We Go Forward by Looking Back: The Via Media

Communion of the Apostles, by Fra Angelico. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Communion of the Apostles, by Fra Angelico. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What became of the Wesleyan/Anglican Via Media? A friend of VMM, Rev. Kyle Cuperwich, brought an excellent article to our attention.  This is itself a chapter from a book by William de Arteaga, a charismatic Anglican priest and scholar.  He argues that, though the Wesleyan revival was viewed with suspicion by the Anglican establishment, the movement had the potential to renew something quintessential to its mother church:

“Although it was not noticed at the time, the Wesley brothers presented the Anglican Church with a grand opportunity to reestablish and refresh its central ideal, the via media.[38] In the vision of Richard Hooker and the other founders of Anglicanism, the via media was the special grace of the Church of England. It was to take the best insights of Reformation theology, especially is evangelical stress on salvation by grace alone, and combine them with the spiritual disciplines and sacramental worship of the traditional church.”

This “best of both worlds approach” that was original to the Elizabethan Settlement was revivified by John and Charles, and then some:

“The Wesley brothers did exactly that, and more. They brought passion to both the Evangelical and Catholic sides of the balance. They were better Evangelicals than most Protestants, and, at the same time, better at the disciplines of the spiritual life and more loyal to sacramental worship than most Catholics.”

It’s also worth pointing out, vis-a-vis the Eucharist, that the Wesleys out-celebrated the Anglicans of their day.  Most of us think of Anglicans today as very tied to sacramental worship, but in Wesley’s day most Anglicans only communed a few times a year, and only once was required by the church.  This sacramental companion to the evangelical revival is something missed by many Protestant evangelicals today.

What became of the Via Media, though?  Though Methodism, especially, in North America, would go on to have great success, the Via Media (re-)established by the brothers Wesley would be largely lost.

“On the other side, the Methodists, away from the Anglican Church, eventually lost the Catholic component of the via media. This is not to say that Methodism was in any way a failure, for the Nineteenth Century would see its spectacular triumph in America (next chapter), as well as its substantial growth and influence in the United Kingdom. But the Methodists at the end of the Nineteenth Century were far from what the Wesley brothers had planned or imagined. Most significantly there was a serious decline in sacramental worship as the Methodists began looking more and more like other Protestant groups.”

Thus, as we seek a middle way for today’s Methodists, we do well to remember the Via Media at its best: passionately evangelical and deeply Sacramental.  Protestant in ethos and Catholic in practice.  Preaching for conversion and praying for sanctification.  As many in the ecumenical movement argued for decades, we go forward together by looking back, by recovering the best of who we are for the 21st century church.

What would that Via Media look like today? Where do you see it re-emerging?

 

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5 thoughts on “We Go Forward by Looking Back: The Via Media

  1. Excellent article, Drew, that begins to (in my mind) create an understanding of what Via Media really is. What would sacramental worship look like in today’s UMC? Is it necessarily “high church” or liturgical? Or can it fit with contemporary worship styles? Is it mainly centered on more frequent communion, or is there more to it?

    1. Hey, Tom. Thanks for your kind words. I don’t think doing communion well necessarily means “high church,” I think it means reverence, intention, and catechesis. It can and should fit with contemporary worship styles because there is nothing more contemporary and relevant than the presence of the risen Christ. I do think there’s more to it, though. Thinking soteriologically, it is the emphasis on both justification and sanctification that marks a truly Wesleyan via media; preaching to convert and preaching towards holiness (and then, in an other both/and move, emphasizing both personal and social holiness).

    2. Tom, let me jump in with some clarifying thoughts (at least from many of us who embrace the liturgical form of worship). First, I would argue that, while “high church” and “low church” may be “style” terms, “liturgical” is not. Liturgical is found with a large swath of styles including quite contemporary. Liturgical, however, is not “music driven.” Liturgical worship reflects, not a style, but a theology/philosophy of worship and an ecclesiology; an understanding of the Church. – So I would answer your primary questions by saying that it can be high or low church; traditional (whatever that means) in terms of music or contemporary (whatever that means) in terms of music. And second, that, yes, there is MORE to it than just frequent communion, but there is not less than that. – Take a look at Wesley’s “The Sunday Service,” the orders in the UM Hymnal, the BCP, and take a look at some of the “contemporary services” found in some of the Anglican churches (like the ACNA).

      Just my thoughts.

  2. What would sacramental worship look like today? Imagine the liturgy. How about let’s start with real holy water. Let’s involve the congregation in invoking the presence and fortifying the waters with the prayers of the church, including exorcism and a little bit of real salt.

    And then, instead of having the worship stewards draw a pitcher of tap water, present the holy water after a real thanksgiving to the Lord with an epiclesis perhaps recited by all the children present.

    We need real stuff to see stuff really happen.

  3. The via media didn’t go anywhere.

    Evangelicals in the Weslyan tradition succumbed to the ism’s of modernity — materialism, rationalism, subjectivism — and ran off the road to the right.

    The academy succumbed to modernism, and we shifted from leadership developed in the trenches (effective class and band leaders who became leaders of churches) to seminarians (cemetarians?) steeped in higher criticism and protestant liberalism. When the Seminaries saw the embarrassing mess their dead theology created, they then doubled down, swallowing the radical feminist critique, hook, line and sinker. They ran off the via media to the left, driving off a cliff that borders an abyss. There’s no turning back.

    In other words, we ran off the road, and made room on the via media for the likes of Richard Neuhaus, Charles Colson, and a host of others. Curiously but not coincidentally, these folks many times meet each other volunteering

    On the via media we find an unusual conglomeration. Paleo-orthodox. Anglicans. Catholics. Charismatics recovering the power of ancient worship forms.. African American churches who follow Jesus instead of leftist politicians. Orthodox Calvinists who have returned to their heritage in the Fathers and the sacraments.

    In my experience, the one distinguishing commitment these disparate streams share is a deep love and commitment to the Most Holy Trinity. These folks would not be able to bring themselves to sing the new Methodist doxology that brings unwitting congregants into the presence of a modalist imitation of the Trinity. No redlining prayers to excise the “F”(Father) word, substituting syrupy gerunds embracing a common noun that is neither personal nor christian.

    Trinitarian preaching, piety, and worship is what I would say is the firm foundation of the via media.

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