Via Media, But Between What?

I am finishing up Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Thomas Cranmer. Over all it’s a superb work of history, even if MacCulloch inserts his own voice into the controversies a bit too much for my liking. Still, I learned a lot about the complicated ins and outs of Cranmer’s life and the politically delicate way he brought about reform to the Church of England. One thing I already knew but was still encouraged to see explained by MacCulloch was Cranmer’s vision for the Reformed identity of the Church of England. On this point, there can be no question. Cranmer held to Reformed sacramental views, was a staunch predestinarian, and consistently proclaimed the doctrine of justification by faith alone. His great hope was similar to that later hope of King James, that England could take the leading role in a united Magisterial Protestantism, a dream that would never fully materialize.

But what of Anglicanism being a “third way” between competing options? Here MacCulloch is right on target, and I will simply quote him:

Standing as he did in the developing Reformed tradition of Europe in the 1550s, Cranmer’s conception of a ‘middle way’ or via media in religion was quite different from that of later Anglicanism. In the nineteenth century, when the word ‘Anglicanism’ first came into common use, John Henry Newman said of the middle way (before his departure for the Church of Rome) that ‘a number of distinct notions are included in the notion of Protestantism; and as to all these our Church has taken a Via Media between it and Popery.’ Cranmer would violently have rejected such a notion: how could one have a middle way between truth and Antichrist? The middle ground which he sought was the same as Bucer’s: an agreement between Wittenberg and Zurich which would provide a united vision of Christian doctrine against the counterfeit being refurbished at the Council of Trent. For him, Catholicism was to be found in the scattered churches of the Reformation, and it was his aim to show forth their unity to prove their Catholicity.

To define Cranmer as a reformed Catholic is to define all the great Continental reformers in the same way: for they too sought to build up the Catholic Church anew on the same foundation of Bible, creeds and the great councils of the early Church. Rather than the later notion of an Anglican Church walking between extremes, and hospitably and sympathetically listening out in either direction for good ideas, Cranmer was guiding the Church of England to a renewed Catholicity through thickets of wicked deceit which must be avoided at all costs: on the one hand, papistry, and on the other, Anabaptism, both equally ‘sects’ in his eyes. During the 1530s and early 1540s he had shared and perhaps shaped Henry VIII’s rhetoric of the middle way, but although the two men had a common hatred of Rome and both felt that they were steering England through error, they become well aware that they had different opinions of the errors to be avoided. Henry’s ragbag of opinions contained ideas which Cranmer felt were part of the Roman package, although gratifyingly the King shed more of these relics of the past as time went on; contrariwise, Cranmer’s middle ground included Lutheranism, which for henry remained an object of considerable suspicion.

~Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer p. 617


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