Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Via Media refined

The term via media (Middle Way) has been associated with Anglicanism since the 19th century, and is generally understood to mean a middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In recent years Roman Catholic apologists and a specific circle of very Low Church Protestant Anglicans (strange bedfellows indeed), including fairly respectable individuals such as Alister MacGrath, have tried to gang up on us, and say that the real middle way (via media) was between Lutheranism and Calvinism.

The fact is, if we say that Anglicanism was a via media between Lutheranism and Calvinism, there is some truth to that. And, if we want to deny that it was a via media between the Continental versions of the Reformation and Rome, there is some truth in the denial. Indeed, the Church of England Reformers did agree with the Lutheran camp on some things, and with Calvinists on some things, the whole time agreeing with both against the errors of Rome. And the doctrines of Rome were seen as making the Gospel itself vague and obscure at best, as well as being subject to no permanent and fixed discipline (indeed they did not know what the Council of Trent would impose). However, in England what we find most clearly is a via media between the Continental Reformers and the past. Specifically, the past of the Church of England, and the past of the whole Western Church. It is this that even notable figures like MacGrath have missed.

The subjects of debate during the Reformation period were not new ideas and new subjects. These debates had gone on for centuries, and they were ignited in the 16th century. But, the tradition of debating these matters was old and time honored.

Despite misleading assertions to the contrary, the polity of the Church of England, as reflected in Law, never accepted the validity of ministers who lacked episcopal ordination (the deceptions of some who may have flown in under the radar not withstanding). Furthermore, when the Preface to the Ordinal was composed, it gave no new definition to the words, "bishops, priests and deacons." Rather, without any new definition or any attempt to describe the offices mentioned in any "reformed" sense, the Preface merely speaks of the intent to continue what has been from the beginning.

It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles' time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Which Offices were evermore had in such reverend Estimation, that no man might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined, and known to have such qualities as are requisite for the same; and also by publick Prayer, with Imposition of Hands, were approved and admitted thereunto by lawful Authority. And therefore, to the intent that these Orders may be continued, and reverently used and esteemed in the Church of England, no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.

This, in and of itself, was far too conservative for the Puritans, those who wanted to force "Calvin's Geneva Discipline" on England. This conservatism, along with rites esteemed by the Puritans to be "papist" and therefore in accord with the "errors of Rome," was defended by Richard Hooker. The whole point of writing the things that he did about the polity of the Church of England, was to defend that polity to other Protestants. It was why Hooker wrote what he did about "Right Reason," in its proper usage a defense of Tradition and Antiquity as well as a defense of the Church's lawful authority.

Recently, I have received astonishing e-mails (astonishing because of a blend of ignorance and confidence in what they assert) from people in a certain new kind of "Reformed" Anglicanism, no doubt those who call themselves Calvinists without any regard for older schools of Calvinism, boasting great things about why the Church of England kept the orders of ministry, but did not mean to. After these self-appointed teachers spill and waste tons of e-ink in their incredible forums ("incredible" as in lacking credibility), all they accomplish is a grand deception. Among the many bits of non-sense, I was treated to yet another bleating of a new popular mantra: "Hooker never says that the polity of the Church of England was of Divine origin." By "polity of the Church of England" we may take it they mean episcopacy.

It takes a blindfold, or at least very dark glasses, not to notice that the whole point of Hooker's defense against the Puritans requires, as its basis, that episcopacy was indeed of Divine origin. He allows the possibility that Calvin's Geneva discipline, born of an emergency when the clergy abandoned the churches, may have justification. Even then, he does not say that it was right, only that the situation may well have forced it as a solution. That he rejects it for England is based on his criticism that it is not what the Church was given in Antiquity, and that it is not scriptural; Puritan claims to a scriptural basis for the "church government" of Geneva, are targeted in his criticism also. The obvious point is that he defended the polity of the English Church as both Ancient and Scriptural (for why else would he bother to say the other is not in accord with Scripture?). The only thing he did not say, perhaps because it did not need to be said, was whether or not episcopacy is essential, that is, of the essence of the Church. But, neither was that a point that was discussed at all.

His defense of rites and of polity in the Church of England esteemed to be "popish" by the Puritans and by others in the Reformed churches, such as Knox, demonstrate the fact that Anglican conservatism bewildered them. That it was a via media between the other Reformers and the Past is simply because the Church of England never threw out the baby with the bathwater. The English saw no need to reinvent the wheel.

The episcopacy of the Church of England was not maintained lightly, and not without apologetics such as Hooker's, and later of Andrewes and others. Yet, some would have us believe that the English Reformers did not mean to do what they did, did not mean to establish the polity with force of law that they did establish, and really wanted to do the opposite. By their logic, the Preface as quoted above, wrote itself while no one was looking.

The via media was a middle road between extremes whenever and wherever extremes forced people to make unnecessary and unhealthy choices where no choice ought to be made. It was a middle way that remained Catholic in its Protestantism, because to reject the past in its entirety is to saw off the limb upon which one sits. Episcopacy was the most noticable via media fact, a fact openly shown to everyone.


Canon Tallis said...

Absolutely excellent! I think it extremely important to note that in the Latin rites of the time, ordination was to the "presbyterate," but given what Calvin and others had done, Cranmer and others made plain the meaning of what they were continuing by using the English word 'priesthood.' In like manner, the official Latin Liber Precum Publicarum of Elizabeth's day when describing a person in these orders used the word 'sacerdos.' It would seem to me that the English Church was quite precise about what it intended in terms of orders which leaves those who disagree with the wording of the historic and classic prayer books with the sole of option of asserting that they didn't mean what they said. Roger Beckwith, then of Latimer House in Oxford, actually made that argument as I remember.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"The term via media (Middle Way) has been associated with Anglicanism since the 19th century, and is generally understood to mean a middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism."That is probably so.

Yet I have heard it also defined as the middle way (and the correct way) between two errors.

Of course, one must be careful to avoid the Golden Mean Fallacy also known as the Fallacy of the Middle Ground or the Fallacy of Moderation when employing the (oft-abused) doctrine of Via Media.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I received this from my bishop, via e-mail (and I assume I may quote him).

Hooker doesn't say bishops were of divine Institution? That's insane.

'The first Bishops in the Church of Christ were his blessed Apostles, for the Office whereunto Matthias was chosen the sacred History doth term episkopen, an Episcopal Office.' (VII.4.1)

'And yet the Apostles have now their successors upon earth, their true successors, if not in the largeness, surely in the kind of that Episcopal function, whereby they had power to sit as spiritual ordinary Judges, both over Laity and over Clergy where Churches Christian were established.' (VII.4.3)

'...Presbyters must not grudge to continue subject unto their Bishops, unless they will proudly oppose themselves against that which God himself ordained by his Apostles, and the whole Church of Christ approveth and judgeth most convenient.' (VII.5.8)

'And what need we to seek far for proofs that the APostles who began this order of Regiment by Bishops, did it not but by divine instinct, when without such direction things or far less weight and moment they attempted not?' (VII.5.10)

Etc., etc., etc.

It's true that Baxter says the positive 'unchurching' of non-episcopal Churches did not come until the generation of Hammond, but that, as you note, is another matter.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Excellent! Delightful to read. So encouraging to have you articulate this with great clarity. And so timely, as someone at TitusOneNine recently stated that the Reformed Episcopal Church is part of the Continuum, and people at StandFirm refuse to even consider the possibility that their religion doesn't conform to Holy Tradition as it is presented in the Bible.

I'm often baffled and disturbed by the advocates of Anglicanism that seem ignorant of Anglican history and even more ignorant of Tradition and the Fathers.

Sandra McColl said...

A via media between Lutheranism and Calvinism? I think I'm out of touch with 'mainstream' Anglican developments. Never thought anyone would think of that.

My veriword is 'condsm'.

Canon Tallis said...

This all reminds me of an interview I had with Bishop Mote in the early days of the Continuum. It quickly became plain that he knew nothing of the history of the Church of England in the period just before and during the period of the Reformation. His views had been informed entirely by those of the Anglo-papalists of the Society of Saints Peter and Paul and the English Church Union.

I found it very amusing but tragic. I am so grateful that The Continuum is correcting views of that sort.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Thank you Canon Tallis; but let me give some balance about the late Bp. Mote. From many who knew him, it seems clear to me that, although he was probably not the best scholar, he was a saintly man and a bishop with a pastor's heart.

Canon Tallis said...

Father Hart, Since both of my youngest sons godfathers can from St Mary's Denver and I, on occasion, hosted Bishop Mote when he was in the Bay Area, let me say that I could not hold his ignorance of Anglican Church history against him. I was aware both of the limitations of his education, experience and reading, something all too common with American clerics of his day. But you are dead right about his pastoral instincts and action.