It is customary nowadays to describe the Anglican middle ground as some form of faction or party occupying space between the liberal and conservative wings of the Episcopal Church. No one is quite sure what its members believe. It seems not to be organized. It has no vocal leaders, no journal or newsletter, no funding and no lobby.

Such a view has its origins in the neat but seldom accurate method of describing the later 19th Century church as being a coalition between High, Broad and Low Church parties, each competing for leadership or influence. There is some truth in all this, but only some. Each party or faction had its moment of ascendancy. As with all such “moments” to others the program pursued by such a party may have seemed to be the last word, the defining moment, that which would establish the nature of Anglicanism for all times. This has never been the case.

It is true that these parties left their traces, even left legacies to be re-discovered at a later time. None successfully transformed the church. Their contribution was woven into the fabric of the whole in what the late great Archbishop McAdoo termed “the Anglican Symbiosis.” He describes this symbiosis by quoting Jeremy Taylor:

What can be supposed wanting (in our Church) in order to salvation? We have the Word of God, the Faith of the Apostles, the Creeds of the Primitive Church, the Articles of the four first General Councils, a holy Liturgy, excellent prayers, perfect sacraments, faith and repentance, the Ten Commandments, and the sermons of Christ, and all the precepts and counsels of the Gospels. We teach the necessity of good works, and require and strictly exact the severity of a holy life. We live in obedience to God, and are ready to die for him, and do so when he requires us so to do…We worship him at the mention of his holy name. We confess his attributes. We love his servants. We pray for all men. We love all Christians, even our most erring brethren. We confess our sins to God and to our brethren whom we have offended, and to God’s ministers in cases of scandal or of a troubled conscience. We communicate often…our priests absolve the penitent. Our Bishops ordain priests and confirm baptized persons, and bless their people and intercede for them. And what could be here wanting for salvation.

To describe the middle way as a party is therefore erroneous. The middle way has never been a party. Its nature and reality has never been portrayed by any single movement or prophetic person in the history of Anglicanism. There is a simple reason for this. Anglicanism IS the middle way. Perhaps it was the saintly George Herbert who first described the English Church in such a manner in his poem “The British Church” in which Anglicanism, as it would be later termed, occupied the “mean” between the gaudiness of Rome and the slovenliness of Geneva. Yet such poetic license doesn’t get to the bottom of the matter. Herbert’s view is perhaps better expressed by one of his present day enthusiasts, Philip Sheldrake, in his book, “Love Took My Hand.” Sheldrake writes:

There is an immediate connection between our sense of place and a realization of God ‘placed’ in the heart of human life. Anglican spirituality seems to have a particularly strong sense of place…..The simplest (reason) is that the Church of England was heir to the pre-Reformation pattern of geographical parishes. It continued to stand for a ‘community’ model of Church rather than a gathered or associational model that inevitably became the norm for dissenters, whether Puritan or Roman Catholic. Again the Church of England model of priesthood was not something that existed in its own right in splendid theological isolation but was grounded or ‘located’ in relationship to a specific community where the Word of God was preached and the sacraments celebrated. In a more general way, Anglican identity from the very beginning was not based on tightly defined core doctrines or innovative and distinctive structures but rather on shared history and a sense of continuities and present connections. In other words, Anglicanism has a great deal to do with community life which means people and places –indeed people in places.

A sense of place, its relationship to individual and collective memory and its impact on human identity, have become major preoccupations in contemporary Western culture. This is a spiritual issue of great importance. One of its central features is the search for ‘home’.

So speaks a sympathetic Roman Catholic whom I have quoted at some length because he seems to point to something essential about Anglicanism now tragically neglected. For the middle way, isn’t really a middle way at all. It is the “moderate” way because it identifies the moderating feature of Anglicanism necessary if it is to fulfill its mission to be a church involved in and placed in community of what ever sort.

To be the church of and in a “place” is very different from being a party or faction gathering to itself adherents. In this respect one of the tragedies of post-Enlightenment Anglicanism is that it divided into faction in quite a new manner. Each faction established its own seminaries, its flagship parishes, its own style of ministry and its own sociological constituency. The old pattern of loyalty to one’s local parish was broken. Perhaps it had been broken before in big cities where popular preachers drew people across parish boundaries, but such people were unlikely to be baptized, married or buried away from “home”.

This introduces another feature of moderate Anglicanism, or the moderation of Anglicanism. Simply because its ambition is to serve all, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, young and old in community its form of ministry was not based on individualistic preaching or factional dogma, but rather in the yearly round of the Church Year with its lectionary, its feasts and fasts, Word and Sacrament. It assumes that the community to which it ministers has memory, has investment in ‘place’ in a manner which powerfully connects with present experience. In other words the changes and chances of party and faction are subordinated to the regular life of the church at its various levels.

Nor should it be assumed that such an ambition is rural in nature, depending on actual historical association with a particular place. Certainly contemporary individualism, in great part dictated more by market forces than by a desire for loneliness scatters families and disrupts older seemingly permanent attachments. Yet the communal aspects of Anglican life and liturgy in some measure act as a buffer and a remedy to such its memories, its rites and ceremonies and its mission to people in places. In a sense in contemporary culture Anglican parish life should be the place where people re-remember who they are and where they come from, what they value and how they love.

This is not to suggest that the ideals generated by party and faction have no place in moderate Anglicanism. Far from it. For it is in the steady, habitual life of the church that great ideas and projects find their soil, a soil which either receives, rejects or alters the seeds blown by the Spirit or by the ingenuity or passions of people and organizations.

The influence of the Oxford Movement demonstrates this fact. Anglicans are very sensitive about furniture! Certainly the Anglo-Catholics transformed the interior of most parish churches. It was a gradual and selective process. Why some things became generally in use and others not at all remains a mystery. Yet the decision to purchase a cross but not a crucifix, two candles rather than six, colored stoles but not chasubles were outward and visible signs of which parts of the Anglo-Catholic agenda would take root generally and which would remain the badge of factional parishes.

A sort of rough and ready principle emerges. That which is received is that which builds up co
mmunity life and in some form or another finds its compliment in the inherited memory of the community. That which has the potential to divide, to drive away, to obscure or eradicate memory is not received, or perhaps is amended in order that it may be assimilated into the symbiosis.

Thus in specific communities bound together by historic structures catholicity is practiced, not by the staging of rites and ceremonies to draw adherants to faction but rather to bind and guarantee the presence locally of the universal. Thus the Word is read and preached and taught not to attract people to evangelical religion, but rather to enable the work of the Gospel grounded in community. Again the caring, touching, practical reality of God’s love for all and particularly the poor and the marginalized is manifest locally not to attract people to liberalism” but as the manifestation of the kingdom which is and is to come located “now” in place and community.

If the middle way is between two or more alternatives it is only that by reflection. Anglican ethos suffers when it is described over against something or other, when it begins to change itself in order to avoid being tainted by or confused with some ‘alien’ culture. It may well be seen to be, for instance, different from “fundamentalism” or Roman Catholicism, but it does not exist to be different from either. Inevitably in some cultures Anglicanism may stand out or even be influenced in a reactive way to what seems to be a pernicious cultural presence. Yet it does so at its own peril. Antagonism transforms antagonists into mirror images of each other. When Anglicanism identifies itself over and against something or other, it inevitably narrows its ambition and mission and assumes some of the arrogance or dogmatism of its assumed rival. There’s a warning to us today in all this.

I am not spending time on drawing conclusions between this outline of Anglicanism, an Anglicanism which is moderation, and the trials and tribulations within our church today and within the wider Communion. The portrait painted, albeit with a broad brush is intended for reflection. That I have not addressed the place of Synods in all this is deliberate. Of late synodical government, emulating its secular counterparts, encourages faction and the triumph of majorities in a manner which does not lend to building community. Enough said.

One Response

  1. Very well put. Often I hear that as Anglicans we cannot be “congregationalists.” But as you have put it so well, we must be localist and have a real community expression with integrity of the church.

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