Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On the Via Media

The Christian life:
Via spatiosa?
Via arta?
Via media?

Fr John Parker

What you are about to read may shock you. It will probably sound arrogant and simplistic. It is blunt. It might be ignored. Maybe it should be! It might cause a fury of discussion. It might be the worthless rant of a former Episcopalian.

It is not, however, meant to be anything other than my reflections on the via media, now seven years removed from it, and now that a “new” Anglican province seems to be emerging in North America—one which is welcoming both His Beatitude, the Most-blessed Jonah, the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America and Rick Warren—to the same meeting this summer, to offer words of encouragement and blessing for this effort.

Some will say—and maybe already even have—“Look at how the Anglican Church brings all of these traditions together”. Beware!

So, if I shock, anger, or concern you, I am sorry, and I ask your forgiveness. Sometimes, however, it seems like a hard word must be said, and I am attempting to say one for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The term via media has always bewildered me. And now it bothers me. Some call it the “meeting ground” between the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. The place—the church—where a nominal Roman Catholic can marry a moderately committed Presbyterian and both “feel comfortable”—a place which gives each of them the outward appearance of home without the fuss of dogmas or the ballast of doctrines. (This is a striking blow, I know. I am not saying that the Anglican Churches are free of doctrine and dogma. I am, however, saying that doctrine and dogma are moving targets in the Anglican World—and those doctrines and dogmas may or may not be consistent with the Christian Tradition—and they may vary not only at the parochial level—but even at the individual level.)[1]

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church indicates that George Herbert was among—if not the first person to use the term via media—the middle way. In chapter XIII of The Country Parson, Herbert says the following:

And all this he doth, not as out of necessity, or as putting a holiness in the things, but as desiring to keep the middle way between superstition, and slovenliness, and as following the Apostle’s two great and admirable Rules in things of this nature: The first whereof is Let all things be done decently and in order: The second, Let all things be done to edification. [2]

Herbert uses the term in the context of describing “the Parson’s Church”—how it should be maintained and honored for worship. The parson keeps the floors well swept, keeps the church in good order, and uses linens, etc. of fine material, “not out of necessity but as desiring to keep the middle way between superstition and slovenliness”.[3]

Some consider that Richard Hooker’s via media was essentially the middle road between Queen Elizabeth’s Church of England and the Puritans’. Other writings define the Anglican “middle way” as the faithful road between Rome and Geneva, between the superstitions and excesses of (especially medieval) Roman Catholicism and the hyper-reforms of Presbyterianism. Still others would argue that the adherence to the middle way in all matters is one of the major identifying characteristics of classical Anglicanism. Today, via media has come to mean “average of the two extremes” even, and perhaps especially, with regard to liturgy, theology, ecclesiology, and Biblical interpretation.

However helpful and comforting this concept was to me as an Episcopalian at the time—this way between the excesses of medieval Papism and the baby-and-bathwaterless tub of Protestantism—it still left something to be desired—something at the time intangible, unreachable, indescribable. In retrospect, I can see the reason: in my lifetime (I was a teenager in the 1980s) the “mean” between the two so-called extremes was ever shifting. The self-professing little-‘o’ orthodox Episcopalians couldn’t become any more little ‘o’ orthodox, without becoming big-‘O’ Orthodox (and some have), but the self-named “progressives”—what others call ‘liberals’—seemed to find more and more opportunity and hope for all sorts of departures from the Christian Tradition—women’s ordination, blessings of same-sex unions, blatant ordination and approval of active homosexual bishops, so-called ‘open communion’ (communing, as the bulletin in one Williamsburg, Virginia, Episcopal Church put it, “all those who love God and are drawn to Jesus” (October 2001). With this ever moving ‘left’ wing, the Via Media also moved left. So far left, that it really isn’t in the middle of anything anymore (if it ever was)—save perpetual controversy and lament.

It turns out that the via media makes perfect sense if the Roman Church and the Protestant Churches are the only ‘choices’ in the world. If one’s only options are to choose from Papism (which is not from the beginning) with its strange additions to the faith once for all delivered (read “filioque”, Papal Infallibility and universal jurisdiction, immaculate conception, to name the major ones) or the plethora of self-justifying pieces of Reformation shrapnel, parts of Anglicanism look enticing. There is certainly a beauty in Anglican simplicity, in Anglo-catholic ritual, in English Church Architecture, in Anglican choral work, and in Thomas Cranmer’s poetic translations into English of the Latin Rite. And these not to mention the King James translation of the Bible, still considered to be one of the greatest treasures of the English language. (Too bad text-messaging and twitter will soon erase literature and beautiful language from our culture!)

But is Via Media the Via Christiana?

Not while it remains disconnected from the root; not while it remains out of communion with the ancient Church, a ‘branch’ of which it claims to be—and often, if not nearly always—without consulting the other two branches (as classical Anglican would refer to the Orthodox and Roman Churches). And certainly not while the via media develops its meaning and grows further and further from Herbert’s description of the Country Parson’s tidy, and simplistically beautiful nave.

It was first in reading Vladimir Lossky (though it may have been Alexei Khomiakov), an Orthodox Christian, that my inward discomfort (and disillusionment) with the via media took clearer form. Rather than the either/or choices I had been ‘offered’ ecclesiologically speaking, he described the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches as flip sides of a single coin. A coin—I would add—which like all old coins, has value due to intrigue, interest, and some age, but one, nevertheless which is no longer in circulation—and one which is no longer legal tender, like the German Mark or the Spanish Peseta. On the whole, the Roman Church has not been in communion with the Orthodox Churches since 1054. The Protestant denominations (including the Anglican churches as they exist today) are twice removed from Orthodoxy, since they are break-aways from Rome beginning in the 16th Century.

The Orthodox—historically, liturgically, theologically, ascetically, and biblically speaking—have continued to travel the Christian Way as simply the Via, and not the media of anything. For the Orthodox, the life of the Church—the very Body of Christ—is as her Lord, “the same yesterday, today, and forever”. The Via Christiana is the Via Arta—the Straight Way. The Porta Christiana is the Porta Angusta—the Narrow Gate.

intrate per angustam portam quia lata porta et spatiosa via quae ducit ad
perditionem et multi sunt qui intrant per eam quam angusta porta et arta via
quae ducit ad vitam et pauci sunt qui inveniunt eam

Εἰσέλθατε διὰ τῆς στενῆς πύλης· ὅτι πλατεῖα ἡ πύλη καὶ εὐρύχωρος ἡ ὁδὸς ἡ ἀπάγουσα εἰς τὴν ἀπώλειαν καὶ πολλοί εἰσιν οἱ εἰσερχόμενοι διʼ αὐτῆς· τί στενὴ ἡ πύλη καὶ τεθλιμμένη ἡ ὁδὸς ἡ ἀπάγουσα εἰς τὴν ζωὴν καὶ ὀλίγοι εἰσὶν οἱ εὑρίσκοντες

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

The Content of the Christian faith is not subject to adjustment, compromise, or averaging. The Way is indeed hard that leads to life and the gate is indeed narrow, according to our Lord Jesus Christ who showed us the way! The via spatiosa—the wide or spacious way is the way of death. This via media is enticing. It glitters. It looks like a road. It may even be beautifully landscaped.

But it is a trap. It is mirage. It is a disguise.

And according to our Lord, it is the way of destruction.

Orthodox Christianity knows no doctrinal or dogmatic compromise. She knows that one cannot give an inch to a slippery-slope question. The devasting results of the tiniest compromise are evident in the shattered fragments of Western Christianity.

But is there room for a via media of any sort? Orthodoxy says, “yes, of course!” But not where Western Christians typically look—since asceticism is almost thoroughly erased from the Occidental Christian memory.

This via media has a popular Greek phrase attached to it—“Pan metron ariston”—Moderation in all things. This, however, does not refer to a middle ground between Jesus truly God and Jesus Truly man, or between, say, traditional or ‘contemporary’ worship, between sacerdotal vestments and golf shirts. The Lordship of Jesus is not up for a vote, the worship of the church is received, and the vestments of the church are outward descriptions of the words of our liturgies.

No, this via media is a middle ground between teetotalism and drunkenness. The *right* amount of prayer and work. Chaste sexual relationships between a husband and his wife. The proper use of leisure. The necessary quantities of food and drink. Not too much. Not too little.

Most simply, it is the Christian version of the Goldilocks and the three bears. A bed not too hard, not too soft, but just right.

One described this Orthodox via media in apophatic terms—which makes total sense to us, since we cannot so easily describe who God is apart from saying what he is not. Apophatically, the Orthodox via media is this: the absence or lack of imbalance. Not simply “balance”—but the *lack* of imbalance.

It is here that life is found—this is the narrow way. The way of self-denial. The way of the destruction of self-will. The way of the murder of the passions of the flesh. If there is a Christian via media, it is the narrow way. A way certainly open to all—everyone is invited. But the stakes are high: death to self, death to sin. The need for a radical transformation of life by and through God’s grace.

But the result both now and in the age to come is priceless: true life in Jesus Christ.

And as Moses once said,

See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them,  I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live,  loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days…” (Deuteronomy 30:15ff).

[1] With flawless predictability, the new Province’s proposed canons apparently accept both the 39 Articles and the Seven Ecumenical Councils. How one can both accept icons as *necessary* so as not to repudiate the incarnation (cf the 7th Ecumenical Council and the writings of St John of Damascus), and to repudiate their veneration (see article XXII, and that blatantly Iconoclastic Homily 2 listed in Article XXXV) is truly unimaginable. Or if this is not the proper understanding of the founding principles of ACNA, then according to whose interpretation of the Scriptures will they accept the “Christological Clarifications” of this council?

Likewise there are now already arguments and defenses from both the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical streams commenting on the (relative) necessity of the Historic Episcopate in the new province. Again, how one can on the one hand proclaim belief in the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”, and at the same time believe that “Apostolic” does not essentially include and require Apostolic Succession is bewildering. Moreso is the possibility that *both* parties could have *their way*. It reminds one of that thoroughly Anglican-Lutheran-Presbyterian-Catholic sentence for the distribution of communion—one that everyone can say, “See, we are _______ (Reformed, Catholic, Lutheran, etc.)”. “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart in faith, with thanksgiving.”

And this not to mention what to do with the perpetual debate on women’s ordination to the priesthood. There is no restoration to the Ancient Church while this is still considered an option.

[2] John N. Wall (editor). George Herbert: The Country Parson, The Temple. (New York: Paulist Press, 1981). pp. 74-75.

[3] Ibid p. 74.

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