The idea that Anglicanism is a middle way, a via media, is about as slippery as the meaning of ‘Anglicanism’ itself. Whatever one would prefer be the case, to a large extent the meaning of ‘Anglican via media’ depends on definitions and judgements concerning which there is no consensus and probably can be no consensus.
In particular no single possible definition of the Anglican via media is possible because the terms between which Anglicanism supposedly mediates are not clear. In this post I will not attempt a single definition of via media, but instead will try to clarify the main possibilities for definition. That is, I will try to outline the more common meanings assigned to via media by identifying bifurcations between which some believe Anglicanism mediates or oscillates. Or, if the reader prefers, I will suggest pairs of distinctions between which some believe Anglicanism compromises or straddles.
Anglicanism is, I think, most commonly said to mediate between three main bifurcations. Or to put that point in other terms, Anglicanism is in part defined by not simply resolving itself into either of these pairs between which it is in some ways located:
- Reformed Protestantism versus Lutheranism; or,
- Protestantism [or Radical Reformation] versus Roman Catholicism; or,
- Western Christendom versus Eastern Orthodoxy.
More recently, if one believes the current Anglican Communion is still Anglican in any significant sense, it might be viewed harshly, but not implausibly, as located between classical Christian (Nicaean, Chalcedonian) orthodoxy and contemporary agnosticism or secularism. I have no interest, however, in exploring that particular possibility, and instead will turn to consideration of Anglicanism in relation to the other three bifurcations.
The Reformed – Lutheran distinction makes some historical sense in the context particularly of 16th and 17th century England. It is not necessary to go into great detail concerning various lines of ‘influence’, but a few relevant facts might be helpfully noted.
On the one hand, from the reign of Henry VIII onward, Lutheran books entered England; Lutheran social conservatism and ideas of passive obedience appealed to the English monarchs for their state Church; real or possible alliances with German princes and kings beckoned; and, for Henry and Elizabeth, the relative restraint of Lutheranism regarding ecclesial iconoclasm and post-reform liturgy made Lutheranism somewhat more attractive than more whitewashed, barebones Reformed options. Throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries national consciousness was growing and increasingly absolutist monarchs (including in France and Spain) sought to harness their national churches to increase their own prestige and power. For the English monarchs, the Lutheran ideals of the godly, reforming prince and of passive obedience to him were appealing and promised increased revenues and power.[i]
Reformed opinion certainly made itself felt directly on Edward and on his main advisors and, in the next reigns, on the Marian exiles, who then manned much of the Elizabethan Church.
In the famous Preface to his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Richard Hooker apparently praises John Calvin, saying, among other things that Calvin was ‘incomparably the wisest man that ever the French Church did enjoy, since the houre it enjoyed him.’[ii] At least the sustained attention Hooker gives to Calvin testifies to Calvinist influence on the Protestant world in general and on the English world in particular. That is true, though I also believe that in his Preface Hooker engages in what one writer, in regard to Hooker on Calvin and English Puritanism, calls ‘a skillful exercise in denigration which sets the tone for the rest of’ the Laws.[iii]
In any case, does the Reformed-Lutheran bifurcation make much sense as a helpful way to define the Anglican via media? Perhaps not. For one thing, Lutherans and the Reformed shared many views, which narrows the field between them. For another, on the Continent there were not during the period in question two clearly opposed Protestant camps, Reformed and Lutheran, between which the Church of England would need to choose or might mediate. Instead, it would be more accurate to say there was a spectrum of positions involving a significant number of issues, practical and theological, including:
— the best or most desirable degree of iconoclasm in Church art and architecture;
— the best nature of Church government (episcopal, synodal, presbyterian, congregational);
— the look of a liturgical settlement and its relation to pre-Reformation liturgy;
— the mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist;
— the specificity of doctrine concerning the soteriological issues eventually summarized in Reformed circles as the five points (TULIP);
— the duty of passive obedience or a right to rebellion regarding the civil authorities.
As late as the reign of Charles I in England it was possible to find clergy who were firmly episcopalian regarding Church government, were proponents of ‘high’ liturgy, but also were thoroughgoing Calvinists on soteriological issues. Henry Hammond in the 1640s and 1650s refers to the papalist-puritanical position on rebellion, which he distinguished from the Lutheran-Anglican position. Most Anglicans probably preferred a kind of ‘high Calvinist’ understanding of the Real Presence to Lutheran consubstantiationism. On some issues Anglicans tended to line up with one or the other Protestant party, but with much ‘mixing and matching’. If that is what is meant by Anglicanism as a via media between the Reformed and the Lutherans, there is some evidence for the idea. Nonetheless, the Reformed-Lutheran bifurcation oversimplifies, not just Anglicanism, but also the internal differences within the 16th and 17th century Reformed and Lutheran camps, not to mention continental attempts to mediate between Reformed and Lutheran positions.
In short, attempts to locate various Anglican writers or documents on a spectrum between some idea of Reformed and some idea of Lutheran theology might be of some historic interest. That attempt might help clarify the original intentions and meanings of some Tudor or Stuart Anglican writers or documents. Apart from such historical questions, it does not seem to me that such attempts illuminate modern Anglicanism in general or the Continuing Church in particular. The party of those who identify with something between Lutheranism and the Reformed and also self-identify as ‘Anglican’ cannot be very large and those few probably are not committed to The Affirmation of Saint Louis.
What, then, about the idea that Anglicans are the via media between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism? Again, there are some facts which make the idea somewhat plausible, and there are reasons to think the idea greatly oversimplified. Most Anglicans agree with Rome in seeing episcopacy as more significant than any Protestant group does. Most Anglicans agree in the Protestant rejection of the Petrine claims defined at Vatican I but less authoritatively asserted by many Romans long before then. While difficulty in pinning down what ‘Anglicans’ believe makes the exercise difficult, the polity issues just mentioned in the previous two sentences do indicate one way in which classical Anglicans hold a position between Protestant and Roman views.
Looking at the matter from the Roman Catholic side, their views of Anglicanism have changed over the years. Prior to the Second Vatican Council Roman Catholics tended to emphasize the importance of the specific differences that distinguish Rome from others. In particular, the papacy, the capstone of the edifice of Roman ecclesiology, was seen as key. With Vatican II and the theologians closely associated with that council, emphasis shifted to belief in a ‘hierarchy of truth’. Instead of emphasizing the specific difference in Romanism as the practically key and essential doctrine, the more recent (and rather Anglican) view notes commonalities and beliefs shared: specific differences were not ignored or minimized, but also not taken as the most important factor. The greater the number of commonalities, the closer a given group was seen to the fullness of faith held in the Roman Church.
With this shift in mind, during and after Vatican II Anglicans were, at least until the ordination of women issue intervened, put into a place on a spectrum of religious bodies somewhat lower than the Eastern Orthodox (and Oriental) Churches but higher than the ecclesial bodies of the continental Reformation. This fact could give some support to an Anglican self-identification as a ‘bridge’ between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. But the middle position for Anglicanism, from this post-Vatican II perspective, is more a point halfway up a pyramid than it is a bridge.
Ultramontane or theologically Romanizing Anglo-Catholics sometimes thought of Anglicanism as a bridge or road leading toward Rome but not (yet) Roman Catholic. On this view, Roman accommodations for married clergy and the Anglican liturgical patrimony, as in the Pastoral Provision and then under Anglicanorum coetibus, could be seen as fulfilments of Anglican hopes: the via media leading to its proper destination. This view, however, is not an Anglican understanding, but a Roman Catholic understanding held by former Anglicans. Romanizing Anglicans do not really see Anglicanism as a via media but rather as a simple via – one leading across the Tiber. Anglicanism has no enduring value or function for the Romanizers.
Anglicanism classically cannot remain itself and also resolve into either side of the Reformed-Lutheran bifurcation or of the Protestant-Roman Catholic bifurcation. In that very general sense, Anglicanism remains somewhat between or in the middle. But in neither case is Anglicanism in the 2020s significantly bridging or mediating between the bifurcations, whatever might have been the case in the past.
[Addendum. One reader quite correctly noted that Anglicanism more particularly can be seen as mediating between Roman Catholicism and the radical Reformation or Anabaptists. Certainly traditional students of the Thirty-nine Articles understand them in this way. E.J. Bicknell, for example, in regard to both the Forty-two and the Thirty-nine Articles, argues that they were ‘designed to smite two opposite enemies.’ On the one hand, they attack some ‘mediaeval teaching and abuses’, and ‘on the other hand they attack Anabaptist tenets.’ (3rd edition; page 11) This view shifts the Anglican ‘media’ a little in a Protestant direction, since the main Protestant pole is not the magisterial Reform but the radicals. As a matter of historical fact, this more precise statement of the matter is helpful. Anglicans were much more opposed to Anabaptist and radical Protestant ideas than to, say, Lutheran ideas. Indeed, one of Hooker’s great rhetorical strategies is to tar Calvin and his followers with the Anabaptist brush. I do not, think, however, that narrowing the ‘Protestant’ pole to ‘radical Protestant’ much alters my basic conclusions and comments on this particular understanding of the main poles between which Anglicanism mediates.]
The idea of Anglicanism as an active and engaging via media between Western Catholic and Eastern Christendom certainly reveals a persistent aspiration within some kinds of Anglicanism. Here one might mention a number of factors.
The humanist movement came late to England, and the recovery of knowledge of Greek and of the Greek Fathers mostly came in England after the first wave of reform there. Edward’s Protestant bishops often did not know Greek, though there certainly were exceptions. A reaction, particularly regarding theological method, came against some of the Protestant theological tendencies that stretch from, say, Cranmer to Jewel. That reaction may relate to increasing familiarity with the corpus of those Greek Fathers. Eventually this broader theological perspective permitted, among other things, a way around various late medieval and early Protestant Western and Latin problems and problematics. This point should not be overemphasized or exaggerated. Nonetheless, the Protestant Reformation was in part a reaction against late medieval and Roman errors that neglected living, existing Orthodox as well as ancient and patristic options. Often Protestants opted for one partial, medieval position against another partial, medieval position, in the name of Scripture, while neglecting patristic positions.
In addition to this matter concerning theological method and authorities, Hugh Trevor-Roper suggests a kind of political and foreign policy effort under Archbishop Laud that mirrors this theological turn. Trevor-Roper argues that Laud attempted to counter the theological/political ‘international’ of Calvinism and the theological/political ‘international’ of the Roman Catholic world by forging an alternative, third ‘international’ that would embrace the Church of England, the Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and dissidents from the other ‘internationals’ such as the Gallicans and ‘Arminians’. Laud’s effort, Trevor-Roper says, was ‘essentially an Erasmian programme…of the centre, of moderate men’, opposed both to the Tridentine and the Calvinist systems and willing to allow freedom in a wide area of adiaphora.[iv]
Later Anglican efforts to make common cause with the Orthodox included contacts in the 18th century involving the Non-Jurors and then eventually the dialogues and societies that made much progress in the late 19th and 20th centuries – until they were derailed by the triumph of theological vacuity and outright heresy in the Canterbury Communion.
The Anglo-Catholics, of course, embraced the Eastern Churches as a living and great example of a Catholicism that was, like Anglicanism itself on their view, both non-papal and non-Protestant.
As the Roman Church became more open to dialogue with other Christians, Anglicans, who already had longstanding, friendly ties with the Orthodox, imagined themselves as a possible bridge between the two greater communions. Anglicans were undoubtedly Western in their history and liturgy, in their debt to Augustine and the schoolmen, and in their familiarity with the Roman Church from years of close proximity. But Anglicans were, like the Orthodox, non-papal, synodal, opposed to excessive doctrinal development and precision, and at least in theory opposed to eccesial authoritarianism and centralism.
Again, Anglicans flatter themselves if they believe either Rome or the Orthodox need Anglicanism as a bridge. Nonetheless, Continuing Anglicans certainly may hope that whatever theological progress Rome and the Orthodox make with each other will be encouraging for us. An understanding of the Petrine Office acceptable to the Orthodox, and raised for discussion by John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint, would likely be acceptable to Anglicans. Finesses to other issues between Rome and the East should suffice for Anglicans as well. For example, the suggestion that the ‘Nicene Creed’ with the filioque clause be accepted by the East as a ‘Western liturgical hymn’, and that the West accept the conciliar text of the Creed (without the clause) as the actual Creed, might be a happy compromise Anglicans could also embrace.
Wherever Anglicanism fits in relation to the bifurcations noted in this post, the nature of the supposed Anglican mediation also can be understood in different ways.
Anglicanism might be thought to compromise or to split the difference between two different positions, perhaps by retaining elements belonging to two, usually oppositionally distinguished, views. One might call this the Anglican via media as a compromise. I have suggested above that whatever historical merit might lie in this approach, it gives us little help in clarifying the nature of our Anglicanism in the Continuing Church.
Alternatively, more actively, and perhaps for some more appealingly, Anglicanism might be thought of as active engagement with two apparently distinct or opposed positions: an engagement that both helps define Anglicanism by contradistinction and also helps to bring the apparently opposed elements into closer relations with each other. This, in traditional self-flattery, Anglicans think of as the Anglican via media as a bridge. In terms of actual, positive ecumenical progress, other Churches and ecclesial traditions do not really need Anglicanism to serve as a bridge for them to contact and communicate with each other.
[Addendum. A third way to understand Anglicanism as via media might be described as theological modesty. As A.M. Ramsey suggested long ago, the fact that no sane Anglican assumes that his Church is simply and exclusively coextensive with the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is itself one of our significant achievements. Anglicanism can avoid both indifferentism and also triumphalism. Anglicanism at its best asserts that the fact of the Roman Church renders triumphalist Eastern claims radically implausible. And the fact of the great Eastern Churches renders triumphalist Roman claims radically implausible. The Anglican view of Rome and the East is more plausible than their views of each other. The tension created by this situation is often painful, but it also seems an inevitable result of the fact of the ecclesial realities around us.]
In the end, the real value to this exercise, exploring the meaning of Anglicanism as a via media, lies in helping us with our self-understanding. From this brief essay I conclude that:
In the 16th and 17th centuries Anglicanism declined to enter either the Reformed or the Lutheran camp in a systematic way, though it shared with both an alienation from the Roman Catholic Church’s growing papalism and its hardening of lines under the Tridentine system;
Anglicanism shared with Rome and the Orthodox an insistence on the maintenance of episcopacy and – I might add here – the practical retention of the seven sacraments (though not an explicit, consistent doctrinal explanation thereof);
Anglicanism is culturally Western, like Rome, and non-papal, like the Orthodox;
Anglicanism shares more with Rome in regard to the substance of its liturgy than with Protestants or the Orthodox, but shares more with the Orthodox an actual, living habit of discovering its faith through its liturgy rather than through ecclesial structures and laws.
While none of these other Churches or ecclesial bodies may be keen on Anglicanism – even on Continuing Anglicanism, shorn of older Anglicanism’s ambiguities – the ways in which we share and do not share beliefs and practices and histories with these various bodies do in fact define us. And so perhaps we may at least affirm that such reflection on commonalities and differences does help give us self-definition and self-understanding, despite the confused and mixed history of many older Anglicans and Anglicanisms.
[i] I think one can indeed see the religious agenda of Henry and Elizabeth as directed to clawing back revenue for the Crown from the papacy and from the domestic Church and as asserting greater royal control over a previously at least somewhat independent body with significant foreign links. This agenda, to increase royal control of religion and so royal power, however, failed badly in the long run. After the English Reformation religious disputes proved the undoing of Charles I and James II, a constant irritant at least to Elizabeth, and a shoal on which Mary’s historical reputation foundered. Henry sought to increase the power of the king by his reforms, and instead opened a Pandora’s box for his successors over the next 140 years.
[ii] The Folger Library Edition of The Words of Richard Hooker. Volume 1. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Preface, Books I to IV. Cambridge & London: Belknap/Harvard. Page 1977. Page 3.
[iii] W.D.J. Cargill Thompson, ‘The Philosopher of the “Politic Society”: Richard Hooker as a Political Thinker’, in Studies in Richard Hooker: Essays Preliminary to an Edition of His Works. Cleveland & London: Case Western Reserve, 1972. Page 14.
[iv] See ‘The Church of England and the Greek Church in the Time of Charles I’ in From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992. Page 89.