Via Media

The title might seem provocative, since Newman’s reaction against that idea figured in his decision to become a Roman Catholic in early nineteenth-century England and Rome. He came up against the “brick wall” of what amounted in the Church of England to unifying in a single institution all opposing opinions and beliefs. In bygone days conformity meant conformity, belonging to the national Church and keeping one’s mouth shut. Continuing Anglicanism doesn’t have that crowned authority to keep it together on pain of being in trouble with the laws of England and the British Empire. Without an authority able to chop our heads off or throw us into prison, we have to forge some other principle of unity!

Just a few moments ago, I read something by Archbishop Peter Robinson on Facebook:

One of the problems one encounters as a Continuing Anglican is that if one actually takes the English Reformation at its word one gets slammed from both directions. The advanced (you could also refer to them as revisionist) sort of Anglo-Catholic generally wants nothing to do with the Articles of Religion or the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which, by the way, is rather at odds with the “Prayer Book Catholic” tradition with which I grew up. On the other hand, the Anglo-Calvinists often try to hammer the 16th century English Reformation into a seventeenth century mould. Neither endeavour is particular successful.

I have always had a considerable amount of esteem for Archbishop Robinson and certain other Classic Anglicans who joined the fray during the days of the TAC trying to measure up to Anglicanorum coetibus. There was a time when I was trying to be loyal to Archbishop Hepworth at at costs and took quite a lot of stick from Fr Robert Hart. I now find that the latter and I are brother priests in the ACC. Perhaps, the peace we have made with each other is symbolic of a new comprehensiveness within an institutional Church. Things are very subtle. Anglicanorum coetibus took the wind out of the sails of what has become typified as Anglo-Papalism, something for which I never had much sympathy. Even as a Roman Catholic of fifteen-years, my sensitivities lay in the “English” style of gothic churches, riddel posts and the like.

I have to consider the possibility that Archbishop Robinson might have been provoked by the discussion between myself, Fr Jonathan Munn and Fr Gregory Wassen. For him, the Prayer Book, the Homilies and the 39 Articles are the very bedrock of Anglicanism. Depart from these and you are either a Calvinist or a Roman Catholic. Many nineteenth-century clergy in England strained at the leash, and the likes of Percy Dearmer sought to do with the Prayer Book in a Sarum mould as the Fathers of the London Oratory do with the Novus Ordo to take their faithful back to the glories of Counter-Reformation Rome!

It isn’t a question of aesthetics, like some of those stuffy Wren churches in London that escaped the Tractarians and the Ecclesiological Society against the “spikes” of the West End, the East End and the now gentrified slums of Holborn. There is a doctrinal foundation and a scholastic theological expression with its own language. When talking of the “Primitive Church”, claimed to be the model of seventeenth-century Anglicanism up to the Revolution and after the Restoration, how well does such a notion stand up to historical criticism?

When I was a child, my parents were not churchgoers, but my sisters went to Sunday School at St George’s in Kendal, a fairly “high-ish” Prayer Book parish at the time, and sung in the choir. My brother never had much time for religion, and nor did I apart from when I heard the organ at St George’s when our entire family went to church on Christmas Day. I was attracted to the organ, then to singing in the choir and then to learning more about Christianity when I was at St Peter’s in York. It was all very middle-of-the-road and quite “watered-down”. Our chaplain was the Rev’d Noel Kemp-Welch, a Kings College Cambridge graduate born in 1910, a kind and prayerful man, but utterly Liberal in his teaching in a curious old-fashioned way. I was confirmed in the school chapel by the Bishop of Selby at the age of sixteen. From my later teens, I found my sisters going in different directions, one in middle-of-the-road Anglicanism without bothering about it too much and my other sister became born-again Evangelical through the low-church parish in Kendal, St Thomas. For the time I was at a day school in sixth-form, I sang in the choir of Kendal Parish Church – old-fashioned Prayer Book and a solid choral tradition. We sang Evensong each Sunday and Mattins twice a month and Sung Eucharist (more or less English 1928) twice a month. There was no incense and our Vicar wore his surplice and tippet for the Eucharist. It was our English religion that made us upright patriots, hard working and honest as the day!

As always, the finer points of theology only concern the clergy, academics and particularly knowledgeable laymen. I was certainly not concerned by them. What did concern me was the culture of the Church through music and art making the Services an experience of holiness and transcendence. I remember the Epiphany Procession in York Minister in January 1973 when the Minster Choir and our school choir processed on opposite sides of the nave and met at the west end, under that glorious west window. Priests and canons processed in copes and servers wore dalmatics and incensed all the way. That was a discovery for a thirteen-year old boy! I had just encountered the tail-end of the Milner-White legacy under Dean Alan Richardson. All Saints, North Street was off my radar, but I remember visiting the church and being impressed by its character of a medieval parish church. My days in London took me to various forms of very high-church “spikery” and theatricals, and that contributed to my following the trans-Tiber train via the SSPX traditionalists in 1981. I am not left indifferent by my Roman Catholic experience, but have reverted to my love of the English medieval or Arts & Crafts expression.

The combination of my middle-of-the-road experience and Roman Catholicism brought me to know that a الجن‎‎ (genie) cannot be put back in the bottle. Someone who has lived in various parts of Europe can hardly fit back into northern English parochialism and small-mindedness. Beautiful as the Kendal Parish Church services were, I was forever brought to a more pre-Reformation perspective. We can’t pretend that history never happened, but we can refuse to be concerned by things that are foreign. I respect run-of-the-mill Roman Catholics and their Anglican counterparts in parishes up and down the land, but I cannot relate to them. Frankly, if that was all that was going, I think I would drift away as better men than myself have done.

The four Continuing Churches that have just united in doctrinal and human terms and begun work towards a more tangible unity in a single institution have given a terrific example. I have read Archbishop Haverland’s Charge to Synod (ACC) and I see his appeal to friendship, human empathy and a real desire for peace and harmony – even with those difficult matters yet to resolve. I think we can reach out to other Christians identifying with Anglicanism, and it is my prayer that we will overcome the “slamming” that Archbishop Robinson bewails. Our notion of the “true Church” is softened by our Christian humanism and sense of dialogue, making important distinctions in our use of language – and charity in all things.

I don’t know how we are going to reconcile the 39 Articles and traditional Northern European Catholicism of the pre-Tridentine era. Can our parishes exist side-by-side without clergy who dress differently feeling threatened? Some people on the Internet get quite excited and steamed-up about single issues, and that always clouds judgements and harms the cause of unity and Christian charity. Even in England, we have a certain amount of diversity between the underlying current represented by the upbringing and experiences of us all. We have all fought against the clutches of secularism and materialism, seeking to grow in our spiritual life, and sometimes that combat is very hard and embittering for us all.

I appeal to all my brethren to penetrate deeply into the depths of the Anglican and Northern Catholic spirit, and search for the highest aspirations – duc in altum

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1 Response to Via Media

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for so vivid a glimpse of both your and your family’s history!

    I remember well (though fuzzily) the discussions of older and newer versions of Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites in Dr. Winch’s lecture series, where we first met. Liturgical diversity is such a fine part of the heritage of the western Church – and, one has only to think of Church Slavonic to say, of the eastern Church as well. And the 371-year history of the bull Grave nimis delights me in its demonstration of western theological circumspection where diversity of interpretation is concerned – I think I have read of new Dominican service books being printed in early 1854 which, like the Orthodox – and the book of Common Prayer calendar! – still spoke of the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (and not yet of the Immaculate Conception).

    I’m too much of a liturgical historical duffer to remember by heart in how far the 1662 Prayer Book did or did not reconcile the differences between Scottish and English Prayer Books, but another century-and-a-quarter brought the (so far?!) irreversible changes to the 39 Articles in the American Prayer Book when we Americans no longer had a King.

    Regarding the question, “When talking of the ‘Primitive Church’, claimed to be the model of seventeenth-century Anglicanism up to the Revolution and after the Restoration, how well does such a notion stand up to historical criticism?”, I mention again, for an entertaining glimpse (of which many a fine point eludes me) of the mid- to later-19th-c. circumstances, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould’s pseudonymous Only a Ghost! as written by Irenaeus the Deacon (“under the Blessed Cyril” of Jerusalem in 347, visiting London), read aloud in a little less than a hour at (with linked, curiously less-perfect (!) online text).

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