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THE VIA MEDIA AND COMPREHENSION

The term Via Media, (middle way) was popularized by George Herbert in his poem “The British Church.” His “mean between two extremes” was a literary devise to contrast the English Church with Roman Catholicism on the one hand and Genevan Calvinism on the other. While not intended to describe  an ecclesiological position, a theology of the church, it was useful shorthand for the position the Church of England found itself in the early 1600s, as it was denounced by Rome on the one hand and derided by radical Puritan separatists on the other.

While George Herbert was influenced by the revival in appreciation for the continuous heritage of the English Church espoused by his mentor Lancelot Andrewes he was essentially a rather conservative person, at home with the 1559 Prayer Book and the muted ceremonial which had typified “Anglicanism” in the previous reign. He was not a Laudian High Churchman. That his famous essay on the life and duty of a Parson was first published during the days when Anglicanism was proscribed by the Commonwealth attests to his moderation. Many moderate Church of England were driven to support the abolition of the episcopate and the Prayer Book during the English Civil War because of the close association High Church Anglicans had with the Stuart monarchy. They would have preferred the retention of a reformed Episcopate along the lines adopted one hundred and fifty years later in America, and such reforms were advocated by moderate Parliamentarians. Instead in the passion of Civil War they lost everything.

The church which emerged with the restoration of Charles II was no longer a Via Media in the original sense of that term. True it still stood in contrast to Roman Catholicism, but “Puritanism” was driven underground by the punitive legislation of the “Cavalier Parliament” in such draconian measures as the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act. The heirs to the Puritans were divided theologically and also over church government. Many would slide into Unitarianism. The revival of Nonconformity, those ejected because they refused to accept the 1662 Prayer Book would wait for another day.

It is true that the term Via Media remained in use. In recent time it has been employed in a slightly different manner by popular historians such as Stephen Neill who placed Anglicanism between those who have added to a corpus of essential doctrine (Rome) and those who have diluted essential doctrine such as the Nonconformists. Such descriptions hardly obtain in a modern context.

However it is important to draw a distinction between the concept of a middle way or a Bridge Church -who on earth wants to live on a bridge? – and comprehension. The ideal of Comprehension describes the internal reality of Anglicanism rather than contrasting Anglicanism with other parts of the Church. In short Comprehension describes a theory which attempts to comprehend various theological and ceremonial emphases described and limited by common subscription to episcopacy, common prayer and a set of core doctrines contained in the Book of Common Prayer and the Catechism and in the general manner in which the Church has identified its faith in Scripture as containing all things necessary unto salvation, in the Creeds as summaries of the Apostolic Faith, in the witness of the Early Ecumenical Councils of the Early Church and until recently in the Articles of Religion as a pattern of how Anglicans do theology in times of discord.

Comprehension also describes a measure of liberty in which people and movements from time to time inform (or disurb) the church. It is described by the old adage, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity and in all things charity.” It depends on the idea that a core doctrine, what Henry McAdoo termed the “Hapex”, exists, or “matters essential”, and that other matters such as local liturgical adaptations, rites and ceremonies and customs, “matters indifferent” may be authorized from time to time by the authority of National churches.

This theory of comprehension depends on common definitions. It also speaks to an unwritten principle that no National Church or Province will legislate or make official doctrines or practices which violate the consciences of parties to the Comprehension. Granted such a principle does not make for a very adventurous church. “Prophetic” witness is given extraordinary license but circumscribes the adoption of “reform” until consensus or “reception” has clearly occurred. Lacking a central magisterium such as that contained in the Papacy on the one hand or the confessional authority of denominationalism on the other, Anglicanism advocates patience and restraint, an essentially practical and pastoral reaction to new ideas or the resurrection of older ways.

It was not envisioned that the restoration of synodical government by the infant Episcopal Church, and the spread of that system to most other Provinces would empower ecclesiastical legislative bodies with a form of Magisterium competent to reform or radically alter core doctrine. As the authority of Scripture and then revisionist approaches to Creeds, Councils and core doctrine has progressed, the distinctions between “essential” and “non essential” doctrines has been all but obscured and thus the very foundation of Comprehension undermined.

The idea of an Anglican Covenant is in part an attempt to rectify this situation by reaffirming the core beliefs and traditions of Anglicanism. It poses a grave problem for the Episcopal Church which has largely abandoned comprehension in favor of uniformity and assumes itself to be a discreet church with an omnicompetent General Convention.

Such a principle or practical way of life is hard to maintain in times when authority is derided and individualism trumps corporate identity. Those advocating radical interpretation of Scripture or doctrine are described as progressive or courageous while those who embrace traditional norms are termed reactionary. Anglicanism was perhaps meant for more gentle and civil days. It suffers greatly in times of passion and zealotry.

A further problem is the popular living into historical amnesia in which the past is forgotten or automatically derided for its alleged bigotry. Comprehension has become a lost treasure and a forgotten art.

DIVERSITY

I’ve been musing about Anglican diversity. When I was young our diversity ran from those who believed in a sacerdotal priesthood, Apostolic Succession, the Sacrifice of the Mass, auricular confession and the use of the Missal to those who believed that Anglican “priests” were Ministers of the Gospel, that an Historic Episcopate was adiaphora (not core belief), that Jesus was present at Holy Communion only to faithful believers and not in Bread and Wine, that sins were to be confessed diectly by the saved and who used the Prayer Book with little or no ceremonial. In short there were individuals, parishes and dioceses -perhaps whole Provinces – which differed little from Roman Catholicism and others which made a Scottish Presbyterian seem High Church.

There were also notable clerics who doubted the supernatural aspects of Christianity. Indeed for centuries there had been Bishops who were Deists, like Bishop Hoadly, and many more who sat lightly on Credal Faith.

The first Lambeth Conference was in part initiated by bishops who were annoyed that the Bishop of Natal had written a book on the authorship of the first few books of the Old Testament which nowadays would be regarded as small beer.

Nor is this the first time that our internal divisions have brought us to the point of collapse. At the beginning of the 17th Century Anglicans who sought to rediscover the heritage of the church before the Reformation, albeit in what would be considered very mild reforms such as placing the Communion Table back at the East end and fencing it with rails to prevent dogs from urinating on the Holy Table or parishioners using it as a repository for their winter clothes, collided with “conservatives” who were militantly Reformed and Protestant. The church collapsed. For over a decade Anglicanism, except as an illegal and underground church, survived only in Virginia.

What in part provoked that struggle was the determination of the the “High Church” reformers to enforce their practices by Law, as Archbishop Laud issued his regulations and prosecuted conservatives in Ecclesiastical Courts.

When the Church of England was restored in 1660 it took its revenge on those who had opposed the Laudian reforms by persecuting the Puritans, driving our saintly folk like Richard Baxter. Those driven out went underground and created Nonconformity and the Free Churches and the Church of England no longer could claim to be a truly national church.

What then developed was not a homogeneous church but one that learned to tolerate extraordinary diversity without officially endorsing the various movements and emphases which emerged whether Evangelical, Catholic, Broad Church or merely eccentric. Such liberality was sorely tested particularly after the Anglo Catholic Movement which occasioned the Reformed Episcopal schism and of course Anglicanism wasn’t flexible enough to embrace Methodism.

So what is different now? I scanned the bill of particulars appended to the Nigerian Primate’s recent letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Therein one finds snippets of statements and interviews given by our Presiding Bishop and other Episcopalian worthies. None of these snippets were as radical as the sort of stuff some Anglican theologians were airing thirty years ago. No one broke communion then. Only the retired Bishop of Newark, an “inverted fundamentalist” writes books which challenge the entire belief system of Christianity. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that many of the attempts to appear intellectual or sophisticated in attempts to attract people who have problems with the uniqueness of Christ for instance are indeed a betrayal of the faith. But there’s nothing new in anything they say. Why then are we in danger of falling apart now? John Robinson’s “Honest to God” didn’t break us up. Why now?

I think there are a number of reasons for our present state. The first is the advent of the internet. We now know intimately what people say and teach. Secondly we haven’t come to grips with the sexual revolution which began with the invention of reliable contraceptives. The Western Church now inhabits a world in which casual sex, living in what was once termed “sin” and the creation of powerful groups advocating their rights to sexual expressions once regarded as immoral have faced the church with pastoral situations once unknown. Clergy routinely marry couples who have lived together and have children out of wedlock. Young people in our pews take such things for granted.

As the church has fudged or accommodated such relationships for decades it has become difficult to articulate moral teachings which are consistent.

Fundamentally, if I may be permitted a pun, our problem in TEC is that our church like the Laudians is intent on legislating a new moral code which we often forget embraces the non-marital relationships of both gays and “straights” and blessing these relationships in a manner which looks like Holy Matrimony, a “lesser” sacrament according to our Catechism. Like the Laudians the advocates of such formal legislation have scant patience with the old conservatives who are subject to official and non-official persecution, some self-inflicted by those with a taste for martyrdom and other marginalized because they cannot in conscience embrace these “reforms”. We see our Mother Church going to great pains to provide episcopal oversight to those who cannot accept the ordination and consecration of women clergy while our own church which has little claim to be a National Church refuses to make room for those whose claim to membership in the Episcopal Church is historical and actual. As a result those alienated behave like alienated people, plan schism and export their grievances abroad. The dreadful divisions in the Anglican Communion have been largely caused by zeolots in power who neither embrace Anglican comprehension nor an adequate Anglican ecclesiology. They have been deepened by wounded traditionalists who have looked for help beyond the borders of TEC and for a number of reasons, some virtuous and some self-serving no longer trust those in power or recognize our bonds in baptism and worship.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for restraint, for patience, for a time out fall on deaf ears as Anglicans cling to their principles and slogans, embrace their wounds and regard themselves as guardians of the holy flame, whether liberal or conservative. The ideological divisions which have brought our American politics and politicians into disrepute similarly alienate many Episcopalians who find themselves in the middle and merely want to worship in peace and retain their identity as Anglicans and Episcopalians.

In times past we learned that enforcing reforms brings nothing but disunity and schism and an alienation of ordinary parishioners from their duty to worship God in accordance with our rites and ceremonies. We once learned the hard way to give space to reformers, allowing the common sense of ordinary lay and clerical people to engage in a practical assessment of new ideas or a return to old ways. The two great revivals in Anglicanism, the Evangelical and the Anglo Catholic were essentially conservative revivals of aspects of the church which have had their day in times past. We’ve had Liberals among us at least since the 17th. Century. Even the great Reforming Bishop Hugh Latimer was a social liberal in his own context. He was locked up in the Tower of London for championing the poor!

In many ways our great Archbishop of Canterbury, a convinced Catholic is calling for us to reexamine and live into our comprehensive tradition. But we don’t listen. Instead we seek to institutionalize and legislate our new and old ideas by Canon or by creating extra-mural structures. It is high time we revisited our long tradition of informal toleration, a tradition which has maintained in our worship and customs the core beliefs of Reformed Catholicism while giving space to reformers whose bright ideas we have informally embraced, rejected or amended over long periods of time. TEC in its initial attempt to enforce one liturgical practice has unwittingly drifted into an intolerance with dissent which has no place in our tradition. Such a drift has emulated the bureaucracy of large franchises rather than Anglican comprehension. But that is a story for another day.