Anglican Via Media?

Have you heard of the Anglican via media? This is the idea that Anglicanism is the ‘middle way’ between Catholicism and Protestantism. The concept is often extended to mean that Anglicanism is the ‘middle way’ between many different extremes. It is the way of compromise, the way of common sense, the way of ‘dual integrities’.

I used to be attracted to this theory. It seemed a very creative way to deal with the tensions of Catholicism and Protestantism within Anglican history. However, Cardinal Newman observed that the Anglican via media was never anything more than an idea. A via media might work in politics where utilitarianism is the rule, but it cannot work in the realm of religion. Religion demands choice. You have to take one road or the other. You can certainly be tolerant towards the other side, but it is impossible to walk a via media for very long.

This was my experience within Anglicanism. I wished to follow the via media. To put it in positive terms, I wanted to be an Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic Liberal. I wanted to embrace the good things from all four of these traditions, and proceeded in my ministry to do just that through the design of worship, spirituality, catechesis and pastoral ministry. There were two problems. The first problem is that the religion that resulted was a religion of my own concoction. It wasn’t truly Charismatic, Evangelical or Catholic. Instead it was a tossed salad made from my own choice from the ecclesiastical salad bar.

The second problem is no one else really wanted to join the Church of Dwight. The other Anglican clergy and the laypeople too, were not interested in any sort of imaginary via media. Nor were they interested in Dwight’s particular pick ‘n’ mix religion. They wanted to be Anglo Catholic or Evangelical or Charismatic or Liberal. They wanted to choose one path–not dabble about with a little of each.

They were right. You have to either choose a tradition to belong to or make up your own mixture which then becomes your tradition. That’s why Cardinal Newman said that the via media is nothing more than a theological theory. Where do you actualy find the via media? It doesn’t exist. It’s not real. What you really find are Anglicans and Anglican churches that are either a self made mix of traditions or you find Evangelical, Anglo Catholic, Charismatic or Liberal Anglicans and congregations.

Anglicans around the world are at a turning point right now. With the issues in their church they must decide. They may wish desperately to cling to the idea of a via media but it is not possible because it was never possible. They must ask themselves where such an idea of a via media comes from in the first place. It certainly doesn’t come from Scripture. Scriptures are clear from Joshua who cries out, “Choose you this day whom you will serve!” to the gospels which talk of two paths–the narrow way that leads to life and the broad way that leads to destruction. There’s no talk of an easy middle way of compromise, indecision and dithering. With such an image we have to ask, is the via media a middle way or just another term or the broad way?

In the end, of course, I was led to make a choice. I chose the old paths. I chose the big old one: the Catholic faith. The ironic and providential thing is that I had tried to create a religion that was Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic and Liberal.

When I became a Catholic I discovered exactly the Church I had tried so hard to create myself.

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