Church HistoryMinistry

The Myth of the Via Media, and other Canterbury Tales – Part 2

Mark continues from part 1 of his Gafcon 2022 talk. You can read the entire text here.

  1. Classic Confusion #1: The ‘Via Media’

So, onto our first classic confusion about Anglican identity: the so-called Via Media. This Latin term can be translated into English as ‘middle way’, ‘middle path’, and so forth. It harks back to the ‘middle state’ explicitly found in Aristotle’s Eudemian ethics, generally discussed in his Nicomachean ethics, and sometimes spoken about as his ‘golden mean’. The general idea is that the best ethical choice is the mean between two opposite extremes.

Now, in an Anglican context, the ‘middle way’ assumes a contrast between the Scylla of Protestantism and the Charybdis of Roman Catholicism. In other words, that the wisest way of navigating through the treacherous ecclesiastical waters in which these monsters swim, is to position Anglicanism between them. This often takes shape in Anglican liturgy, Anglican history, Anglican theology, or the whole ecclesiastical kit, forging a certain kind of Anglican church identity. The Dictionary of the Episcopal Church furnishes us, once again, with another example of this kind of thing:

Via Media. A Latin phrase that means “the middle way.” The middle way allows us to synthesize great Christian truths into a central core, rather than focusing on extremes.[1]

Given its prevalence in many Anglican circles today, it sometimes comes as a surprise to discover that this via media was only concocted relatively recently. Indeed, it is largely a creature of the nineteenth century, as we can see reflected in this Google nGram search on the term:[2]

Well, if you are wondering what happened here, I should tell you that the answer lies in that same place where Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer were martyred. Yes, the city of Oxford in the UK. In the nineteenth century, a revolution in the Church of England occurred when various clergymen, including John Keble, Edward Pusey, and John Henry Newman, wrote a set of theological tracts – the Tracts for the Times – outlining their new vision for the church; a vision which was neither Reformed nor Roman:

“The glory of the English Church is, that it has taken the VIA MEDIA, as it has been called. It lies between the (so called) Reformers and the Romanists.”[3]

“A number of distinct doctrines are included in the notion of Protestantism: and as to all these, our Church has taken the VIA MEDIA between it and Popery.”[4]

So wrote John Henry Newman. He later realised the failure of his via media and so crossed the Tiber River and converted to Roman Catholicism (later becoming Cardinal Newman). But the damage was done through the Tracts for the Times. Those who held to this via media and who remained staunchly within the Church of England engineered an approach to Anglicanism which we know today as Anglo-Catholicism. This movement brought with it, what Prof. Diarmaid MacCulloch calls, “nothing less than an ideological revolution in the Church of England and in the worldwide Anglican Communion with which it was associated.”[5] What do you think this revolution involved? Well, among other things, great architectural, musical, liturgical, and theological change. And the latter two are particularly important to us, insofar as Anglican identity goes.

You see, in order to construct liturgical and theological foundations for the via media, the architects of the Anglo-Catholic movement were required to do some fancy historical and theological footwork. They needed to carve out a particularly English Reformation, distinct from Rome, and distinct from the various Reformations on the Continent. We may think this a difficult undertaking, but we ought to remember that this was a time when the mighty English Empire was rapidly expanding, and a time when “The Continent” (capital T, capital C) was a place where one might venture to go occasionally on a foreign holiday and forsake an English breakfast for a Continental one. But, notwithstanding the assistance of English insularity, revising the liturgical and theological identity of the Church of England was nonetheless a difficult undertaking. And the biggest difficulty was making Cranmer’s best work and the best writings of the English reformers sound like they were sealed off from Continental influences during the sixteenth century reformation. This difficulty was especially true in the case of the Lord’s Supper.

Let me give you an example. In 1896, the Oxford academic Henry Wakeman wrote his Introduction to the History of the Church of England. In his book, Wakeman attempted to show that the church of the English Reformation was not Reformed nor Roman – in its roots, it was peculiarly Anglican. According to his historiography, Thomas Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer (that’s the 1549 one) was “instinct [in sync] with the spirit of the Catholic Church”. And according to Wakeman, Cranmer’s second Book of Common Prayer (that’s 1552), marked “the extreme point to which the Church of England ever went in the direction of compromise with those who held Zwinglian or Calvinistic views on the subject.”[6]

So, note his subtle but substantial point. Between the two books of common prayer, Cranmer’s eucharistic viewpoint changed from non-papalist Catholic to continental Reformed. In other words, to uphold a non-papalist Catholic position on the Lord’s Supper, this historiography tried to drive a wedge not only between the English and Continental divines, but it attempted to time this driving of the wedge between the two Prayer Books. That way, Anglo-Catholics could argue that there was an untainted English sacramental theology (1549 BCP), and then there was a continentally-polluted Reformed sacramental theology (1552 BCP). Therefore, the purest English eucharistic theology was neither Roman nor Reformed. It was a eucharistic via media.

The problems with this history and theology are manifold, and you’ll be relieved to know we do not have time to deal with them all.  However, I will say this. Even before the publication of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and with the help of English and Continental theologians, Cranmer had already ditched his Catholic eucharistic theology. Indeed, by the time of the parliamentary debates over the Lord’s Supper in 1548, he had already ditched Lutheran eucharistic theology, and had embraced a Reformed position.  In other words, the theology of the Lord’s Supper in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer was undoubtedly Reformed.

In fact, in the almost three years leading up to the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer, England was awash with the publications from all over the continent arguing against traditional eucharistic doctrine. I have counted 110 English publications which discuss the Lord’s Supper printed between 1547 and 1549 alone, and which came from Wittenburg, Leipzig, Cologne, Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne, and of course England — I’m sure there were more.   But this plethora of productions supports a very simple point: that the eucharistic Via Media is a complete and utter historiographical myth. And indeed, this eucharistic example is illustrative of the wider religious scene. The English reformers did not find a golden mean between Rome and the Reformed in their official liturgy or in their official doctrine. Indeed, as Cranmer’s most recent biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch, rightly says:

“Cranmer’s conception of a “middle way” or via media in religion was quite different from that of later Anglicanism . . . Cranmer would violently have rejected such a notion: how could one have a middle way between truth and Antichrist?”[7]

There is one further fudge of via media that we need to notice, and it’s a more contemporary confusion. It’s not so much about Cranmer’s period of the English Reformation, it’s more about the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. That the Church of England during her reign was the paradigmatic Anglican via media. That it was then that Anglicanism was invented.

Put simply, the myth goes as follows: Henry VIII gave Anglicanism its great ecclesiastical Brexit from Rome; Edward VI gave Anglicanism its Reformed character, ‘Bloody Mary’ gave it back its Catholic character, and the Elizabethan Settlement retained for Anglicanism the best Catholic and Reformed bits. In other words, it was a via media Settlement of Religion between Rome and the Reformed. Here are two excellent examples of this from recent publications:

The Elizabethan Settlement proved to be an important step in bringing different religious groups together in England through a ‘middle way’ (via media), which has become an important hallmark of the Anglican tradition.[8]

So [after Edward (Reformed), Mary (Catholic), and now Elizabethan Settlement] the Church of England followed a via media approach, evolving as a church that was both catholic and reformed.[9]

Now, before we bust up this strain of the via media myth, it’s worth pointing out that there are some grounds for the charge. Queen Elizabeth was a bit of a traditionalist herself: she notoriously had a silver cross placed on the communion table in her chapel, she did not see preaching as important as most of the reformers (cf., her famous stoush with Archbishop Edmund Grindal), and her personal motto was not semper reformanda (always being reformed) but semper eadem (always the same). There are a few other bits and pieces too, but the basic point is that Elizabeth was not a ’hot protestant’ and thus was the via media Queen.

But this argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and it is pretty easily dispatched with. The bottom line is that the whole Elizabethan Settlement was bigger than Good Queen Bess alone. Now, without a doubt, she was Reformed. Despite her idiosyncrasies she was not Catholic, nor Lutheran. Let’s not forget that she was even excommunicated by the Pope! But the Reformation was bigger than her. She appointed strong reformers like Matthew Parker, Edmund Grindal, John Whitgift, and Richard Bancroft as successive Archbishops of Canterbury. The 39 Articles of Religion – with all of its justification, predestination, and reformed eucharistic theology – was passed during her reign. The very reformed John Jewel published the famous Apologie for the Church of England then too. And lastly, that the reformed theologian Richard Hooker wrote his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in her time. Oh, and of course, both John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger praised the Queen and her clergy for their successes in securing the Reformed character of the Church of England. So, the Elizabethan Settlement had a thoroughly Reformed character – a via media between Rome and the Reformation, it was not.

[1] “Via Media” in Armentrout and Slocum, An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, 34

[2] While the term is not explicitly used, precedents for the ‘via media’ concept can be found in writings of the seventeenth century clergyman, Richard Montague, and some other Caroline divines.

[3] “Via Media No. I [Tract 38]” in Tracts for the Times, Vol. I (Gilbert & Rivington: London, 1834), A.iiiv.

[4] “Via Media No. II [Tract 41]” in Tracts for the Times, a.3v. See also J.H. Newman, Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church Viewed Relatively to Romanism and Popular Protestantism (London, 1837), 21.

[5] MacCulloch, “The Myth of the English Reformation”,3.

[6] H. O. Wakeman, An Introduction to the History of the Church of England: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (New York, 1896), 281, 296.

[7] MacCulloch, Cranmer, 617.

[8] Winfield Bevins, Simply Anglican (2020).

[9] Likewise, Muriel Porter’s Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism: The Sydney Experiment (2011).