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The Via Media of George Herbert

May 11th, 2020 | 7 min read

By Paul Shakeshaft

In these pages, M.H. Turner and Paul Owen ably articulate and defend the Reformed and Anglo-Catholic manifestations of Anglicanism, respectively. In doing so, they reflect a tension that has existed since the English reformation. As someone standing between these two poles, I do not wish to add to a debate that has been hackneyed a thousand different ways a thousand different times. I am not a theologian and find my own tastes and convictions vacillating between the two points of reference.

But dare I suggest there is a middle way? It is awfully cheeky of an Anglican to play that card. For Turner, Anglicanism’s via media cuts between Lutheranism and the continental Reformation; for Owen, the path is between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism more generally. Yet there is a well-trodden path in Anglican history that is reformed in doctrine while ceremonial in worship. It is not a departure from evangelical doctrine nor a natural precursor to Catholicism, Anglo or otherwise. Its thread runs from the Caroline divines through Little Gidding to C.S. Lewis.

Owen claims the Caroline authors for the Oxford Movement; and indeed, that is how Anglo-Catholics like Newman, Keble, and Pusey read Andrewes, Laud, and Taylor. But I would argue that these men, like Hooker before them, straddled the Reformed and Anglo-Catholic poles.

Their position is less of an ideology and more of a disposition; one peculiar to Anglicanism, though not, as Turner reminds us, wholly unto it. It is a disposition largely absent in Cranmer—who is by no means the “founder” of the Anglican “religion”—and a disposition very much alive in the ACNA today. It is a disposition best exemplified in a poet.

George Herbert (1593-1633), in a poem addressed to all angels and saints, gives voice to the yearnings and hesitations of the Anglican heart. Reflecting on the communion of saints spoken of in Hebrews 12:1, he writes:

OH glorious spirits, who after all your bands
See the smooth face of God without a frown
Or strict commands;
Where ev’ry one is king, and hath his crown,
If not upon his head, yet in his hands:
Not out of envie or maliciousnesse
So I forbear to crave your speciall aid

Seemingly on the verge of praying to saints directly, in the manner of the Catholic Church of the 17th century, Herbert instead works in the manner of a classic poet facetiously invoking his muse; he is not actually addressing his saints but inviting the reader into a suspension of disbelief.

Nevertheless, he stresses the absence of envy or maliciousness in his yearning (the King James translates 1 Peter 2:16 as enjoining Christians to use their “libertie” as the “seruants of God” and not as a “cloake of maliciousnesse.”).

In doing so, he not only pays respect to the longing Catholic Christians feel to crave saints’ aid, but also recognizes the longing in himself, and sees no nefarious motive lurking behind the motion of such a will. He even amplifies his reverence from dulia to hyperdulia toward the Virgin Mary:

I would addresse
My vows to thee most gladly, Blessed Maid,
And Mother of my God, in my distresse

Herbert wrote these words one hundred years after the majority of Englishmen considered their country to be Mary’s dowry. As a clergyman, Herbert would have prayed the Magnificat, made central in Cranmer’s evening service, every day. He believed Mary was to be called blessed for all generations. He knew she was the Theotokos, the Mother of God. He knew, as Matt Emerson has written for this site, that Mary is a type of the Ark of the Covenant, where God’s presence dwelt. Awe at this reality brings Herbert to sing:

Thou art the holy mine, whence came the gold,
The great restorative for all decay
In young and old;
Thou art the cabinet where the jewell lay
Chiefly to thee would I my soul unfold

Why then does Herbert not unfold his soul to the Mother of the Church? He gives one reason:

But now, alas, I dare not; for our King,
Whom we do all joyntly adore and praise,
Bids no such thing:
And where his pleasure no injunction layes,
(’Tis your own case) ye never move a wing.

Herbert regrets that he cannot directly address Mary; he longs to; and only halts out of his deeper reverence—his latria—for the Triune God. Of course, Catholic Christians mourn this hesitation and the sola presupposition which is its cause.

But for Herbert, Mary herself would acknowledge that no passage of Scripture, no injunction, and no recorded practice of an ante-Nicean Father, bids her spiritual children to invoke her aid directly.

Although then others court you, if ye know
What’s done on earth, we shall not fare the worse,
Who do not so;
Since we are ever ready to disburse,
If any one our Masters hand can show.

This timbre, it seems to me, is Anglicanism at is most characteristic. Its compass is Scripture as read with the Fathers but its direction is not a dry scripturalism recoiling from excessive medieval devotion. It labors, rather, with understandable, real, and human desires. It goes as far as it can. Perhaps orthodox Anglicans, today, can see something of themselves with another struggle, the one around orthodox teaching on sexuality. There are some things we cannot affirm but there are no things with which we do not empathize.

At its worst, Anglicanism collapses into hand-wringing, bringing itself only to mutter under its breath the truths of the catholic faith. But that is not Herbert’s attitude. At its best, Anglicanism is resilient, tinged with the Creator’s heart for his fledgling creations. It does not balk at the desire to touch, see, and taste, and accommodates it as far as her King will allow.

Fledgling Anglicans like me would see the Reform-minded more at ease with fledgling ceremonialists, and Anglo-Catholics more at ease with the response to Scripture exemplified by George Herbert. We share C.S. Lewis’s frustration with Anglo-Catholicism, that “they will obey neither our own book nor Rome.”1

Yet, like Lewis, we are not exactly Reformed, either. We are a bit ceremonialist. Lewis practiced auricular confession to an Anglo-Catholic priest every Friday afternoon, knelt when receiving holy communion, and was possessed with an extraordinary grasp of the incarnation’s meaning for worldly life. In truth, as Turner says, none of these practices are discordant with the Anglicanism of Richard Hooker, John Jewel, and Hugh Latimer.

Scraping silly barnacles off a solid ship is a good thing. To the extent that disaffected evangelicals overreach into a motley of traditions they do not understand, we are right to gently encourage them not to rush-in where angels fear to tread. But we should practice Herbert’s disposition. To these ends, let us pray for the Anglican Church in North America.

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