Anglicanism is sometimes called the via media, the middle way, by which the person making the assertion usually means that Anglicanism is somewhere between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as a tradition within the larger world of Christianity. In Anglican apologetics, the idea of the via media is often used to show the reasonableness of Anglicanism in comparison to the extremes of other types of Christianity. I have never been comfortable with this over-simplistic distinction. For one thing, it sets up a strange kind of Christian grid. Why are Roman Catholicism and Protestantism by nature extreme? Are we really lumping all of Protestantism together as if there are no distinctions between, for instance, a Pentecostal and a Mennonite? And where do the eastern churches fit into this? But even if we leave these questions aside, we are still left trying to explain what we mean when we say we are in the reasonable middle. Otherwise there is no content to the claim. Does being in the middle mean that we cherry pick our beliefs and practices from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as we see fit? If that is the case, then Anglicanism is simply a free-for-all in which we use tradition to meet our needs and our wants, rather than being informed by tradition or allowing it to shape us. Anglicanism in this model becomes parasitic, stealing what it needs to survive from the wider Christian world and offering nothing back in return.
While some contemporary Anglicans have opted for this “anything goes” approach, I firmly believe that classical Anglicanism feeds us something much more substantial. Rather than thinking of the via media of Anglicanism as a reasonable alternative to the strictness of other Christian traditions, we would do well to think of it as its own distinct expression of Christian faith and practice that has important elements in common with Roman Catholicism and the various Protestant churches and even the churches of the east but is effectively its own animal.
Anglicans and Scripture
Perhaps the most obvious example of this Anglican distinctiveness is found in the way that Anglicans read the Bible. From the outside, one can see ways in which the Anglican approach to scripture looks similar to the Catholic approach and to the various Protestant approaches, though it follows neither line neatly. The Bible has always held a place of supreme authority in the formulation of doctrine for Anglicans. Jesus Christ is the one sure revelation of God, and holy scripture is the one sure record of that revelation, being itself both inspired and revealed by God. Article VII says “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” This understanding has been held continuously down the ages in Anglicanism, being one of the vows made by those seeking holy orders on the day of their ordination. While in the Roman Church, priests are given a chalice and patten during their ordination to symbolize their receiving the power to consecrate the Eucharist, newly ordained Anglican priests are given a Bible to show that all their authority, including the power to administer the sacraments, is rooted in scripture.
In this respect, Anglicanism appears quite Protestant. Yet Anglicanism deviates from other Protestant approaches to scripture in several significant ways. While Anglicans have joined other Protestants over the centuries in arguing for the clarity of scripture and for the ability of the individual believer to be guided by the Holy Spirit in the reading of scripture, Anglicanism has also insisted upon the importance of the Church in interpreting scripture. Both the sixteenth century reformers and the seventeenth century divines asserted that scripture must be read in the light of the writings of the Fathers of the first five centuries of the Church, appealing to them not as an independent source of revelation but because they are closer to the source. No individual father is elevated above the others, but where there is wide convergence of the Fathers, their opinion should take precedence over the novel ideas of modern people. Anglicanism also accepts the first four ecumenical councils and the creeds as being guiding principles for understanding the faith that is delivered to us primarily from the scriptures. Likewise, while the Anglican reformers saw the shaping of the liturgy as an opportunity to accentuate certain theological ideas, they also understood that the liturgy itself was a source of received tradition about the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Article XX declares that the Church may decree rites and ceremonies as she sees fit and that she is the arbiter of controversies of faith, but that she may never exercise this authority in a way that is contradictory to scripture or that elevates one part of scripture so as to render another invalid. Scripture must be read and understood as a whole.
One can see in this appeal to liturgy, councils, and the Fathers an echo of the Eastern approach as well as that of Rome. An even more pronounced synergy with the Roman approach can be found in the Anglican appeal to reason as a means by which we can understand that scripture is worthy of the authority we see in it. Some people may be surprised to hear that the Anglican appeal to reason resonates with the Roman approach to scripture, but without the Thomistic idea of natural reason with its Aristotelian underpinnings, Richard Hooker and his compatriots could never have articulated the Anglican approach. Hooker in particular argued that Rome was wrong to insist that we need believe anything other than what is provided in the Biblical witness in order to be saved, but that continental Protestants were equally wrong in asserting that the Bible is sufficient not just for salvation but for everything. Hooker’s work shows that natural reason is required for us to understand that the Bible is a source of revelation in the first place. We do not come to the Bible as blank slates. We are able to receive biblical revelation because God has first placed within us reason and shown us, through the natural world, that there is an order to the universe.
The Uniqueness of the Anglican Approach to Scripture
So we can see how the Anglican approach to scripture has some consonance with Protestantism and some consonance with various Catholic traditions. But does that mean that the Anglican approach to scripture is just a random, forced hybrid of the two? Certainly not in Hooker’s estimation. “Two opinions therefore there are concerning sufficiency of Holy Scripture,” he says, “each extremely opposite unto the other, and both repugnant unto truth” (The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book II, Chapter viii). Neither of the two approaches that he saw being worked out by Protestants and Roman Catholics were sufficient, because neither one was true to the witness of the early Church or what can be rightfully discerned through reason. Anglicanism proposes a completely different approach, which is consistent with certain parts of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant approaches, but only in so much as they are true. The great Anglican reformers and the great Anglican divines, while they sometimes came to dramatically different conclusions, were generally in agreement about this practice. It has shaped the Anglican worldview for nearly five hundred years.
Is this approach unique? Certainly not in its individual components. Scriptural supremacy, patristic interpretation, and human reason are hardly the property of Anglicanism alone, nor could we boast if they were since such uniqueness might suggest novelty and a break with the faith of the apostles. Yet the way that Anglicans combine these things does seem to be distinctive in Christianity.
It would be wrong to say that Protestants universally do not turn to the Fathers, since many of them do, particularly those schooled in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, but most Protestants do not see the Fathers as an authority, certainly not as one that trumps what the Holy Spirit might be saying to the individual believer or even what the Spirit might be saying to an individual church. Furthermore, few traditional Protestants would be willing to say that natural law helps to shape our ability to understand scripture, or that we can reason our way to a place of seeing that scripture is an authority at all. Still fewer would believe that the Church should have the last word in matters of controversy regarding the scripture.
Roman Catholics see scripture as having a sort of parallel authority with tradition and with the teaching office of the Church, but not as being above those other sources of authority and certainly not as being over the Church herself. Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, view scripture as a part of the tradition rather than above it or parallel to it, effectively making scripture subordinate to the Fathers and the Church. Anglicanism uniquely asserts the authority of all three sources of authority while maintaining that scripture holds the highest place, leaving open the possibility for error in the teaching of the Church or even errors in the interpretation of the Fathers, but not in the Bible.
The classical Anglican approach to scripture is a prime example of the way in which the via media of Anglicanism operates as a unique practice and tradition within Christianity, but it is far from the only example. Yet so often today, the uniqueness of the Anglican way is forgotten even amongst Anglicans themselves who identify more with one of the various parties within Anglicanism–Catholic, Evangelical, or Liberal–than with Anglicanism itself. Thus, when trying to do good scriptural interpretation, many Anglican Catholics are more likely to consult the most recent Roman Catholic Catechism than the Catechism of their own tradition, found in the traditional versions of the Book of Common Prayer. Likewise, many Anglican Evangelicals are more likely to read commentaries by non-Anglican Protestants than to consult their Anglican Catholic colleagues. This is not to say that consulting non-Anglican sources is bad. Indeed, it is a hallmark of the strength of Anglicanism that we are able to draw on the teaching of so many different parts of the Christian world without giving up our essentials. Nevertheless, if we never learn to approach the scriptures in the way that classical Anglicanism lays out, we never get formed in our own tradition, and the gap between the parties within the tradition widens.
Anglicanism is not merely a space in which one can practice being Catholic or practice being Evangelical. Anglicanism is Catholic and Evangelical. This is not because Anglicanism strives to bridge the two streams, but because the Anglican way, in its attempt to be authentic to the witness of the early Church, manages to carry along what is most true and authentic about Catholicism and Evangelicalism in the process. It is this comprehension that Anglicans of all stripes need to learn once again to celebrate and explore.