Sunday, September 06, 2009

Via Media

Fr Dwight has an interesting post on the Anglican idea of the Via Media, that absurd Anglican notion that that somehow the English genius discovered in the 16th century a third way, the true way between Catholicism and Protestantism. This risible notion is still pushed by Anglicans today.
This view sees the Catholic faith of Augustine, Gregory, Cuthbert, Wilfred, Hilda, Swithun, Becket, Anselm, Moore and Fisher, and a countless host of others as an extreme, on the edge. It was a not so subtle way of presenting the ancient faith of the English as something foreign.
It presumes the very opposite of the actual meaning of "Catholic". Catholicism is mainstream Christianity. Leaving aside the continuation of doctrinal authenticity and apostolicity, to be a Catholic is to be a mainstream Christian, in purely numerical terms:
Catholic 1,115,000,000 (just over 1.1 billion)
Orthodox/Eastern Christian 240,000,000
Conservative Protestant* 200,000,000
Liberal Protestant 150,000,000
African indigenous sects 110,000,000
Pentecostal 105,000,000
Anglican 73,000,000

The best that can be said of the Anglican doctrine of the Via Media, is that it enabled the state to gather together those who embraced the Protestant Reformation with those who resisted it in an English form of Latitudinarianism. It underpinned Anglicanism's role as a instrument of the English state's system of church government or repression, and enabled Anglicanism to follow on the coattails of imperial expansion.

I remember once being set an essay, "The Anglican Church is more a system of Church government than a Church - discuss" I know I ended by saying, "The road to hell is a broad way...".


Independent said...

As Fr Aidan Nicholls has pointed out the Anglican idea of a Via Media has varied throughout history.(Gentleman's Journal - Anglican Uniatism Sunday 19th July 2009). Originally the C of E was conceived as manifestly a Reformed Church on the model of the Continental Reformation. Its bishops were under Elizabeth with one exception Calvinists, its confession of faith ,the 39 Articles ,was included in collections of such documents, and its liturgy was drawn up using traditional sources but intended to promote a Zwinglian understanding of the Eucharist. There was no thought of a via media, it was a Protestant Church and was regarded as such by other Protestant Churches. Professor MacCulloch , once an Evangelical Anglican, documents this very fully in his life of Cranmer and other writings.

The idea of a via media came in with the Laudians who regarded themselves as mid- way between Extreme Protestanism and Catholicism. This remained the position of Anglican High Churchmen until the time of the Tractarians. The old High Churchmen regarded themesleves as Protestant.

With the Tractarians however the situation changed and the via media became one between Popery and Protestantism as such.They sought to reinvent the C of E as a Catholic Church.

The warring parties that resulted from this situation have resulted in the C of E being defined not by Protestantism or Catholicism but by a liberal comprehensiveness that includes them both and claims to be broader and more inclusive than either.

It is a pity that so many Anglicans still cling to historical myths largely manufactured in the 19th century. The recent work of MacCulloch, Haigh and Duffy have exploded such ideas.

Maurice said...

I agree with all that you say .. but, do remember that it was, I think, the Most Venerable JH Newman who coined the phrase. I'd be slow to dismiss him.

Independent said...

Thinking of the coat-tails of imperial expansion it has been said that England's empire waa Ireland's opportunity. Indeed Ireland's Spiritual Empire spread thrughout the English speaking world. Quebec without the British Empire which guaranteed its religion would have been Protestant or secular much sooner than it has been. It can be argued that the British Empire spread Catholicism as well as Anglicanism.

Maurice - Newman was a child of his time - he could read neither Duffy, Haigh , nor MacCulloch and was dependent for his English History on the sources available to historians in the early 19th century.

Contemporary catholic historian such as Berington, Butler, and Lingard eg. took the view that the Elizabethan persecution of catholics was a reaction to papal pressure.(see Fr John Vidmar OP English Catholic Historians and the English Reformation, 2005). Lines were not so clearly attempted to be drawn in those days.

Francis said...

Fr. Ray,

The road to hell is also paved with good intentions, which is really what Anglicanism is all about, isn't it? The "via media" approach has produced a sort of informal code of ethics based on traditional English values -- decency, fairness, reasonableness, humaneness, tolerance, compromise and the avoidance of extremes. All wrapped up in a kind of ecclesiastical version of National Trust: historic buildings, earnest 60-something ladies, governance committees, disabled access, best practice etc. etc.

It's great for a comfortable attitude of mind, but no place for moral absolutes, dogma, firm belief, ethical imperatives and the splendour of truth. Which is why I could never be an Anglican.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

There are many things wromg with the Anglican Faith Community. But, as so often, when people attack it, they do so for very off-centre reasons.

If you oozed up to 1,000 Anglicans - even clergy - and said "Hi! and what do YOU think of the idea of the via media?", about 997 of them wouldn't have the faintest idea what you were talking about.

If you asked the same question about another piece of traditional Anglicann nonsense, the Branch Theory of the Church, about 950 would be similarly puzzled.

Both those things are totally old hat and - despite fr Longenecker, they are not 'much talked about' by Anglicans. He obviously doesn't talk to his brother in law, an Anglican bishop, as often as he should.

Leave attacking Anglicanism to us. We do it better because we know it better.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Fr Hunwicke, You could well be right.
But not in Brighton.

An Anglican man who I am preparing (possibly) for reception into full communion with the Catholic Church seems to have been brought up with the Via Media. An Anglican clergyman from one the 'igh churches round here engaged me in conversion for almost half an hour on this subject. A young Anglican man who is frequent visitor to my house defends his belonging to your Communion on the grounds of the Via Media.

As for the branch theory, a zaney Greek "prophetess" called Vassula filled the Brighton Anglican Church of St Martin a couple of years ago having been told in her meditations by the Lord himself about the branch theory and how pleasing it was to him. She then went on to fill your cathedral at Chichester preaching the same message. She is followed by many Anglicans around here.
My personal experience tells me both these doctrines are very much part of Anglican church life, at least in this city.

Maurice said...

Independent, forgive me. I hadn't even seen your post when I commented. In fact, I believed I was the first. I was, therefore, commenting on Ray Blake's post, not yours. You clearly think I'm a fool. Perhaps this will change your perception.

Maurice said...

Fr Hunwicke. I was an Anglican priest for several years - albeit a long time ago now - and the via media thing was popularly propagated, especially among clergy. But, of course, it could have all changed ...

Michael Petek said...

Independent mentions in his posting a Father John Vidmar.

There's a fine Slovenian name!

Simon Platt said...

I'm not sure about the coinage, but was it not the case that Newman's conversion included the realisation that in the early days of the church heretics often (always?) claimed to be following the "via media"?

Brendan Allen said...

Several years ago, I found myself in the seaside town of St. Ives in Cornwall, and I walked in the front door of an Anglican church right in the centre of town. I think it's called St Ia's, or something like that.

In the porch, there was an old wooden sign which said, and apologies because I might not remember the words exactly right:

"Some people believe that at the Reformation, the Church of England ceased to be Catholic. This is not true."

Or words to that effect.

Independent said...

Maurice- please accept my apologies if I gave the impression that I thought you foolish, I assure you that it was quite unwitting.
Michael Petek - Fr Vidmar is a learned Dominican who has written what I believe is the first book on Catholic historiography. Unfortunately he takes it only up to 1954, and thus excludes Scarisbrick, Duffy, Gilley, and recently Norman.

There is nothing wrong with a via media per se, its merits depend entirely on what is on either side. One might steer sensibly through a channel between two large rocks, and not so sensibly between the headlights of an oncoming car.

I recently heard an Anglican Suffragan Bishop at a public meeting defend the Via Media theory, so it is very much alive as a defence of comprehensiveness.
It can be regarded as a rationalisation of what happened by accident.

Simon Platt said...

Independent's latest post reminds me of a tragic news item I once heard on the telly:

"Sir Hartley Fawcett, crackshot big game hunter, famous for his slogan "shoot 'em right between the eyes!" was eaten late last night by two one-eyed tigers walking arm in arm."

Fr Anthony said...

Has no one thought of the expression "In medio stat virtus" quoted in Latin by Saint Thomas Aquinas, translated from Aristotle?

Very often, in the history of the Church, heresy is the exaggeration of a particular truth. Perhaps the "Anglican via media" does not have history on its side, but moderation between extremes seems to be a wise thing.

Fr. Anthony

gemoftheocean said...

The picture is just plain creepy. don't you have anything less creepy like Tongan liturgical dancers?

Physiocrat said...

One has to admit that the Anglicans generally have a knack of avoiding the tasteless and tawdry which, with a few honourable exceptions, is so much a feature of Catholicism, especially those with an Irish link.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Fr Anthony,
Yes,"In medio stat virtus" St Thomas would have understood as Catholicism, but if one attempts to embrace the whole of that with Calvinism and Zwingliism one is likely to end in a mess, not the "medio".

old believer said...


Generally yes - but the principle clearly did't work with Brian Brindley (apart from the Pugin screen)!

Fr Anthony said...

All this is very thought-provoking. I have written a little article in my column under September 7th - - which might bring something positive to the discussion. Thank you Father, for bringing it up.

Fr. Anthony

Basil said...

As a former memeber of the Church of England I understand only too well what Fr Hunwicke means by the lack of knowledge about Anglican ecclesiology. I was never told about the Via Media until I read the writings of Newman and I certainly never met anyone who believed it. But this is the fundamental flaw in the Anglican position. In reality there is no ecclssiology at all. Anglo- catholics believe one thing about the nature of the church and evangelicals and others something completely different. As Newman eventually realised the entire Anglican system is based upon private judgment.

Michael Petek said...

There's one thing on which you can't have any kind of via media.

Either the bread and wine used in the Eucharist cease to exist at the consecration, being completely changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, or they don't and aren't changed at all.

Either the Anglican communion has the Eucharist in the Body and Blood of Christ, or it has only bread and wine.

Physiocrat said...


You can't be sure that it isn't

Fr Ray Blake said...

Well actually Michael the Aquinus understanding of Transubstantiation is the "In medio stat virtus", the other extreme to the "this is bread" view was, "this is muscle, sinew, bone, gore etc." The Catholic way is the middle way.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Middle = between two extremes that are untrue on there own.

Michael Petek said...

Father, my understanding of transubstantiation is that the Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species is in the manner of substance: the whole Body of Christ and each of its parts are uniformly and fully present throughout the species and in each separable part thereof.

All Protestants agree that the substance of bread and wine continue to exist after the consecration, whatever any of them believe about the Presence of Christ.

Lutherans believe in consubstantiation: Christ is substantially present with the substances of bread and wine.

Calvinists go for a merely spiritual presence, Zwinglians for bare symbolism.

Physiocrat said...

Gosh, Protestantism sounds ever so complicated. Too much for my little brain.

David Lindsay said...

The definition of Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism (initially, Puritanism) as "opposite" "extremes" is both ridiculous and enormously dangerous.

They may disagree a lot with each other, and they may both be demanding. But they are neither opposite nor extreme.

To define them as such and then attempt to steer some sort of middle course rapidly comes to involve rejecting, not just anything peculiar to either of them, but everything common to both of them.

You know, things like the Trinity, and the Virgin Birth, and the Empty Tomb, and the sanctity of life, and so on, and on, and on.

The Lord’s descent into the underworld

At Matins/the Office of Readings on Holy Saturday the Church gives us this 'ancient homily', I find it incredibly moving, it is abou...