Church HistoryMinistry

The Myth of the Via Media, and other Canterbury Tales[1] – Part 1

GAFCON Australasia 2022

The Pressing Challenge of Anglican Identity

“Sometimes it is called fudge … And I say, hey, I like fudge, it’s a lot better than killing each other.”[2] So said Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, on the topic of Anglican identity, in an interview during the recent Lambeth Conference a fortnight ago. Personally, I too like fudge. Perhaps as much as Archbishop Cottrell. However, I am not as convinced that ‘fudge’ is a desirable description of authentic Anglicanism. And I trust, most of you will agree with me that ‘fudge’ is not what we wish Australasian Anglicanism to taste like; that Anglican ‘fudge’ does not supply sufficient sustenance for us Australasian Anglicans, as we seek to proclaim the glories of Christ to the nations, and as we seek to strengthen the spiritual lives of the men, women, and children within our parishes. Milk it may very well contain, but something more meaty is needed to sustain Anglican identity.

Now, the general theme of identity is a contemporary concern. Brian Rosner, Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne has recently published a book on the subject, and he is presently running a seminar on it too. Some of you may have read Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020), which provides a potted intellectual history of selfhood. And some of you may even have clawed through some of Charles Taylor’s philosophical works on secularity and selfhood, upon which works Trueman’s book was somewhat based. I suspect that we will continue to see books about identity published for many years yet.

But the theme of ecclesiastical identity is also a very contemporary concern. Insofar as Anglicanism goes, the name of Paul Avis regularly rolls off the tongue in discussions about Anglican identity. And the freshly published five-volume Oxford History of Anglicanism series has been a best seller – at least, among those who can afford those weighty tomes. More controversially, the recent Lambeth Conference even had a whole seminar on Anglican Identity (this being the springboard for Cottrell’s fudge analogy). And, of course, there was a reason why we all subscribed to the Jerusalem Declaration as we registered for this GAFCON Australasia Conference. Our ecclesiastical identity as Anglicans matters. But how would you describe what Anglican identity actually encompasses? Does our Anglican identity have an all-inclusive comprehensiveness? Or does Anglican identity have limits of toleration? What, might we ask, is the most authentic way of being Anglican?

Here’s one example of an answer, from the Episcopal Dictionary of the Church:

The Anglican balance of authority has been characterized as a “three-legged stool” which falls if any one of the legs is not upright. It may be distinguished from a tendency in Roman Catholicism to overemphasize tradition relative to scripture and reason, and in certain Protestant churches to overemphasize scripture relative to tradition and reason. The Anglican balancing of the sources of authority has been criticized as clumsy or “muddy.” It has been associated with the Anglican affinity for seeking the mean between extremes and living the via media. It has also been associated with the Anglican willingness to tolerate and comprehend opposing viewpoints instead of imposing tests of orthodoxy or resorting to heresy trials.[3]

Now, if you had smelled something suspicious in this statement, that’s because it is a classic serving of Anglican fudge. And its ingredients include the myth of the Anglican via media and some other Canterbury related tales. Yet for all of its malnutrition, this theory of Anglican identity has had an immense impact on worldwide Anglicanism, and can even explicitly be found on a number of Anglican Church of Australia diocesan websites (which shall remain nameless, unless you want to ask me later!).

My goal for this seminar is basically to put a bomb under this approach to Anglicanism, and in so doing, to sharpen our sense of Anglican identity. To do this, I want to take you through two major misunderstandings: that of the so-called Anglican via media and that of the so-called Anglican three-legged-stool. Along the way, I will make some comment about contemporary confusions, and then will conclude with some anchors that I think we can cast, in order to secure an authentic Anglican identity. At the end of all this, we can have some time for comments and questions. I hope you’ll find this whistle stop tour of Anglican history and theology helpful. I think getting the narrative right is really important, for the future of Australian Anglicanism, and in particular, for the next generation of women and men in our parishes.­­­­

This is part 1 of 4 in this series from Mark’s Gafcon 2022 talk. You can read the entire text here.

[1] The title for this seminar is adapted from Diarmaid MacCulloch, “The Myth of the English Reformation”, Journal of British Studies 30/1 (1991):1-19.

[2] Interview with Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, in “Bishop Joanna’s Lambeth Conference Diary”, 2 August 2022. Last Accessed 10 August 2022.

[3] “Authority, Sources of (in Anglicanism)” in Don S. Armentrout, Robert Boak Slocum (eds.), An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: A User-Friendly Reference for Episcopalians (New York: Church Publishing, 2000), 34.