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Unpacking via media

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My brother shared a link to an interesting article on the Progressive Christian blog. It’s entitled ‘Why We Should Do Politics like Episcopalians.’ It’s written by a guy I’d like to know – judging from his bio. Greg Garrett is an English professor at Baylor and an Episcopal lay speaker, and apparently friends with Brian McLaren. He seems an altogether congenial man, and that shines through in his suggestion that our nation could learn a lot about politics from us Episcopalians.

Garrett argues that our politics would be less divisive if more folks adopted what he calls the Anglican practice of via media, by which he has in view the practices of moderation and reconciliation. He also commend’s Aristotle’s Golden Mean as a pattern we should follow in avoiding extreme positions that polarize. I want to affirm most of his argument, and especially this:

When we insist that everyone has to believe as we do, when we elevate every item of our faith and belief to essential status, we don’t do anyone any favors. It’s the kind of practice that makes Catholic bishops decree that if you don’t follow the church’s teachings on birth control, abortion, or other social issues—none of which are creedal or talked about by Jesus—you are outside the Church. It’s the kind of practice that makes progressive Christians say that if you don’t agree with them on the environment, gay marriage, or social safety nets, you are unchristian.

I do have to quibble with Garrett’s presentation of Hooker’s via media, however. Garrett suggests that “the Anglican via media offers an understanding that we must be willing to forgive and to compromise if we are to move forward together.” Well, no, not quite. Via media is not about compromise at all. Much more is expected of Christians than mere compromise or toleration of other views. Garrett sets the bar too low. Rather, Christians are called to “be of one mind.”

When Christians speak of “being of one mind” we mean by this the sharing of an “inner disposition or moral attitude” in tune with the transcendent unity of God’s symphony. So, for example, when Paul speaks of one mind (nous and gnome) in 1Cor 1:10 (“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose”), he calls the church at Corinth to speak as one body and to be knit together and free of divisions in their communion. That is possible only when the Spirit has renewed the minds of the baptized (Romans 12:2) through the spiritual gift of charity, a gift that is itself inseparable from participatory knowledge of the forgiveness of sins.

To be of “one mind” is not to be homogeneous in our descriptions of truth and it is never merely unison; rather, our sharing the mind of Christ presses us inexorably towards symphonic, polyphonic concord, so that we move always towards meaning what we ought to mean, so that our symphony sounds what we ought to sound, so that we sound together the truth of Christ. Our unity precedes and causes and constitutes this possibility of sounding together this symphony that is truth; indeed, our unity is inseparable from our song. Without our symphonic unity, it is impossible for our words and actions to mean what they must mean if we are to perform the truth that is Christ.

Christian unity, then, confronts and challenges the false peace of our cosmopolitan secular culture that speaks of radical tolerance but is based on the supremacy of one power over another. Indeed, Christian unity stands in judgment of this false unity which suppresses difference in order to present the façade that we are all equal here and now. And this is one place many would-be Christian prophets go astray, for this sweet-sounding “progressiveness” subverts the social justice we seek. As Rowan Williams explains, statements about our human equality before God and our common creation in the image of God are not particularly helpful in our quest for justice:

It is not that we begin with a belief in human equality and then try to work it out (or not, as the case may be), but that the inner logic of life shared with others in relation to Jesus of Nazareth pushes the community outwards to ‘the ends of the earth’ – with all the implications that has for a vision of the common goal or project of the human world as such. All may now be invited to share the hope of and the work for the Kingdom; all may find their humanity defined afresh in this project. All therefore can be delivered from the claims to finality of the definitions given them by their social and political context….[1]

This premise that all are invited to share the hope of and work for the Kingdom underlies the Anglican doctrine of comprehensiveness. As the Lambeth Conference Report of 1968 notes, comprehensiveness “implies that the apprehension of truth is a growing thing: we only gradually succeed in ‘knowing the truth’…there is a continuing search for the whole truth.”[2] By this, we proclaim that Christian unity is thus that authentic via media which is not merely a mixture; it “has nothing to do with compromise; it is not concerned that red added to white equals pink but is rather analogous to the inter-action between oxygen and hydrogen which makes not a gaseous mixture but something altogether different.”[3]

Comprehensiveness is rooted in the strong doctrine of sin that understands that our finitude prevents us from ever knowing the totality of truth, and also causes us to perform imperfectly the fragmentary truth revealed to us and grasped by us. “We wait on one another” with a patience borne of humility (1 Cor 11:33).

Garrett is no doubt right that our nation would benefit if we practiced what is denoted by the slogan, via media. But that has little to do with compromise, and everything to do with the humility that strives to receive the ‘other’ who stands before us as gift.

 

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[1] Williams, Rowan. “‘Nobody Knows Who I Am Till the Judgement Morning’.” In On Christian Theology (Challenges in Contemporary Theology), Wiley, 1999. 2 p. 84.

[2] McAdoo, Henry R. Unity of Anglicanism: Catholic and Reformed (Theological Lectures / Queen’s University, Belfast). Morehouse Pub Co, 1983.

[3] Thornton, Martin. Spiritual Direction. Cowley Publications, 1984, p.2.

 

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