In January I was privileged to attend the reception into full communion with the Catholic Church of the priests and people of Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore. An Anglo Catholic church with a venerable history within the Episcopal Church, Mount Calvary was, from the very beginning, a congregation fostered and formed in the Oxford Movement. Indeed, the church’s first pastor was received into the Catholic Church by Cardinal Newman himself, and went on to become a Catholic bishop.
For a long time Anglicans have promoted the idea that their church was a via media–a middle way–between Protestantism and Catholicism. They taught that their church was the ancient Catholic Church of the British Isles–but reformed properly by Protestant doctrine and customs of worship. However, in practice, as John Henry Newman himself pointed out, the via media was never more than a beautiful idea. This is because Anglicans inevitably fell into one camp or the other. If they were inclined to Protestantism they joined the Evangelicals. If Catholicism, they joined the Anglo Catholics, if they preferred to adjust their Christian faith to the spirit of the age they joined the Liberal establishment.
The via media was impossible to maintain for there was no defining dogma or ways of worship. For those who wished to walk that middle way, it was more a via cafeteria than a via media. Any Anglican attempting the via media would have to pick and choose from among the different streams of Christian customs and beliefs to formulate his own personal medley of convictions. The via media was therefore not so much a middle road as a road to nowhere.
In saying that, the Anglican via media was a road to somewhere for many Anglicans: it was a road out of Anglicanism. Over the years the hemorrhage of members from the Anglican Church has been catastrophic. Realizing that their church stood for not much of anything, they have gone to the Catholic Church, formed little Anglican sects called “continuing Churches” or joined some other Protestant church.
However, with the establishment of the personal ordinariate for Anglicans, there may be a new understanding of the via media. The Anglican ‘middle way’ could become a highway for many Protestants to find their way into full communion with the Catholic Church.
For in many ways, the Anglican tradition is a middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism. In its truest form it has taken on the best insights of the Protestant reformers, while retaining much of the Catholic faith. Most of all, it provides a way of worship and governance in which many Protestants will feel at home.
The reason the via media never worked within Anglicanism is because it had no rock on which to build. It had no magisterium and no apostolic authority. The middle way had no one to define what it was, no one to say, “This is the way: walk in it.” This is precisely what the personal ordinariate provides. As the Anglicans come into full communion with the Catholic Church, they will be catechized in the fullness of the faith. Their liturgies will be purged of the anti Catholic elements. They will profess, like all converts do, to believe all that the Catholic Church teaches to be revealed by God.
With such a foundation it is possible for the personal ordinariates now established in England and the United States to become a truly exciting step toward church unity, and here’s how: There are many thinking Evangelical Christians who are conservative and orthodox in their faith. They have little patience with the razzmatazz of the mega churches and the post modern, self help versions of contemporary Protestant Christianity. They have come to appreciate the historic church. They are longing for liturgy, solid doctrine, strong moral teaching and unity with the apostolic church.
However, if they are drawn to the Episcopal or Lutheran churches they are repulsed by the radical political and sexual agendas, the dumbed down liturgy and ‘up to date’ approach. They wanted tradition, prayer and reverence and they find trendiness, politics and relevance. Sadly, if they visit their local Catholic church it may very well be indistinguishable from what the Episcopalians and Lutherans have on offer. Should they find a more traditional Catholic church they may find the cultural aspects too daunting. They’d spot the Infant of Prague or Our Lady of Fatima and hear rosaries being muttered and their old anti Catholic bias will rear its head and they’ll stay away.
Should they venture into a traditional Anglican church, however, they would find much to their liking. An Anglican church united, not absorbed by the Catholic Church, would provide the via media that would enable them not only to feel at home, but to come home to Rome.
For this to happen, the members of the Ordinariate will have to resist the easy temptation to become an Anglo Catholic sect within Catholicism. They have been used to being a church within a church in Anglicanism and it will be easy for them to become the same within the Catholic Church. If they are to be a true via media they must envision a new mission that goes with their new identity. If they adopt a missionary spirit, their new role could be a vital part of the new evangelization.
They could pioneer a new understanding of the via media and become not a road to nowhere, but a path that leads to full communion with the Catholic Church. To do that, they will need to be a broad church–one that not only preserves the glories of Anglo-Catholic worship, but also is not ashamed to embrace the strengths of the Evangelical aspect of Anglicanism: a zeal for the gospel, an ability to communicate the faith clearly, in a way that other Protestants find acceptable and so open the doors to many who would otherwise never find their way home to Rome.