that we ‘are agreed that Mary and the saints pray for the whole Church’. It should also be noted that the Commission does not appear to question any of the detail in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, even though their historicity is by no means a matter of universal agreement. In a scathing critique of the way in which the statement handles the Biblical material, Gerald Downing suggests that ‘We appear to be invited to enjoy uncritically the several imaginings by various ancient authors and subsequent commentators. We are not encouraged to ask in what proportions the portrayals might arguably be shown to be factual or fictional’: FG Downing, ‘Mary: between minimal history and maximal myth’ (2007) 110 (855) Theology 163.

64 Mary: grace and hope in Christ, para 60.

65 And also, it is to be assumed, the terms of Article XX, if only by implication.

66 Mary: grace and hope in Christ, para 60.

67 Ibid, para 63.

68 Ibid.

69 It appears that they were first described in J Willis, ‘Statutory interpretation in a nutshell’, (1938) 16 Canadian Bar Review 1–27.

70 Put succinctly by Lord Bridge of Harwich: ‘a statute means exactly what it says and does not mean what it does not say’: Associated Newspapers v Wilson [1995] 2 AC 454–490 at 475, HL.

71 So that in R v Allen (1872) LR 1 CCR 367 it was held that, though the definition of a bigamist in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 s 57 as ‘Whosever, being married, shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife …’ was hopelessly defective, it should be construed as meaning ‘one who goes through the ceremony of marriage a second time’.

72 FAR Bennion, Statutory Interpretation (third edition, London, 1997), p 424.

73 But nor are many other things (such as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle) that are not normally thought to be ‘for necessity of Salvation’; moreover, reason suggests that, instead of being assumed bodily into Heaven at the end of their lives, people simply die. As for possible objections to the idea of any kind of ‘immaculate’ as opposed to ordinary human conception, with all that such a doctrine implies both for the nature of humanity and for sexuality, that matter is beyond the scope of this article.

74 House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England, Issues in Human Sexuality (London, 1991), para 5.6: ‘While unable … to commend the [homosexual] way of life … as in itself as faithful a reflection of God's purposes in creation as the heterophile, we do not reject those who sincerely believe it is God's call to them’.

75 Issues in Human Sexuality, para 5.17.

76 RD Harries et al, Some Issues in Human Sexuality: a guide to the debate (London, 2003).

77 Lambeth Commission on Communion, The Windsor Report 2004 (London, 2004).

78 Anglican Communion Primates' Meeting Communiqué 25 February 2005, para 12, available at <>, accessed 28 April 2007.

79 Anglican Communion News Service, 22 June 2005, available at <>, accessed 27 April 2007.

80 Communiqué of the Primates' Meeting in Dar es Salaam 19 February 2007, para 19, available at <>, accessed 28 April 2007.

81 ‘Pray with, but don't bless gay couples, say Canadians’, Church Times, 4 May 2007, 8. For a detailed treatment of the issue, see AT Perry, ‘Sex and the Anglican Communion: a Canadian perspective’, (2006) 3 Foundation 61–68.

82 Anglican Communion News Service, 26 September 2007, available at <>, accessed 26 September 2007.

83 P Colton, Presidential Address to the Cork, Cloyne and Ross Diocesan Synod, 10 June 2006.

84 There is some argument as to whether the word arsenokoitai is to be taken as referring specifically to homosexual activity: see Some Issues in Human Sexuality: a guide to the debate, paras 4.3.26–4.3.32.

85 ‘… or about other subjects that have fascinated those with a taste for controversy’: DL Edwards, ‘It was never meant to be perfect’, Church Times, 6 May 2005. Against that, however, the bishops pointed out that ‘from the fact that [Jesus] supports with his own authority the statement in Genesis that in the beginning God created humankind male and female, and uses that as a basis for ethical guidance (Matt. 19:3–9; Mark 10:1–12), it is not unreasonable to infer that he regarded heterosexual love as the God-given pattern’: Issues in Human Sexuality, para 2.17.

86 Some Issues in Human Sexuality, para 4.4.54.

87 Ibid, para 4.4.58.

88 Ibid, para 4.4.67.

89 Ibid.

90 Ibid, para 4.4.70.

91 TW Bartel, Some Issues in Human Sexuality: a reliable guide to the debate on homosexuality? (London, 2005), available at <>, accessed 27 April 2007.

92 (1996) Court for the Trial of a Bishop, ECUSA: no longer, alas, available on the Internet.

93 Stanton v Righter s II.E.

94 Stanton v Righter s II.D. The Court found that there was ‘no Core Doctrine prohibiting the ordination of a non-celibate, homosexual person living in a faithful and committed sexual relationship with a person of the same sex’ (s II.B).

95 Forster, ‘The significance of the Declaration of Assent’, p 170.

96 As, one suspects, does almost everyone else, whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Liberal, Evangelical or even Quaker.

97 Windsor Report, paras 54–55, emphasis in original.

98 Ibid, para 58.

99 Ibid, para 60.

100 Ibid, para 62.

101 Ibid, appendix 2.

102 Exodus 20:13.

103 Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27.

104 Mary: grace and hope in Christ, p 9.

105 P Bagshaw, ‘Doctrine, law and law courts’ (2005) 108 (845) Theology 351–352.

106 RF Holloway, ‘Behold, I make all things new’ in J John (ed), Living Tradition (London, 1992), p 116.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Necessary to Salvation? The Canon Law of the Church of England and the Interpretation of Scripture

  • Frank Cranmer (a1) (a2) and Tom Heffer (a3)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.