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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.

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