Tuesday, June 01, 2010
Exploding the Myth of the Anglican ‘Via Media’
By Robin G. Jordan
According to one popular contemporary theory of Anglican identity Anglicanism is like the ancient Greek sea-god Proteus, also known as the Old Man of the Sea, who was capable of taking many shapes and forms. This Protean capacity to shape-shift enables traditionalist Anglo-Catholics, Convergentists, and radical liberals to confidently claim that they each represent a genuine expression of Anglicanism. This theory points to the confusion over the character of Anglicanism in the twenty-first century. In this article series, “Discovering Classical Anglicanism," I will “grasp the nettle” and tackle a number of myths prevalent in North American Anglicanism and introduce North American Anglicans to their Classical Anglican heritage.
The Oxford movement was one of the first ideological movements in the Church of England that sought not only to rewrite English Church history but also to redefine the Protestant and Reformed character of classical Anglicanism and reinterpret the place of the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement in its development. One group in the Oxford movement took an extremely dim view of the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement. They claimed that the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement were the worst thing to happen the English Church in its entire history. They not only represented a major break in the Church’s long and fruitful relationship with the Church of Rome but also constituted a terrible calamity in the otherwise glorious history of one of Christendom’s most Catholic Churches. This group’s view was for a large part the dominant view in the Oxford movement.
Second group made the preposterous claim that the faith of the Church of England had remained the same after the English Reformation as it had been before the Reformation. They blamed Puritanism, and Presbyterianism for the eighteenth century Evangelical Movement, arguing that the former were the result of foreign influences and the latter was alien to classical Anglicanism, which they asserted was thoroughly Catholic.
A third group tried to appropriate and rehabilitate leading figures of the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement such as John Jewel and Richard Hooker for its own purposes, claiming them to be forerunners of their own movement. They adopted a practice that would become the trademark of Tractarian scholarship. They would cite these figures where they in their preaching and writing appeared to support Tractarian viewpoint. In this way they could claim continuity with the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement. They did the same thing with the early Church Fathers and the Caroline divines. However, anyone who took the time to read the entire sermon, letter or other work of the particular theologian whom they claimed supported their viewpoint would find ample evidence that was not the case. Their contemporaries challenged their scholarship. But their revisionist views gained acceptance in certain quarters of the Church of England and the then Protestant Episcopal Church that they survive to plague us to this very day. Having once received as a true account a revisionist account of what a particular theologian believed and taught, the propensity that people display to cling to such accounts even though they are patently untrue explains the persistence of revisionist thought. Post-modernism with its attitude that truth is subjective and what is true for one person may not be true for another has not helped matters.
Dubious scholarship is not confined to the Tractarians and their Ritualist and Anglo-Catholic successors. Liberals have also adopted a practice that has come to distinguish their scholarship. While conservative scholars tend to look for what is shared by all those concerned alike, what unites them, liberal scholars look for what they do not share, what divides them. They focus on the exceptions to the dominant or prevailing theology or practice and points of difference between leading theologians in a particular historic period. They then use these differences to claim a much higher degree of diversity in doctrine and practice than was actually the case and use this claimed diversity to support their argument that Anglicanism has historically embraced a broad range of beliefs and practices and in turn to justify tolerance of such a range of beliefs and practices in the modern-day Anglican Church, especially their own particular beliefs and practices.
As a theory of Anglican identity the theory of the Church of England and Anglicanism as a “via media,” Latin for “middle road or way,” between two poles has created a great deal of confusion since the nineteenth century. John Newman and Edward Pusey would develop this theory. Later Newman would reject it and become a Roman Catholic.
The via media theory is essentially a denial of the Protestant and Reformed character of classical Anglicanism. It seeks to detach the passenger car of classical Anglicanism from the locomotive of the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement and pull it in another direction.
For Pusey the two poles were Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglicanism was a third branch of Christianity. Its origin lay back somewhere in the dim mists of the early history of the British Isles, in the period when Britain was still a Roman province. Some unknown apostle brought the Christian faith to the British Isles from Spain or North African or even directly from Jerusalem or Judea, following the trade routes that linked Britain to the ancient Mediterranean world.
Fredrick Dennison Maurice would subsequently rework the via media theory into a more dynamic form. Unlike Newman who looked back to a distant past, Maurice looked forward to the future. He envisioned a coming universal church, made up of autonomous national churches, each of which maintained the six marks of Catholicity-- baptism, Eucharist, the creeds, Scripture, an episcopally ordered ministry, and a fixed liturgy. His theory would have a strong appeal to Anglicans outside of the Oxford movement. In the closing decades of the twentieth century Maurice’s theory would enjoy popularity with the Ancient-Future or Convergence movement which saw itself as the forefront of the emerging universal church that Maurice had envisioned.
For some writers the poles are Rome and Geneva. The English Church rejected the unreformed Catholicism of Rome and the radical Protestantism of Geneva and took a middle route between the two. But like the other via media theories this theory is untenable. The Protestantism of Geneva was not the most radical form of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. The doctrine of the post-Reformation Church of England puts it squarely in the Reformed camp with Geneva. The Edwardian and Elizabethan Reformers saw the post-Reformation English Church as a Reformed Church like the French and Swiss Reformed Churches. The continental Reformers, in turn, recognized the Church of England as a Reformed Church. The main differences between the Church of England and the Church of Geneva were “the shape of the Church-State link and the acceptance of episcopacy.”
For other writers the poles are all forms of extremism. In this view Anglican via media is interpreted as the path of moderation—the “golden mean”—neither too much nor too little. When there are two contradictory views, a third view that combines elements of the two other views and represents a more moderate view is the “Anglican Way.”
Some writers, for example, find evidence of the concept of Anglicanism as a via media between Catholic and Reformed theology and practice as early as the Elizabethan Settlement--in the three changes that Elizabeth I made in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer. The 1559 Book of Common Prayer is substantially the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Reformed Liturgy. Elizabeth I struck out the supplication for deliverance from the Pope and all his detestable enormities from the Litany, added the 1549 Words of Distribution to the 1552 Words of Distribution and dropped the Declaration on Kneeling, the famous or infamous “Black Rubric.”
Two of the changes that Elizabeth I made had more to do with her own personal preferences than anything else. Elizabeth I, after all, was a Tudor monarch. The reason that the supplication relating to the Pope was omitted was diplomatic; Elizabeth I was then involved in delicate negations with the Pope. Like her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth I set a premium on political stability. In her case, it not only meant securing her claim to the throne but also preserving her life. She needed political stability to establish her rule and prevent a foreign claimant from deposing and executing her. To read into these events a deliberate attempt to create a middle-of-the-road church is to read too much into them. Despite the omission of the Declaration of Kneeling from the Elizabethan Prayer Book the doctrine contained in the declaration was still taught in the English Church.
Elizabeth imposed restrictions upon preaching and preachers in the Church of England that were politically motivated. Sermons were limited to one a month in parish churches. At all other times a portion from one of the Books of Homilies was to be read. The Pope had refused to recognize Elizabeth’s claim to the English throne and had declared the throne to be empty, free for the taking by any Catholic monarch who invaded England. Anyone who assassinated Elizabeth was absolved of the crime of murder. In 1212 Innocent III had done something similar with King John, declaring John deposed and inviting the French King, Philip Augustus, to invade England. John was forced to submit to Rome.
John Knox’s The Monstrous Regime of Women had not endeared the Genevan Church to Elizabeth. The ministers of Genevan Church chose the magistrates and ran that city-state. Those who wanted to reform the Church of England along the same lines as the Genevan Church also wanted to establish a similar theocracy in England.
Elizabeth saw in the Puritan movement a seditious movement, seeking like the Church of Rome to deprive her of the English throne. This is why she ordered Archbishop of Edmund Grindal to suppress the practice of prophesying. When he refused to do so, she suspended him from the office of Archbishop and put him under house arrest. She appointed royal commissioners to perform his judicial, state, and temporal duties and sequestered him in his palace to the day of his death.
Some writers claim that the Elizabethan Church was more Catholic than once thought because Elizabeth had a silver cross or crucifix in the royal chaplain and the royal chaplains wore eucharistic vestments. The appointments of the royal chapel and the vesture of the royal chaplains, these writers argue, were the tip of the iceberg.
When this claim is compared with what we do know about the Elizabethan Church, its flimsiness is apparent. The cross was a cause of friction between Elizabeth and her bishops who repeatedly urged her to remove the cross. Bishop of Salisbury John Jewel registered his disapproval of how the royal chaplains vested for the Communion Service in a letter to the Swiss Reformer Henry Bullinger with whom he had regular correspondence. The queen herself put a stop to the attempts of her chaplains to reintroduce pre-Reformation ceremonies into the services of the royal chapel.
Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker’s Advertisements established standard for clerical vesture for the Church of England. Archbishop Parker was forced to issue the Advertisements after Elizabeth repeatedly refused his requests that she as supreme governor of the English Church set such standards for the Church. Parker’s Advertisements prohibited the wearing of eucharistic vestments. They permitted the wearing of a cope in cathedrals and college chapels. The only vestment permitted in parish churches was a comely white surplice with long sleeves. Even then a number of Puritan clergy refused to wear a surplice for church services, preferring to wear ordinary street clothes. They particularly objected to the dress that the Advertisements prescribed for every day wear for clergy—a long ankle-length black cassock and a flat, four-cornered Cambridge cap.
The via media theory is in some circles regarded as a sine qua none of Anglicanism. The result has been that each new school of thought seeking acceptance as being “authentically Anglican” has adopted this theory in some form as evidence that it has the right credentials. This in turn has caused a proliferation of via media theories. However, the theory of the Anglican via media is just that—a theory. In other words, it is mere speculation. Some Anglicans have difficult accepting this fact. They have heard the via media theory repeated over and over again in one form or another that they have come to believe that it is a certainty—a truth. This is an example of what every good propagandist knows: if you repeat a lie over and over again enough times people will eventually come to believe it including those telling the lie.
In Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler called this principle—“The Big Lie.” He pointed out that the bigger the lie and the more often it is repeated, the more people are going to come to believe it. He also pointed out that when those telling the lie came to believe it themselves, it reduced the amount of energy and the number of people that need to be invested in telling the lie. The lie would reach the stage where it was telling itself. Whatever we may think of Hitler, he understood the principles of propaganda. Anglicanism’s Big Lie is the Anglican via media theory in its various forms.
Classical Anglicanism is no via media between Catholicism and Protestantism or a middle path between the Church of Rome and the Church of Geneva. It is no path of moderation between all forms of extremism. Classical Anglicanism is a peculiarly English conservative form of Protestantism. Its peculiar Englishness and its conservatism resulted in its retention of a number of practices of the pre-Reformation English Church. Its theology, however, places it unambiguously in the Reformed mainstream. It is grounded in the Bible and the Reformation. As Bishop John Jewel wrote Peter Martyr at Zurich in 1562, “As to matters of doctrine, we have pared everything away to the quick, and do not differ from you by a nail’s breadth.” In my next article in this series we will take a closer look at this peculiarly English conservative form of Protestantism.
Posted by Robin G. Jordan at 8:07 AM