Reclaiming the Via Media
The Via Media stands as one of Anglicanism’s greatest gifts to the world. However, as I view the North America context, it seems that much of Anglicanism here has lost its Via Media lately. Too often contemporary Anglicanism feels politicized and polarizing, leaving little room for those of us in the middle, but as we look to both the past and the future, I believe that Anglicans desperately need to recover the via media for the sake of our church.
Let me state for the record that I am not a fundamentalist, nor a liberal, but I am an ordinary middle of the road, orthodox, evangelical Anglican. I don’t think I am alone and I would like to offer a few thoughts that might help us recover a vision for gracious orthodox Anglicanism in North America that holds to the via media that has a robust theology and is generous toward others with whom we disagree.
What is The Via Media?
Anglicanism is known for the via media, which is a Latin term that means “the middle way.” The middle way allows us to synthesize great Christian truths into a central core, rather than focusing on extremes. In Treatise on the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Richard Hooker (1544–1600) argued that Anglicanism retains the best of Roman Catholicism (liturgy and tradition) and Protestantism (authority of Scripture and justification). Theologian Alister McGrath argued that Anglicanism at its best avoids both fundamentalism and liberalism, the first of which rejects culture and the latter of which adopts too much culture.1
Anglicans have always tried to embrace the paradoxes of the faith through the via media. One of the best examples of this can be found in the life and ministry of John Wesley, who lived and died an Anglican priest. John Wesley’s unique Evangelical Anglicanism comes to light in his ability to find a synthesis between radical extremes and paradoxes, such as divine sovereignty and free will, evangelical and sacramental, and saving and sanctifying grace.2 To be an Anglican is to understand and to live in the tension of the paradoxes of the Christian faith by employing the via media.
Perhaps the most practical way in which the Anglican Church lives in tension comes as it seeks to bring together a variety of dimensions of the Christian faith. At first, these may seem like opposing extremes, but in many ways these different streams are symbiotic and belong together. As Charles Simeon, rector of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, once said, “The truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme; but in both extremes.”
In many ways, Anglicanism offers a balanced faith that brings together the best of the Christian traditions. There is a unique balance of unity and diversity in Anglicanism through the via media and the importance of bringing together the different streams within Anglicanism, which include: Catholic, Evangelical, Broad, and Charismatic.
The various streams are especially relevant today because the Catholic, Evangelical, Broad, and Charismatic dimensions of the faith belong together and are a gift to the body of Christ. By themselves, they can diverge into their own form of sectarianism. The Catholic dimension by itself can lead to ritualism. The Evangelical dimension by itself can lead to fundamentalism. The Broad church dimension by itself can lead to liberalism. The Charismatic dimension by itself can lead to Charismania.
The Via Media can be seen in the following statement by former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, a moderate archbishop with an Evangelical background who offered a summary of the comprehensive nature of on the Anglican tradition:
The Anglican tradition is a significant Reformation tradition within worldwide Christianity; Its via media approach to truth-holding the tension between “Catholic” and “low church” is a gift of God to the world (not all Anglicans have thought of the via media in this sense); its tradition of tolerance and comprehensiveness is a sign of hope; its loose federation of churches avoids the extremes of hierarchy-ism on the one hand and the problems of nonconformity on the other; it ensures we keep our eyes looking outwards to the needy of God’s world; it provides a richness of liturgy; and it has a strong tradition of linking love of God to love of neighbor in practical service.14
Speaking the truth in Love
What we need is a gracious comprehensiveness that is orthodox and committed to the essentials of the historic Christian faith, yet focused on loving those who disagree with us. The seventeenth-century German Lutheran Rupertus Meldenius said it best: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
In short, we need to speak the truth in love. Many times our arguments and disagreements can come across as unloving toward others and, in the end, can hinder our witness to the world. We need to learn to talk with those with whom we disagree. Jesus reminds us in John 13:35, “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We will be known by our love. If we must disagree, then let us do so in a loving, Christ-like way. Sometimes we must be willing to lay aside our personal and institutional biases for the sake of Christian unity and mission, learning how to live and work together to reach a radically unchurched world with the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
The different streams of Anglicanism remind us that not everyone looks, acts, or thinks alike. Anglican churches come in all shapes and sizes and are very diverse; ranging from Anglo-Catholics who are more high church, employing a more ceremonial and expanded liturgy, to Evangelical Anglicans who are typically more low church, employing fewer ceremonial practices.
Regardless of which camp you are in, Anglicans are united in the essential “catholic” doctrines of the Christian faith. Although we don’t always see alike, we can agree on the essentials of the faith and join together for the common cause of Christ. More than ever before, we need to learn to work together for the sake of the gospel and the future of Anglicanism.
Recovering the Center
So what do Anglicans believe? In one sense, Anglicans have no distinct beliefs of their own. Anglicans simply believe what Christians have espoused since the times of the historic creeds and councils. These essentials are what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he wrote Mere Christianity in order “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”1 In a similar way, the essentials are what G. K. Chesterton believed should be “understood by everyone calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.”2
I believe that Anglican Christianity at its best is unified by its center, not by its boundaries. A way to recover the center is revisiting the fourfold foundation found in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which originally functioned as a means of unity among Christians. It addresses the Scriptures, creeds, sacraments, and the historic episcopate. Many Anglicans look to the Lambeth Quadrilateral as a way to establish common ground among fellow Anglicans and other Christians. There were even hopes at one time that the Quadrilateral might serve as a way to reunite the different streams of the Christian church. The House of Bishops originally approved the Quadrilateral at the 1886 General Convention in Chicago, and the bishops of the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1888 subsequently approved it with modifications. Here are the four points the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral proclaims:
- The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
- The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
- The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself—Baptism and the Supper of the Lord—ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
- The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.6
In particular, the three creeds of the church (the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed) and The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion constitute the core of Anglican belief and a place to help us recover the center.
The historic creeds offer us a concise summary of authentic Christian beliefs. They contain essential Christian doctrines (e.g., the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the Trinity) common to the majority of Christians. It is through our common faith in these essentials that Anglicans can seek unity with other Christians. Our creeds guard the faith but they do not limit the leading of the Holy Spirit. The common ground of faith established by the creeds allows us to move forward together into the world to fulfill the mission of God. Because of their importance, the creeds fill the pages of the Book of Common Prayer and shape its prayers, liturgies, ceremonies, and catechism. In many ways, the creeds act as an anchor that provides a doctrinal foundation for Anglicans everywhere.
The Thirty-Nine Articles
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion represent another pillar of Anglican beliefs. First developed over the course of the Reformation era, the Articles came into their final form in 1563 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and under the direction of Archbishop Matthew Parker. The church never intended for the Articles to be a complete statement of the Christian faith, but originally thought of them as a way to clarify the position of the Church of England against the Roman Catholic Church and also certain continental Reformers.
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion are among the finest statements of the faith produced during the time of the Reformation and remain relevant for today’s world. According to theologian Gerald Bray, the Thirty-Nine Articles can be divided into three distinct categories: Catholic doctrines, Protestant doctrines, and Anglican doctrines. The Catholic doctrines are found in Articles 1–8 and deal with the Holy Trinity (1–5), the Holy Scriptures (6–7), and the ancient creeds (8). The Protestant doctrines are found in Articles 9–34, which deal with salvation (9–10), justification by faith (11–14), the Christian life (15–18), the church (19–22), the ministry (23–24), the sacraments (25–31), and church discipline (32–34). Finally, the Anglican doctrines are found in articles 35–37 and deal with the Homilies (or key sermons), the threefold order of ministry (bishops, priests, and deacons), and the relationship of church and state. The last two articles (38–39) are not specifically Anglican, but deal with matters of civil government.
In summing up the importance of the Articles, Bishop J. C. Ryle reminded Anglicans, “Doctrines such as those set forth in the Articles are the only doctrines which are life, and health, and strength, and peace. Let us never be ashamed of laying hold of them, maintaining them, and making them our own. Those doctrines are the religion of the Bible and of the Church of England!”5 I believe revisiting these standards are a place to start rather than creating new statements of faith.
Comprehensiveness without Compromise
In Anglicanism, one finds a place to live out these diverse dimensions of the faith together in a beautiful tapestry. When these dimensions are woven together, they offer us a balanced model for the Christian life and practice. Walking this balance isn’t always easy. In the words of Rev. Dr. Les Fairfield, “Each one extrapolates the gospel in a specific direction. No strand is dispensable. Other Christian bodies have often taken one strand to an extreme. By God’s grace, the Anglican tradition has held the streams in creative tension. This miracle of unity is a treasure worth keeping.”7
The Catholic, Evangelical, Broad, and Charismatic divide is just the beginning of the diversity within Anglicanism. There are, of course, many other issues and ways in which the church is deeply divided. Whether it is between conservatives and liberals, over women’s ordination, human sexuality, or the meaning and nature of the sacraments, Christians can and do disagree.
Diversity is nothing new to Anglicanism. Anglicans have always prided themselves in being a tradition that is roomy and that embraces diversity, sometimes to a fault. Author Richard H. Shmidt warned that “tolerance and inclusiveness can easily become a mere ‘anything goes’ laxity, a moral and intellectual flabbiness.”13 However, the openness to diversity within Anglicanism is also one of its greatest gifts.
In a world full of denominational divisiveness, Anglican comprehensiveness can be a model. The late evangelical Anglican John Stott argued for comprehensiveness without compromise. He proclaimed, “The way of separation is to pursue truth at the expense of unity. The way of compromise is to pursue unity at the expense of truth. The way of comprehension is to pursue truth and unity simultaneously, that is, to pursue the kind of unity recommended by Christ and his apostles, namely unity in truth.”15
I believe that if Anglicanism in North America is going to have a future it will be by embracing all the richness that the Anglican tradition has to offer through the via media. What will the future of Anglicanism be? It is up to you and me.
Winfield Bevins is the Director of Church Planting at Asbury Theological Seminary. He frequently speaks at conferences on a variety of topics and is a regular adjunct professor at several seminaries. As an author, one of his passions is to help others connect to the roots of the Christian faith for spiritual formation and mission. His latest book, Ever Ancient Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation examines young adults who have embraced Christian liturgy and how it has impacted their lives. He and his wife Kay have three beautiful girls Elizabeth, Anna Belle, and Caroline and live in the Bluegrass state of Kentucky. You can find out more about him at his website, www.winfieldbevins.com.