William Davage wonders where compromise gets us


St John Henry Newman may have outlined his understanding that The Church of England is a Via Media between Rome and Geneva, between the Early Fathers of the Church and Luther and Calvin, as, in effect, a half-way house between Catholicism and protestantism, with characteristic eloquence and literary grace but the theory must, inevitably, unravel unless there is an balance, unless that equipoise is maintained. Dr Pusey’s defence of  Ritualism was based on that principle, that the ritual and the doctrine which underpinned it was part of the doctrinal economy of the Church of England. The Elizabethan Settlement sought to institutionalise that breath of doctrinal acceptability. The extremes of her sister Mary’s Catholicism and her brother Edward’s protestantism were held in tension. Neither Papists nor Anabaptists were tolerated.

Queen Elizabeth was an exemplar of her Settlement. Although, as the child of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was more doctrinally protestant she did not place a premium on sermons as most, and she retained Catholic symbols, the crucifix, and candles on the altar for Holy Communion. That ambivalence was expressed in her view of the Sacramental Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “’Twas God the Word that spake it / He took the Bread and brake it / And what that Word did make it / That I believe and take it.”

The Evangelical revival and the Oxford Movement were both, at least in part, reactions against the latitudinarianism of the 18th century. Both sharpened their critique at the expense of the confessional Via Media. In more recent years, the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate in the Church of England saw the reassertion of the middle-ground of a liberal protestantism at the expense of both Evangelicals who opposed women’s ordination on the grounds of biblical headship and the Anglo-Catholics on sacramental and ecumenical grounds that this was not something a Catholic Church could do, for some ever, for some others, without ecumenical congruence. 

But this was only the latest in a series of disparities. The uneasy compromise that sees the Church of England as a Via Media has been eroded over time. Catholic v Evangelical, Modernist v Traditionalist, the Conservative party at Prayer v Christian Socialism, All male priesthood v ordination of women, Pan protestantism v Catholic universalism. These issues are far from settled. The policy of “mutual flourishing” is honoured only in its breach. An institution that intends to be all things to all people, inevitably becomes one that means nothing to anyone. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Into that vacuum, the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated social restrictions, has provided the opportunity to undermine, not merely Catholic sacramentalism but also what is left of the heart of the Anglican compromise. There are new ways of going over old ground. But that is what historians (even hacks like me) do. There were some who saw the pandemic and the closure of churches, as an opportunity “to complete the protestant Reformation,” as it was put by a friend of mine, “by a degree of cynical manipulation.” There were few defences left to resist creeping anti-sacramentalism. 

The instruction, later construed as advice, that church buildings should be closed not only for public worship but for private prayer, including the parish priest, went beyond the Government’s edict. Some were threatened with disciplinary action should priests pray or offer the Mass in their deserted churches. A leading article in The Times commented that “churches offer a place of sanctuary and community, a space in which Christians can mourn loved ones and weather the uncertainty of the months to come. The government ensured supermarkets and plenty of other shops stayed open so that no one starved or could not feed their pets, but by keeping churches closed, the church has allowed the spiritual to go hungry just when they were most in need.”

The diocese of Chelmsford and Truro announced that ordinations would take place outside the context of the celebration of Holy Communion until m’learned friends stepped in. Sacraments seemed to be dispensable. A lay member of General Synod circulated a legal opinion, and a statement, which attempted to prove that individual cups for Holy Communion are legal. It seems that each communicant should have a small individual glass of wine. Perhaps the (presently unsaid) “Amen” should change to “Cheers.” It may be that these are no more than straws in the wind but my suspicion is that behind this lies something more ominous and profoundly disturbing. It is an abandonment of inclusivity, and the incremental dismantling of sacramentalism. 

There seems an unwillingness, a reluctance, on the part of those charged with guarding and defending the Catholic Faith as received by the Church of England, to do so. And too great a willingness of apparatchiks to reach for disciplinary procedures, or the threat of them. Have they become so enfeebled that their grasp of their prophetic office has been suborned by the management consultants to whom they seem to turn more readily than to their priests? It is not so much that these consultants seem frequently protestant in outlook, possessing neither knowledge of, nor concern for, our Anglican heritage, never mind our Catholic heritage. but that their outlook is not based on knowledge or understanding of the institution. Their language is rooted not in the Prayer Book, nor in the King James Bible, the Revised Standard, not even the New English, nor the Jerusalem Bibles. It is the language of management speak, of outcomes, targets, strategies, structures, focus groups, team-building. As so often the Church is a generation behind the times. It has embraced a transient trend that is already dated and jaded, rather than eternal verities that speak heart to heart, soul to soul. But that is language they cannot begin to understand.

Fr William Davage is a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross.