“The British Church” – George Herbert (with some reflections thereupon)

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“A Distant View of Hythe Village and Church, Kent” – Arthur Nelson (c. 1767).

The British Church

~ by George Herbert (1633)

I joy, dear mother, when I view
Thy perfect lineaments, and hue
Both sweet and bright.
Beauty in thee takes up her place,
And dates her letters from thy face,
When she doth write.
A fine aspect in fit array,
Neither too mean nor yet too gay,
Shows who is best.
Outlandish looks may not compare,
For all they either painted are,
Or else undress’d.
She on the hills which wantonly
Allureth all, in hope to be
By her preferr’d,
Hath kiss’d so long her painted shrines,
That ev’n her face by kissing shines,
For her reward.
She in the valley is so shy
Of dressing, that her hair doth lie
About her ears;
While she avoids her neighbour’s pride,
She wholly goes on th’ other side,
And nothing wears.
But, dearest mother, what those miss,
The mean, thy praise and glory is
And long may be.
Blessed be God, whose love it was
To double-moat thee with his grace,
And none but thee.

 

Nota Bene: Herbert is referring, of course, to the Anglican via media (“middle way”), which is perhaps best thought of in Aristotelian terms as the “Golden Mean” between the extremes of surfeit (too much of something) and deficit (too little). Indeed, “via media” is itself a 19th-century term for this phenomenon; earlier centuries expressed it as the mean (cf. Herbert, above) between extremes, or even, as we shall see below, a “virtuous mediocrity.” But all can be understood in fundamentally the same sense.

Herbert’s view in this poem is expressed in rather more extreme language by Bishop Simon Patrick of Ely (1625-1707), who wrote of “that virtuous mediocrity which our Church observes between the meretricious gaudiness of the Church of Rome and the squalid slattery of fanatic conventicles” – though it should be noted that, as one scholarly commentator has pointed out, “squalid slattery” fits the sectaries of the Civil War and Commonwealth period better than the sober demeanor of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches of the Continent, the products of the magisterial Reformation.

And indeed, it was within that context – the era of the English Civil War and Interregnum, and the eventual Restoration, that Bishop Patrick was writing.

In any case, a love of order, seemliness, and good taste (cf. I Corinthians 14:40 – “Let all things be done decently and in order”) has led the Anglican Church along a middle path between these two extremes. And as it has furthermore been elsewhere noted, the via media meant positioning the English Church such that it could recognize not only its affinity with the medieval catholic tradition, on the one hand, but with the enduring legacy of the Reformation, on the other: a position of both-and, not either-or.

Indeed, I would submit that the Anglican via media represents the point where several axes come together, if one can visualize a multi-dimensional graph: the legacy of the medieval Catholic tradition and that of the magisterial Reformation, as noted above; “High Church” and “Low Church” liturgy and churchmanship; Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical theology; and indeed Eastern and Western forms of catholic orthodoxy.

I believe that, as a contemporary Collect for that great 16th-century Anglican divine, Richard Hooker, has put it, the Anglican via media is to be understood

“not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.”

The challenge, and the sadness, of course, is that humans have a tendency to want to hive off into our own little enclaves, and to declare our understanding of the “truth” to be the only one that is acceptable. Anglicans are no less guilty of this than are others!