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Rediscovering the Middle Way – Peter Walker

November 24, 2014

Bp Peter WalkerIf Anglicanism splits into sects, what is that saying to the world?

Oliver Quick said that: the gospel is ‘The Gospel of the New World’ or it is nothing.’ let us stay together’, David Edwards said to the traditionalists in the debate on the Nature of Christian Belief, ‘for it is growing dark outside.’ It was a genuine Anglican plea for a constructive co-existence — on a principle not of compromise, but rather of finding life together. The pattern would be that of ‘a diversity of interpretative beliefs . . . within a communion of Bible-based faith and love’…. The incentive is to persuade the undecided middle ground, if there is one, to cast its vote this way or that. And often the best way to do that is not to seek some understanding with strongly opposing views, but on the contrary to isolate those views by painting them as extreme, so that the middle ground loses sympathy with them. Thus majority rule dictates tactics; and it can reinforce rather than overcome divisions . . .

Some like the Roman Catholic Church because it is ‘consistent’. The trouble is that the world changes so if you stand still you miss the boat and so are unable to fish from it.

The author takes Bishop George Bell as his model for ‘the middle way’. Anglicans keep their distance from extremes and compromise on secondary issues. He wasn’t following modernist fads but wanted to keep an open mind. No two people say the creed with the same understanding. The essentials are to be found in doctrines like the Incarnation and resurrection, though the ‘how’ – virgin birth and the empty tomb are at a lower level of importance.


Influenced by Bonhoeffer, Bell was concerned with how doctrine played out in social action. In a very dated summary by Christopher Evans, the gospel manifesto is: The time is fulfilled’ If, therefore, the question is asked whether the Gospel has closer affinities with idealisms and philosophies for which reality is contained in logical and timeless truths, or with a mode of thought for which it is to be found in the events themselves and in a dialectical process, then the answer is clear: its affinities are with the latter. In so far as it makes approaches in the direction of timeless truth, it does so by extending to the furthest possible limits what has been apprehended historically (as when Jesus Christ is said to be `the same yesterday and for ever’ Heb.XIII:8).”

`The Kingdom of God has drawn near’ — What does one mean by this kingdom?

Moreover, if the question-begging terms ‘spiritual’ and `materialistic’ are to be used, it is by no means obvious that the Gospel is spiritual rather than materialistic.'”

`Repent’ — Where does one quarrel with the Marxist in the Marxist’s account of human history in terms of economic self-interest and of the greed which issues in the class struggle, ‘except to demur that such an analysis is curiously stereotyped and the revolution which it demands hardly revolutionary enough’?” And who are the poor?

Is it so certain that ‘the poor’ can be identified tout court at any one time with a clearly recognisable number or class of human beings, and may not the attempt to make such a rigid identification blind men to the existence of poverty where it is not being looked for? The Gospel is not so stereotyped.”

`Believe in the Gospel’ — What is the liberation looked for?

The commandments which it is impossible for men to perform, become tolerable when they are part and parcel of a message, whose presupposition is that the recreative power of God (already spoken of by the Second Isaiah in terms of the verb ‘to gospel’) is present in Christ, and is passing out from Him to men . . . Thus the mission and message of Jesus, as the Synoptic Gospels depict them, both as a whole and in their parts, bring together what not only secular men, but religious men also, are prone to keep apart — the eternal order of God and the temporal affairs of men. Nowhere is this clearer than in the person of Jesus Himself, upon which sooner or later His message and mission converge, and particularly in His self-chosen designation for Himself, the Son of Man.’

There is a different version of Hooker’s famous ‘three-legged stool’: Scripture and Reason — the scriptures do not offer instruction in all matters, but, rather, all that is necessary for salvation. On the ordering of matters ‘accessory’ rather than ‘necessary’, although nothing is to be ordered contrary to scripture ‘Hooker spends much time in emphasising the value of human reason in a way that is, I think, characteristic of Anglicanism at its best. What decides the particulars is “the force of man’s reason”. But in the Church reason does not act without the help of God’.

The Church — the root of Hooker’s whole doctrine of the Church, as Bell sets it out, lies in Hooker’s statement `. . . as the main body of the sea being one, yet within divers precincts hath divers names; so the Catholic Church is in like sort divided into a number of distinct Societies, each one of which is termed a Church within

itself. There exists, that is to say, a whole Church of Christ, though it be schismatically divided. ‘You will see at once’, Bell observes, ‘how significant this teaching is from the point of view of the potential Anglican contribution to Christian unity’.

(3) Episcopacy — Hooker, as Bell presents him, had taken a high view of episcopacy. let us not fear to be herein bold and peremptory, that if anything in the Church’s government, surely the first institution of bishops was from heaven, was even of God, the Holy Ghost was the author of it.’ Yet even so Hooker’s position was a nice one in the end, observes Bell, for he had maintained `a characteristic reserve’ in that he had refused ‘to infer from divine sanction of episcopacy any sweeping conclusion as to the absolute invariable necessity of it’.19 In the end, that is to say, so Bell emphasises, Hooker had seen the question of episcopacy as falling into the field of government of the Church, and therefore into the area of things ‘accessory’ rather than ‘necessary’ — a matter of `regiment’ rather than of doctrine. ‘The classic Anglican view’ Bell sums the matter up, following his exposition of Hooker, ‘does not regard the ministry as an essentially doctrinal question’.

He challenges anglo-catholics on our belief in apostolic succession: In itself, the assertion that the bishops of the Church of England were the successors of the Apostles was nothing new. But the way in which the Tractarians and their followers used the expression made it almost a technical term. They meant by it that Christ had appointed the Apostles and, through them, those whom they should appoint as their successors, as the sole channel through which the Holy Spirit should work in the Church. As Newman put it in the Tract from which I have quoted: ‘The Lord Jesus Christ gave His Spirit to His Apostles; they in turn laid their hands on those who should succeed them; and these again on others; and so the sacred gift has been handed down to our present Bishops.’

This implied that the Sacraments as the means of grace depended on the Bishop who stood beyond doubt in this Succession. Tract 11 says that ‘the Sacraments are committed, not into the hands of the Church Visible . . . but into certain definite persons, who are selected from their brethren for that trust’. In short, on this view, non-episcopalian bodies have nothing in them of the true essentials of the Church, though the individuals in them are not, of course, necessarily bereft of God’s extraordinary grace.

But, though the Oxford Movement tried to find this entire position in the teaching of the Caroline divines, it was really a novelty so far as general Anglican teaching was concerned. The Anglican position is as Hooker states it; nor is this statement of it confined to his own day [italics mine]. It is repeated by Anglican writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as well. Their emphasis varies, but, speaking generally, they agree that episcopacy is an apostolical institution and the truly ancient and Catholic government of the Church, but not so absolutely necessary to Catholic communion as to unchurch all churches which have it not.

Things have moved on a long way since David Edwards voiced his confidence on the importance of Anglicanism for the future: A diversity of interpretative belief including ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ belief, within a communion of Bible-based faith and love is, I think, where the Church of England is going. That future seems to me good. Incidentally, I reckon that many Roman Catholics and many other Christians are heading in the same direction.

Would that this was still true.

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