The Via Media—Between What and What?

One could say that the argument over the Via Media is its own via media, cutting through two camps in the Anglican Communion.

Although there have been various ways of interpreting the term, more recently its interpretation has divided two groups of Anglicans—those who insist on the Reformed character of Anglicanism and those who see Anglicanism as a way of being reformed and catholic but distinct from Rome.

The first group of Anglicans (let’s call them “Calvinist Anglicans”) says that the via media runs between Wittenberg and Geneva but finally ends in Geneva. The English Reformation, by its lights, was first inspired by Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and grace alone. Then it turned to Calvin and his Institutes as its best expression of Christian faith purged of papist ceremonial. Cranmer and Jewell turned attention away from Catholic spectacle and back toward the preached Word. The Protestant center of Anglicanism is demonstrated by the Thirty-Nine Articles’ exaltation of biblical authority and rejection of Catholic sacramentalism. The Black Rubric of the 1552 Prayer Book and Cranmer’s preface “Of Ceremonies” prove that Anglicanism before the twentieth century was a “religion of the word” that eschewed “sights and smells.” The notion that the Anglican via media travels between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism has been “often debunked” by historians such as Anthony Milton in the first volume of the 4-volume Oxford History of Anglicanism. It was only John Henry Newman and his disciples who have imagined that the Anglican way in its basic outlook is neither Roman nor Protestant.

The other group of Anglicans (“reformed catholic Anglicans” might be apt) acknowledges Reformed influence on the early Anglican theologians and continued Reformation influence on Anglican soteriology and authority. For a few examples, Anglicans have always rejected Pelagianism, papism, and Mariolatry. But reformed catholic Anglicans point as well to the embrace of catholic worship—not Roman but patristic, and that of the undivided Church of the first millennium of Christianity—by its earliest reformers and continuing through the Elizabethan and Restoration eras. Cranmer’s baptismal liturgies, for example, teach baptismal regeneration. Cranmer himself retained the sign of the cross at baptism and kneeling at communion. His Ornaments preface called for “some of the old Ceremonies” to be “retained still” if they “be neither dark nor dumb Ceremonies” but are “so set forth, that every man may understand what they do mean, and to what use they do serve.” They ought to be “rever[ed] . . . for their antiquity.” Cranmer warned against “innovations and newfangleness” in ornaments, which innovation “is always to be eschewed.”

Elizabeth’s 1559 Prayer Book reintroduced more catholic words of administration of the Eucharist (“the body of our Lord Jesus Christ”) and the Prayer Book of the Restoration (the 1662 BCP) changed the Black Rubric to allow for a real presence of Christ’s Body and Blood.

For these and a hundred other reasons, historians such as the general editor of the Oxford History of Anglicanism have maintained that “[d]eveloping within Anglicanism over centuries was a creative but also divisive tension between Protestantism and Catholicism, between the Bible and tradition, between the Christian past and contemporary thought and society.” (Rowan Strong, Oxford History 1: xix). The eminent historian (and Anglican) Henry Chadwick asserted that the sixteenth century witnessed “the historical shaping of Anglicanism in its middle path between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.” (Stephen Sykes, Study of Anglicanism, 105). Oxford historian and Cranmer biographer Diarmaid MacCulloch adds that the Elizabethan Settlement showed “arrested development in Protestant terms” and the “ghost . . . of an older world of Catholic authority and devotional practice” (Later Reformation, 85).

Let me flesh out this case for a reformed catholic Anglicanism by examining in a bit more detail the Calvinist Anglican charges that 1) Anglicanism has always been essentially Reformed, 2) that Anglican history is essentially Protestant, and 3) that Anglican liturgy and sacraments reject catholic ceremonialism. Then I shall close with a word about these two groups of Anglicans and how they should regard each other.

Was Anglicanism always and essentially Reformed?

The English way of being Christian started at least fourteen hundred years before the Reformation, having taken root in England from before 200 AD (when Tertullian wrote of Britons “subjugated to Christ”). The English Celtic church developed a distinctive spirituality both creational and Trinitarian that has shaped Anglican piety ever since. The Anglican way was anti-Roman from before the Synod of Whitby (633) on important issues like the date of Easter, penance and Eucharistic consecration, and this hostility to Roman primacy continued through the Pope’s deposition of King John in the thirteenth century and Wycliffe’s denial of papal authority and transubstantiation in the fourteenth century—long before the Reformation.

History, then, is the first answer to the question. Anglicanism took on a distinctive character long before there was a Reformed movement.

Second, we have already seen that Cranmer adopted liturgical and sacramental elements that Calvinists rejected, such as (some) catholic ceremonial and baptismal regeneration.

Third, the Elizabethan settlement adopted a host of things that the Reformed bitterly renounced. Elizabeth’s 1559 BCP dropped the Black Rubric, added the catholic words of administration (the body of our Lord Jesus Christ), and refused to remove or prohibit the wafer, surplice, sign of the cross in baptism, kneeling at Communion, the ring in marriage, the veil in churching, bowing at the name of Jesus, and the use of “over-refined” music.

Fourth, the 1662 BCP, which most would say was an extension of the Elizabethan Settlement and is the only official Prayer Book of the Church of England, includes many catholic elements that the Reformed lobbied against.  In it, the “priest” and not the “minister” gives absolution in both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and petition is made for “bishops, priests, and deacons” rather than for “bishops, pastours [sic], and ministers.”  The Black Rubric is restored but changed.  Instead of saying that kneeling is not intended to imply a doctrine of “real and essential presence there being of Christ’s natural flesh and blood,” it now reads that “no adoration is intended . . . unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Blood.”  In other words, the Eucharist does not contain the real presence of his earthly pre-resurrection body, but this does not rule out a real sacramental presence of Christ’s Body and Blood.

There are other changes in the 1662 BCP that violate Reformed understandings.  Throughout the book “congregation” is changed (from the 1552 BCP) to “church.”  The usages to which the (Reformed) Puritans had most vociferously objected are retained: use of the Apocrypha (inter-Testamental books such as Wisdom and Sirach) in the Daily Offices;  a traditional form of the Litany (petitions at special times of the year); vestments; kneeling at Communion; the sign of the cross at baptism; the giving of a ring at marriage; a prayer of absolution for the sick “if he feel his conscience troubled” and makes confession; and the declaration in the baptismal liturgy for infants that God regenerates the infant “with thy holy Spirit.”  A strong view of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist can be seen in the Prayer of Humble Access (“Grant us therefore . . . so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son . . . and to drink his blood”), the words of administration (“The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee” and “The bloud of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee”), and the post-communion prayer (“We most heartily thank thee, for . . . the spiritual food of the most precious body and bloud of they Son our Savior Jesus Christ”).

Perhaps most offensive to Reformed sensibilities, the 1662 Prayer Book prescribed that “such ornaments of the Church and of the ministers thereof shall be retained, and be in use, as was in this Church of England, by the Authority of Parliament in the second year of the reign of King Edward the Sixth”—which ornaments included vestments such as chasubles and stoles and the “sights and smells” that the Reformed repudiate.

The Injunctions of 1559 and the Advertisements of 1565 had limited the range of vestments, but when the Restoration bishops released the 1662 Prayer Book they omitted the Ornaments rubric’s second half, which referred to the possibility of such a limitation by an “other order” that might be taken by the Queen. Apparently the bishops who delivered the 1662 BCP—still the only official Church of England Prayer Book– felt that the Injunctions and Advertisements had gone too far. Besides, they recognized that the Advertisements never became the law of the Church because the Queen never gave royal assent to them. Nor did she sign the Canons which incorporated them.

Fifth, the Articles are also considered part of the legacy of the Elizabethan settlement.  But while they teach Reformed staples such as the authority of Scripture and rejection of transubstantiation, they also teach more catholic notions of the sacraments and ecclesiology.

The sacraments, we are told in Article XXV, are “not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession” but also “effectual signs of grace . . . by the which [God] doth work invisibly in us.”  Baptism is “a sign of regeneration or New Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed. . . . The Baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ” (Art. XXVII).  Transubstantiation is rejected, but the Real Presence of the humanity of Christ, “after an heavenly and spiritual manner,” is not.  Communion for those who receive “rightly, worthily, and with faith . . . is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and . . . a partaking of the Blood of Christ. . . . The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper” (Art. XXVIII).

According to the Articles, the Church is not invisible, as the Reformed prefer to put it, but a visible body preaching the pure Word and duly ministering the sacraments (Art XIX).

So the Anglican tradition contains certain Reformed emphases but is far from being essentially Reformed.

Is Anglican history essentially Protestant?

Protestantism is often defined by its theological method of sola scriptura, which privileges Scripture over tradition and often rejects the notion that tradition ought to have any role in Christian faith and practice. Richard Hooker, arguably the premier theologian of the English Reformation, clearly rejected this Protestant notion. His method was to read the Bible at the feet of the Fathers, listening carefully to patristic judgments and taking seriously traditional Church practice.

In his classic Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which has justly been called Anglicanism’s Summa, Hooker turned to the Fathers 774 times. He cited for authority the Latin, Greek and African fathers, but Tertullian and Augustine were his favorites. To the great Bishop of Hippo Hooker appealed ninety-nine times, either to justify an Anglican practice or to interpret a controverted passage of Scripture. In one of his most important arguments against the Puritans, who were his day’s quintessential Protestants, Hooker argued against the regulative principle that everything in church government and worship must have an explicit biblical—preferably New Testament—prooftext. Augustine recognized, according to Hooker, that while the most important Christian doctrine is clear in Scripture to those willing to see, many matters of church polity and worship are either unclear or not addressed. Therefore church leaders are free to use reason and charity to keep traditional practice that does not violate the clear teaching of Scripture. Augustine wrote, “The custom of the people of God and the decrees of out forefathers are to be kept, touching those things whereof the Scripture hath neither one way or other given us any charge.” Hooker then interprets Augustine as follows: “St. Augustine’s speech therefore doth import, that where we have no divine precept, if yet we have the custom of the people of God or a decree of our forefathers, this is a law and must be kept.”

This is not, for Hooker, tradition simply for the sake of tradition—keeping what was done in the past because change is anathema. Rather it is a recognition of what could be called the providential ordering of Christian faith and worship, and a sense that there was a divine rationality in the ways that worship unfolded over the centuries, even if there was also need for continual attention to how Scripture and reason should guide that unfolding.

This is not the way most Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants, work. They tend to dismiss the first fifteen hundred years of tradition after the closure of the New Testament as corrupted and unworthy of imitation. Hooker disagreed, regarding “the custom of the people of God and the decrees of our forefathers” as pregnant with providential guidance.

Recently some Baptist and other evangelical churches have adopted parts of liturgies from the Church year such as those at Advent and Lent. But this is the exception that proves the rule: they add pieces of catholic tradition by the Protestant method, which is to pick and choose in cafeteria fashion rather than submit with intellectual humility to patristic and catholic worship and thinking.

While Hooker was the magisterial Anglican reformer, he was far from alone in this reformed catholic way in the centuries before the Oxford movement. The same un-Protestant reverence for the best of Church tradition can be seen in the Caroline divines, especially Lancelot Andrewes who paid far more attention to patristic than Reformation authorities.

Other non-Protestant usages which Anglicans have retained since the sixteenth century include the Divine Office (a practice which most Protestant sects abandoned), observance of the Church Calendar (which the continental reformers largely abandoned), and holy orders of bishop, priest and deacon.

Have Anglican liturgy and sacraments always rejected catholic ceremonialism?

We have already seen that Cranmer retained some catholic liturgical and sacramental ceremonialism. Hooker argued against the Puritans for ceremonial practices such as the cross in baptism, confirmation after baptism, celebration of traditional Christian festivals, church-appointed fasts, religious burial ceremonies, and liturgical vestments. We have also seen that the ornaments rubric in the 1662 Prayer Book approved the ceremonial vestments and practices of the second year of Edwards VI, when most of the ceremonialism that Protestants reject was in use. It is no secret that the Caroline divines used most and perhaps all of this “catholic ceremonialism.”

All of this liturgical and sacramental fullness—or “ceremonialism” as Calvinists put it—was approved and practiced by large numbers of Anglican authorities and parishioners for centuries before John Henry Newman and the Oxford movement.

One last note. Calvinist Anglicans worry that reformed catholic Anglicanism will tempt many to swim the Tiber. Actually the opposite is the case. There is a growing hunger among evangelicals for beauty, mystery, and ancient ways of worship. An intellectualized Anglicanism that barely differs from Presbyterianism will not satisfy that hunger. But an Anglicanism that is replete with the beauty of holiness will show evangelicals and Nones that beauty and power lie on this side of the Tiber without the new heresies beyond. The problem, then, is not that reformed catholic Anglicans are too catholic but that Calvinist Anglicans are not catholic enough.

How should Calvinist Anglicans and reformed catholic Anglicans treat each other?

The Anglican Communion is a big tent. The most important dividing line is between heresy and orthodoxy, and that line runs by way of the doctrine of marriage which entails everything related to sexuality. To be sure, other lines of division have opened up since the 1960s when Anglicans on both sides of the pond rejected numerous dogmas taught by the three catholic creeds. These rejections signaled abandonment of biblical authority and catholic orthodoxy. But the debate over marriage has revealed the mother of all divisions because this last divide pits all the other heresies on the far side of the chasm from the orthodox side. If previous post-1960s heresies questioned the authority of the creeds, the marriage heresy repudiates it by rejecting the “Jesus Christ” who has “spoken through the Prophets” and the “apostolic Church” in the two Testaments.

But there is also the divide between Calvinist Anglicans and reformed catholic Anglicans. I have tried to show in this space that the reformed catholic conception of the via media as running between Rome and Geneva more accurately depicts the Anglican story than the Calvinist one. The Reformed tradition has had an undoubted influence upon our faith and worship, but it is only part of the story. We need its biblical devotion to the Word, and its hermeneutical insistence on the final authority of holy Scripture. But that is not all there is to the Anglican tradition.

Our reformed catholic temptation is triumphalism, which would write off Calvinist Anglicans as not truly Anglican because of what we would regard as preoccupation with the Word at the expense of the sacrament. Or such obsession with the verbal that the visual is lost. But I would suggest that instead we should accept our Calvinist Anglican brothers and sisters as good Anglicans whom we can invite to share more of our rich Anglican patrimony. Come not only to hear but also to taste and see.

We ask in turn that our Calvinist brethren would accept us as genuine Anglicans in turn. Let us say to one another, Come let us reason together and learn from each other.

Small parts of this article are revised from Dr. McDermott’s chapter in The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism (Crossway).

Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott recently retired from the Chair of Anglican Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. The author or editor of 23 books, he teaches courses in Anglicanism, history and doctrine, theology of world religions, and Jonathan Edwards. His edited The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism appeared in February 2020.

'The Via Media—Between What and What?' have 4 comments

  1. May 18, 2020 @ 11:22 am Rev. Dennis Washburn

    An impressive and reasonable consideration of some of the key issues in Anglican identity. Although not exhaustive or earth-shaking, it makes some good points. Unlike many Anglican approaches of all stripes, this article makes a serious effort to examine some of the historical evidence rather than focusing on partisan theological ideals.


  2. May 19, 2020 @ 11:20 pm Nathaniel Adkins

    I won’t speak to all the different claims made in this article, but will mainly limit my concerns to those concerning the 39 Articles . It’s perplexing that the writer points to articles that perfectly align with Reformational thinking (whether Lutheran or Reformed) as evidence of Catholic beliefs that reveal the non-Reformed nature of Anglicanism. In reference to his claim that, while the Articles “teach Reformed staples such as the authority of Scripture and rejection of transubstantiation, they also teach more catholic notions of the sacraments and ecclesiology”, the examples he gives do not bear the argumentative weight he has placed on them.

    As far as the idea of “a partaking of the Body of Christ; and . . . a partaking of the Blood of Christ” in Art. XXVIII revealing Catholic notions at odds with Reformed thought, Calvin himself affirmed that feeding on Christ in the sacrament was more than a “badge or token” and was a genuine receiving of the body and blood of Christ. In Calvin’s “Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper” he speaks of the bread and wine as visible signs which confer what they signify. Here are his own words: “Hence when we see the visible sign we must consider what it represents, and by whom it has been given us. The bread is given us to figure the body of Jesus Christ, with command to eat it, and it is given us of God, who is certain and immutable truth. If God cannot deceive or lie, it follows that it accomplishes all which it signifies. We must then truly receive in the Supper the body and blood of Jesus Christ, since the Lord there represents to us the communion of both. Were it otherwise, what could be meant by saying, that we eat the bread and drink the wine as a sign that his body is our meat and his blood our drink? If he gave us only bread and wine, leaving the spiritual reality behind, would it not be under false colors that this ordinance had been instituted?” This seems to fit snugly with the notion of an “effectual sign of grace” and “a partaking of the Body of Christ; and . . . a partaking of the Blood of Christ” in Art. XXVIII. Many more examples from Calvin’s Institutes and his interpreters could be marshaled to flesh this point out.

    Article XIX is said to reveal a Catholic ecclesiology at odds with Reformed thinking, but it almost exactly mirrors the language of the earlier Augsburg Confession (1530): “The church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered” (Article VII). A Lutheran definition for the church lacking any mention of episcopal order doesn’t seem to evidence the robust Catholic ecclesiology hoped for in this argument! One could easily see Article XIX as preferring to limit itself to speaking only of the visible church, refraining from delving into the marks of the invisible church, just as Art. XVII On Predestination speaks only in the positive sense of those predestined to life. More could be said of Calvin’s understanding of regeneration in baptism and those of his later scholastic followers, but there’s enough here to question whether the Articles fit’s the author’s purpose in this article. The desire to find common ground between Anglicans of a more Reformed and more Catholic bent is an admirable one, but it will be most fruitful when not only the sentiment, but the historical reconstructive work is balanced and charitable to both sides.

    In Christ,


  3. May 22, 2020 @ 1:13 pm gerald mcdermott

    I thank Fr. Nathaniel for his helpful comment. He is right that there is overlap between what Calvin says about the Lord’s Supper in the excerpt provided and what Articles XXV and XXVIII proclaim about the presence of the humanity of Christ in the Supper. So yes, Calvin included the catholic teaching of the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament. I was remiss to suggest that on the Eucharist there is an essential difference between Calvin’s thought and the Articles, but I think my point at the end of that paragraph still holds: the Anglican tradition contains certain Reformed emphases but is far from being essentially Reformed. There are too many other catholic characteristics in the Anglican tradition which the Reformed dislike to sustain the notion that Anglicanism is essentially Reformed.
    While I agree that Fr Nathaniel has a point on the Lord’s Supper, I do not follow his reasoning on ecclesiology. Sure, Lutherans agree that the Church is a visible body and hold to two marks that Anglicans also hold–preaching of the true gospel and right administration of the sacraments. But most Lutherans reject the necessity of the episcopacy. While Anglicans have debated whether episcopacy is of the esse, bene esse or plene esse of the Church, all have agreed that a Church without episcopacy is deficient. Besides, Lutherans do not put as much emphasis on patristic reasoning in their theological method, nor do they recognize the centrality of sacrifice to worship, as did nearly all of the Fathers to whom Anglicans historically look.


    • March 26, 2022 @ 11:46 am Dan Ying

      Im sorry but this just isn’t true. The Lutheran Book of Concord is littered with Patristic quotations and references, and in Europe the Baltic and Nordic Lutheran churches have the episcopacy. The Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist seems much more in line with the Fathers than the Calvinist spiritual Real Presence


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