Anglican History Lesson

By Hannah Matis Perett

The cherished Episcopal notion that we are a church of right-thinking, reasonable people is going to be the death of us. I am all for right thinking and reason in equal measure, and indeed compromise, and some sort of Anglican via media — literally, a middle way — may be the solution to the church’s agonizing about its identity. But moderation as the keynote of any sort of Christian identity is deeply problematic (ahem, Laodicea) not least because the hidden sting in the tail of the via media is that it demonizes conflict. We do not fight; we’re right-thinking, reasonable people who already know the right, reasonable solution to whatever it is that we are not fighting about. The paradox, and indeed the curse of the via media, is that it is not something you can assume to have achieved, or even assume you will be able to achieve, in advance because you or your tradition has always done so in the past. The surest way not to arrive is to assume that you are already there.

Throughout its history, the Episcopal Church has in fact contained vehemently disagreeing multitudes: from its origins in an agonizing conflict of loyalties during the American Revolution, to its deep complicity in the plantation system and in the institution of slavery, as well as its involvement in the abolitionist movement, to the 19th century’s high- and low-church debates about the role and prominence of the episcopal office. In fact, it was precisely in reaction to these debates that we turned in relief to an Oxford Movement-style nostalgia, glossing over our own history as an irenic via media, glued together by liturgy and compromise. My colleague at Virginia Theological Seminary, Bob Prichard, is fond of saying that the Episcopal Church’s not splitting in the 1920s amid the advent of modernism, unlike the Presbyterians and the Baptists, left us with a self-image our history perhaps has not entirely earned for us: enlightened, benevolent pragmatists, our parishes populated by society’s crème de la crème (see Prichard’s History of the Episcopal Church, 3rd edition [Morehouse, 2014]).

This is, of course, only one particular colonial offshoot from the vine that is the myth of the English Reformation and the equally cherished notion of the Anglican via media. As we all know, after Bloody Mary comes Good Queen Bess, patroness to Shakespeare and therefore A Good Thing, putting an end to religious extremism until England discovered, as it inevitably would, its true national character of moderate Protestantism. It has been something of a personal crusade on the part of Diarmaid MacCulloch in the last 25 years of his academic career to argue that Anglicans were never as dispassionate and pleased with the Tudor compromise as we have often thought we were. Were it not for Henry VIII’s paralyzing presence, Cranmer would have been thrilled to be a Swiss evangelical, and if his young Josiah, Edward VI, had reigned longer than five years, the English Reformation might have taken a very different and much less isolationist turn (see MacCulloch’s “Myth of the English Reformation” in The Journal of British Studies 30.1 [1991]).

By the same token, Mary’s Catholic reforms were not as alien to certain portions of the population as they have often been portrayed; traditional religion and evangelical enthusiasm coexisted, often uncomfortably, rather than averaging out into religious uniformity. Elizabeth’s religious settlement in fact settled very little doctrine: it effectively preserved her father’s church in amber for 45 years, under the calculating eye of a sovereign who could on occasion be far more like Queenie than we like to admit. It is the central contention of another Reformation historian, Ethan Shagan, that Tudor propaganda from Henry to Elizabeth talked of moderation precisely when the state was at its most brutal. He writes in The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2011):

[M]oderation meant government … assertions of moderation in early modern England — from the rise of the via media of Anglicanism, to the rise of the middle sort, to the idea of liberty — were in significant measure arguments for government, authorizing the forcible restraint of dangerous excesses in Church, state and society.

One could argue that the real conclusion of the English Reformation, far from a peaceable compromise, is the bloodiest war, by ratio of casualties to population, that England would experience until World War I. Our caricature of the Puritans, often cavalier in both senses of the word, leaves us incapable of appreciating the deep theological issues debated passionately during the English civil war (see Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation England [Oxford, 2013]).

I am perpetually puzzled at how the same portion of the American population that venerates the King James Bible still lionizes the Pilgrims as heroes of religious freedom fleeing from the persecution of King James. Instead, the Anglican patron saint of this period is the irenic and apolitical George Herbert, the via media personified, and as potentially unrealistic a standard by which to judge the period as he is a model for modern parochial ministry (see Justin Lewis-Anthony, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Re-thinking Priestly Ministry [Bloomsbury, 2009]).

A recent monograph by Brent Sirota argues that the idea of the Church of England as the church of right-minded, reasonable people was, in fact, a necessary construction precisely after the trauma of the English civil war: in the 18th century, the Church of England helped to create a civic ideal of cooperation, voluntarism, and outreach that became quintessentially “English” and that was projected back onto the English Reformation (see Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730 [Yale, 2014]).

This notion of ourselves as right-thinking, reasonable people, however flattering to progressive agendas, leaves us alternately complacent and unprepared to face a situation of real, substantive, moral disagreement with no simple or easy resolution. If compromise has always won the day in the past, and conflicts were only mere kerfuffles against the tranquil sea of enlightened Anglican benevolence, then there is no other way to inhabit the present, painful position of the church except as failure and despair.

Even more troubling, however, is what such a position allows us — and via media rhetoric can be adopted by all parties — to do to our opposition: right-thinking and reasonable does not have a legitimate opposite. When an overwhelmingly white, middle- to upper-class, middling to aged population with establishment Western values is the position of moderation, what does that do to our perceptions of a 21-year-old Nigerian woman (supposedly the average member of the Anglican Communion these days)? Within American political life today, a disastrous nostalgia for the supposedly normal 1950s and a perception of it as the golden age of the middle class creates a tendency to see any adjustment in the areas of race or gender politics as an attack on the delicate equilibrium or cosseted aspidistra that is the system of American values. We need to be very careful that the Anglican via media, precisely insofar as it characterizes itself as benign and moderate, does not continue the fine British imperial tradition of infantilizing anything and anyone standing in its way.

Anglicans and Episcopalians both cling to the via media in part out of a deep fear that if we let go of the notion of ourselves as the principled, rational compromisers, we will have no identity left. I respectfully submit that, as Christians, we are not necessarily the ones who are supposed to be doing the defining. But if we must, then it might help to remember our history — not (always) as a somnolent, complacent church from Sardis or Laodicea, but as a tradition defined by a range of opinion. Within that history, conflict has always played as great and constructive a role as compromise, and moral disagreement and debate, provided that we honor both the debate and its participants as real moral agents in a real moral universe, is a sign not of death but of life.

Hannah Matis Perett is an assistant professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. This essay was first published on TLC’s weblog, Covenant.

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