Navigating the via media: We are Anglicans willing to live in the heart of contradiction

August 31, 2003

A MONTH AGO, the Episcopal Church -- not unexpectedly -- had its turn in the glare of the secular-media sunlight. At its General Convention, it gave consent to the election of an openly gay bishop and left the door ajar for the possibility of same-sex blessings. To the unchurched, many of whom probably assume that all Christians think alike, the news may have been startling.

 

As I watched the national coverage of these events, as I listened for perhaps the 19th time as an earnest news anchor explained the Anglican Communion as a loose-knit confederation of independent churches and assured viewers that the archbishop of Canterbury is a spiritual leader without the authority of the pope or told of how we have no governing body with power over the church as a whole, I could only think, "How little the world understands us."

In the days after convention, as the fallout began falling out, I could only think, "How little we understand ourselves."

What, after all, is this odd, living entity we call the church, this surprising mix of divine and human, faith and pragmatism, as solid as earth and elusive as shadow? What is this thing we know to the bottom of our souls and yet are unable to define?

I remember a remark once made to me by a Baptist friend. I had made the rather overworked joke about Episcopalians being God's frozen people, but he only grinned at me with the wisdom of an outside observer. "That's only on the surface," he said. "At heart you're all a bunch of holy rollers."

Never mind that the comparison is absurd and was meant to be. My Baptist friend had recognized our cool -- even elegant -- tradition, and he had seen the hidden fire at the center. He had glimpsed, I believe, the misnamed via media, the middle road that is not a road at all but, rather, a willingness to live spiritually in the heart of contradiction. Misunderstood and sometimes maligned, the via media shapes the tradition we call Anglican.

Via media is the understanding that even our small human truth is too large to be captured and held; it can only be nurtured like the living thing it is. Like a tree, it endlessly thrusts new shoots toward the sun, yet its roots are very old, and they sink very deep in earth.

Via media is the knowledge that God is wild and free and utterly to be trusted. God cannot be tamed, and the Spirit blows where it will, but in acceptance of God's wildness the human spirit may find its peace, its rest and its abiding home.

Via media knows that the faith was delivered once to the saints -- and delivered again in every generation. We are the hands into which the faith has been given in our generation; we are the saints who will choose which parts of the past will be saved and which abandoned; we are the saints who will embrace or refuse the future.

Via media is the understanding that the greatest and most terrifying gift God has given us is our free will. We human creatures, flawed and willful and fallible though we may be, are created to be free and active moral agents. It is at this nexus, in the creative tension between the human and the divine, that we find the living Christ and through him touch God's dream of love and justice.

The unique genius of Anglicanism, it seems to me, is willingness to not only live in this tension but also to grasp it and shape it as the substance and ground of love.

This love shows forth as an unwavering trust in God's grace and mercy. Trust in turn becomes a boldness of spirit that dares claim a vision in which all are free, all are equal, all are beloved. And in the claiming of this vision, the via media becomes the camino real. 

Perhaps this is why, amid much talk of pastoral emergency, broken communion and even schism, I've found little concern among average Episcopalians. There seems to be, rather, an acceptance that an integrity far larger than the immediate issue is being maintained. The days ahead may be rough, but the end is safe in God's hands. All shall be well, they seem to say. All manner of things shall be well. 

The Rev. Anne McConney, who lives in Omaha, Neb., is a regular columnist.

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