The cherished Episcopal notion, that we are a church of right-thinking, reasonable people, is going to be the death of us. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for right thinking and reason in equal measure, and indeed compromise, and some sort of Anglican via media may indeed be found to be the solution amidst the church’s present agonizing over its own 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 don’t fight; we’re right-thinking, reasonable people — who already know the right, reasonable solution to whatever it is that we’re 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 interminable 19th century high- and low-church debates over 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 eirenic via media, glued together by liturgy and compromise. My colleague at Virginia Theological Seminary, Bob Prichard, is fond of saying that the fact that the Episcopal Church did not split in the 1920s over 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 churches populated by society’s crème de la crème.[1]

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 over the last twenty-five years of his academic career to argue that the Anglican church was 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.[2]  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 in terms of actual doctrine: it effectively preserved her father’s church in amber for forty-five 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:

[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.[3]


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 One. Our own caricature of the Puritans, often cavalier in both senses of the word, leaves us incapable of appreciating the deep theological issues debated passionately over the course of the English civil war.[4] I am perpetually puzzled, particularly at this season of the year, 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 eirenic 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.[5] 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, volunteerism, and outreach that became quintessentially “English” and that was retroactively projected back onto the English Reformation.[6]

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, ongoing moral disagreement with no simple or easy resolution. If compromise has always won the day in the past, with conflicts only ever 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 in terms of 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 that stands 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, there will be no “there there” and that 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 not by a single uniform opinion but by a range of them, in which conflict plays and has always played as great and constructive a role as compromise, and that real 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’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is a 1603 engraving of Queen Elizabeth I, and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

[1] See also Robert W. Prichard, A History of the Episcopal Church, 3rd edition (New York: Morehouse, 2014).

[2] Diarmaid MacCulloch, “The Myth of the English Reformation,” in The Journal of British Studies 30.1 (1991): 1-19; idem, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); idem, The Boy-King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), et passim.

[3] Ethan Shagan, The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, The Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[4] Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[5] Justin Lewis-Anthony, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Re-thinking Priestly Ministry (London: Bloomsbury, 2009).

[6] Brent S. Sirota, The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730 (Yale UP, 2014).

About The Author

Hannah W. Matis is an associate professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of The Song of Songs in the Early Middle Ages. She is an avid amateur singer, particularly of early music, and can be relied upon to promote the causes of good Latin, good literature, good food, and good company.

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Kevin Carroll
7 years ago

I don’t believe the concept of via media demonizes conflict–it normalizes it. Tension is built into the DNA of Anglicanism. Problems occur when the conflict adverse and/or the bullies on the far extremes of liberal and conservative orthodoxies abrogate their responsibility to wrestle with issues thoughtfully and charitably with their fellow Anglicans. If it isn’t credal, it’s debatable. And then we kneel at the rail agreeing to disagree. That is hard work. That is Anglicanism

Charles Wingate
7 years ago

Honestly I think it has been something like twenty-five years since I heard anyone even give lip service to via media as a principle, and if you want to give a date for its death in ECUSA, the vote at GC to get rid of the conscience clause for ordination of women, in spite of the parade of women clerics in opposition to the vote, is as good a point as any. The 1979 book has a lot of VM thinking in its variety of options (especially Rite I), but every discussion of the revision effort, from any angle, has… Read more »