Anglicanism has long identified itself as representing a via media or ‘middle way’ between the polarities of Catholicism and Calvinism – a sort of balanced middle ground that avoids what are seen to be the excesses of Rome and the Reformed tradition. This claim is well expressed in George Herbert’s poem The British Church, in which he praises the balance exhibited by the Church of England, describing it as:
A fine aspect in fit array,
Neither too mean, nor yet too gay.
He goes on to compare the ‘painted shrines’ of Rome to the Puritan faction of his time, who, while avoiding their ‘neighbour’s pride’ instead ‘wholly goes on th’other side, and nothing wears’; and describes the ‘British Church’ in question as having ‘perfect lineaments, and hue both sweet and bright’ who God has deigned to ‘double-moat thee with his grace, and none but thee’. It is a confident defence of what Herbert believed the Church of England to be – a serene equilibrium between two styles of churchmanship, not too beholden to imagery and ceremony, nor given to stripping the walls bare and rejecting all past traditions. However, the equipoise praised by Herbert was not necessarily the middle way that was invoked by others and has been since.
It is common now to see Anglicanism as preserving a doctrinal balance, whereas it is clear from reading the literature at the time of the Elizabethan Settlement (and for long after) that the theology of the Church of England was fundamentally Protestant. Herbert himself subscribed to Calvinist doctrine, believing in double predestination and personal assurance of salvation (i.e.; Calvin’s perseverance of the saints), as well as a penal substitutionary view of the Atonement, and Richard Hooker – chief architect of Anglican polity and of central importance for the Anglican sense of self-identity – was very much a man beholden to Reformed theology (sola fide – yes please; asking the saints for intercession – no thank you). The Anglican via media was originally more to do with externals than preserving genuine theological balance.
Nevertheless, later generations would come to expand this theory to include an inclusive view of doctrine seeing virtue in being able to comprise many different theological schools rooted together in one church by the ‘bare essentials’ of the creeds of the first five centuries. It is this view – of the Church being both ‘Reformed and Catholic’, able to include many differing schools of thought in a genuine unity of faith – that Blessed John Henry Newman finally rejected as a ‘paper theory’, as something that was only a theory, but that lacked any substantive reality. The only really defensible reality existing within Anglicanism was (and is) that professed by the latitudinarians – to give a wide enough berth to theological positions that all things can be accepted under the one tent. This is not however a doctrinal balance, but doctrinal vagueness for the sake of a false and compromised unity.
Nevertheless, it is not my intention to focus on the flaws of Anglican theology or ecclesiology (something which I have examined in the past here and here) but rather to show what the via media is not, in order to better express what it is. The real via media is not the uneasy cohabitation of many contradictory doctrines and ecclesiological visions, nor is it a vague toleration of differences of opinion. It is instead a careful balancing act, a walking of the razor’s edge of Truth so that errors of different kinds may be avoided. There is only one Catholic Faith, but many subtle divergences from it (which subtleties more often than not lead into heresy) and it requires many subtle distinctions to preserve the Faith from falling to one side or the other of the path.
To be able to do this – ward off error on either side and preserve a path that goes through the middle of them – a recognisable sense of what the Faith actually consists of is required. The true middle way thus requires a strong foundation – the deposit of faith – and a means by which departures from that deposit of faith can be discerned and stated. This is presumably at least part of why Our Lord gave the name of rock – an image of strength and solidity with biblical allusions of steadfastness – to Saint Peter, at the same time as giving him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (c.f.; Matthew 16:13-20). The authority to call out error where it lies and to state the truths of the Faith are inseparably bound up with the very permanence of that Faith.
The real via media can never exist therefore in a broad church of the latitudinarian kind, but only in one where its path is clearly defined, and where true catholicity (true ‘broadness’) is thereby enabled to flourish. True breadth of expression and diversity of life can only come when there is a defined and authoritative touchstone to which all refer back to – the alternatives to this, as Blessed John Henry Newman also saw, are either sectarianism or vagueness in belief. The real via media saves us from both of these fates, as it acts as a common core that both enables and preserves unity and catholicity. The real via media is the recognition that truth matters and exists, combined with the sure knowledge of where ultimate Truth resides and what it is. The true middle way is akin to a ridged mountain path that leads us up to sublime heights whilst warding us off from the sheer drop that awaits us to our left and right.