“The English School of Theology experienced a renaissance of sorts under the ‘Caroline Divines,’ the theologians who delineated the manner in which the Church of England did and did not agree with the Reformation as articulated on the Continent; these Divines number among them Blessed Lancelot Andrewes, Blessed George Herbert, Blessed John Cosin, Blessed Thomas Ken, Blessed William Laud, Blessed Jeremy Taylor, and Richard Hooker. These men were most emphatic on demonstrating their adherence to the Fathers of the Church rather than to their own reading of Scriptures.”
Gerald McDermott – recently retired Chair of Anglican Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, the author or editor of 23 books, and teacher of courses in Anglicanism, history and doctrine, theology of world religions, and Jonathan Edwards – on the much-debated subject of the Anglican via media.
As quoted above, McDermott writes that “One could say that the argument over the Via Media is its own via media, cutting through two camps in the Anglican Communion,” and continues,
“Although there have been various ways of interpreting the term [via media], more recently its interpretation has divided two groups of Anglicans—those who insist on the Reformed character of Anglicanism and those who see Anglicanism as a way of being reformed and catholic but distinct from Rome.
The first group of Anglicans (let’s call them ‘Calvinist Anglicans’) says that the via media runs between Wittenberg and Geneva but finally ends in Geneva. The English Reformation, by its lights, was first inspired by Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and grace alone. Then it turned to Calvin and his Institutes as its best expression of Christian faith purged of papist ceremonial. Cranmer and Jewell turned attention away from Catholic spectacle and back toward the preached Word. The Protestant center of Anglicanism is demonstrated by the Thirty-Nine Articles’ exaltation of biblical authority and rejection of Catholic sacramentalism.
“The other group of Anglicans (‘reformed catholic Anglicans’ might be apt) acknowledges Reformed influence on the early Anglican theologians and continued Reformation influence on Anglican soteriology and authority. For a few examples, Anglicans have always rejected Pelagianism, papism, and Mariolatry. But reformed catholic Anglicans point as well to the embrace of catholic worship—not Roman but patristic, and that of the undivided Church of the first millennium of Christianity—by its earliest reformers and continuing through the Elizabethan and Restoration eras.”
“For these and a hundred other reasons, historians such as the general editor of the Oxford History of Anglicanism have maintained that ‘[d]eveloping within Anglicanism over centuries was a creative but also divisive tension between Protestantism and Catholicism, between the Bible and tradition, between the Christian past and contemporary thought and society.'”
It will probably surprise few regular readers of this blog that The Anglophilic Anglican falls into the second of these two camps: seeing in the Anglican tradition an expression of Christianity which is both Reformed and Catholic, but not Romanist. So, it appears, does McDermott; and he spends the rest of this fairly long but interesting essay in defending that stance – or as he puts it, endeavoring to
“show in this space that the reformed catholic conception of the via media as running between Rome and Geneva more accurately depicts the Anglican story than the Calvinist one. The Reformed tradition has had an undoubted influence upon our faith and worship, but it is only part of the story” –
as well as providing some cautions for those who would behave in a manner too over-zealous, on either side. As he concludes,
“I would suggest that… we should accept our Calvinist Anglican brothers and sisters as good Anglicans whom we can invite to share more of our rich Anglican patrimony. Come not only to hear but also to taste and see.
“We ask in turn that our Calvinist brethren would accept us as genuine Anglicans [as well]. Let us say to one another, Come let us reason together and learn from each other.
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 viamedia 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!
For the last few years I have made it clear that Anglicans cannot use the words “Catholic” and “Protestant” to mean two opposite and irreconcilable positions, or even to mean mutually exclusive positions. For us a good Protestant (in the Anglican sense) has to be a good Catholic, and vice versa…
“What really separates English Reformation theology and the Oxford Movement is simply time. It is not a matter of disagreement. Time created its own emergencies, needing doctrinal clarification…
“The strength of Anglicanism today is that we have the restoration of Evangelical truth in our foundation, and we have the fullness of Catholic faith, worship and sacramental practice. We did not obtain this great inheritance by excluding any portion of the Faith of the Universal Church, but by possessing it all.
“One need of our era is to correct the misperceptions of Schools X and Y, and refuse to be pressured into losing part of our wealth by taking unnecessary losses through false choices.”
In my opinion, this essay by Fr. Robert Hart expresses very effectively and persuasively (*) what I believe is the proper balance in the Anglican tradition as truly Reformed Catholic: that is, occupying – dare I say? – an appropriate “Via Media” between the extreme High-Church Anglo-Catholic and extreme Low-Church Evangelical positions.
(* Despite what, Fr. Hart’s disclaimer / explanation in the comments notwithstanding, I cannot help but think is a slight caricature of the late-medieval, pre-Reformation English Church (I tend to take a more irenic view of Eamon Duffy’s evidence and interpretations)… but only slight.)