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The middle way has been a metaphor for Anglicanism at least since the days of George Herbert in the 17th Century. In his book Love Took My Hand[1], Philip Sheldrake tells us of the great poet’s love for the Church:

“In a sense the particular visible expression of the Body of Christ to which Herbert gave his loyalty, the national Church, was also a ‘sacred’ place. It was local and particular yet also part of the universal Church Catholic. These sentiments are clearly expressed in Herbert’s poem ‘The British Church’. ‘She on the hills’ (Rome) ‘wantonly allureth all’ with her ‘painted shrines’. ‘She in the valley’ (Geneva), on the contrary was ‘…so shy of dressing that her hair doth lie about her ears’.

The Church of England is for Herbert his ‘dearest Mother’. Her way is the middle way: ‘The mean thy praise and glory is’.” Note that ‘mean’ then meant middle. Obviously the middle way in the 17th Century meant to most Anglicans not a compromise but an assertion, a ‘protest’ that the Church was at once reformed and yet not new, and catholic in descent and lineage; truly local and international. True it was only international in that it was perched somewhat insecurely in the New World. Yet the saintly bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrewes, a friend of Herbert’s mother, insisted in his prayers and sermons that Rome was truly part of the Church, as were the Orthodox, and those Continental churches with the episcopate and even those who had lost the episcopal succession through no fault of their own.

The concept of Anglicanism as the middle way, the Via Media is not the same as a later claim that Anglicanism is a bridge church between “Catholicism” and “Protestantism”. As someone has said, who wants to live on a bridge? What is the purpose of such a bridge?

It is important to note that our heritage is to be a middle way, a ‘moderation’, pointed to both differences and commonality between ourselves as Rome on the one hand and Geneva on the other. Note also that Herbert places us in that context and not as a middle way between Constantinople and Wittenburg.

Our differences with Rome were obvious. We denied Rome’s assertion that doctrine develops through the actions of popes or councils. Thus we agreed with Geneva that all attempts to teach the Gospel within a culture and generation must always be tested at the bar of Scripture: to which Anglicans would add the tradition and sanctified reason. We denied Geneva’s dismantlement of the church, starting as it were anew and developing a tradition based on the teachings of a single individual and his interpreters. Here was the Anglican protest against iconoclasts and those who believed they had the authority to remake the church in their own image, based on the decisions of a local democratic synod.

In both senses Anglicanism, in its moderation, developed as a very ‘conservative’ church. In denying Rome’s claim to universal jurisdiction and to add to core doctrine teachings unknown in the Early Church Anglicanism took a very cautious approach to what would later be termed by Newman, doctrinal development.

In denying the right of a local church, such as Geneva, to overthrow the order of the church “known from the Apostles’ time” and to place theories of predestination and election and the atonement, never before officially defined, in the realm of core doctrine, Anglicanism once again identified itself as a local church, and eschewed any claim to speak as if it were alone and in itself the universal church.

To use a modern term, ‘subsidiarity’ was located at the parish, diocesan and national levels, and the top level was left vacant. We did not pretend to be the Universal Church or claim its powers. In that area also we exercised moderation.

It may well seem that such a position stifles ‘prophetic’ voices. In fact this has not been the case. Hugh Latimer championed the poor and even went to prison as he defied those in authority whose policies robbed the poor of income and homes. Thomas Treherne was perhaps the first ecologist among us. The Evangelicals campaigned against slavery, child labor and much else. Anglo-Catholics went into the slums, and some became the first Christian Socialists. Our own American manifestation of the Church championed Civil Rights in the 60’s and continues so to do.

We have a goodly heritage of women and men who have put the Gospel into practice. Our very claim to be a local manifestation of the Church and not a denomination spurs us to reject the Genevan ideal of a gathered church of devotees. In fact in a deep sense we do not identify ourselves as Episcopalians or Anglicans, except in descriptive terms, but rather as Church people. Such a claim does not pose a challenge to other churches, or limit our devotion to ecumenism and to restoring the oneness and unity of the Church. Rather we offer to the whole Church our insights of moderation and comprehension, our ideal of being merely the Church, locally expressed in diocese and parish. Our mission is to include all who walk through the waters of baptism and claim the faith of the universal church.

In an age in which our local American expression of the Church seems to sit lightly on its moderation, places stress on a chauvinistic denominationalism, and lightly claims doctrinal development based solely on the authority of a local synod, it is high time that our defining claim to be the Via Media is recaptured, proclaimed and taught. Such a discovery of who we are would inspire and enliven local church growth and spiritual health. We would cease to offer something we call Episcopalianism in our localities and once again offer ourselves as merely the Church, locally expressed, with a mission to all people, in all places and at all times.

[1] Philip Sheldrake, Love Took My Hand, Cowley, 2000