Via media, or "the middle road", is a classic hallmark of Anglicanism. It represents the avoidance of extremism, with a tip of the hat to this Aristotelian definition of the word -but it also represents trying to find a balance between tradition, Scripture, and personal insight.
The extreme on one side is relying on tradition, only, or in the Catholic idea of Sola Ecclesia - meaning that the Church itself is the sole arbiter of scripture and tradition. As such, when a Pope says something ex cathedra, he's infallible - and once a doctrine and understanding is preached, it's etched in stone. Supporters of this position reference
- "You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my Church."
- "Whatever you shall bind will be bound, and whatever you shall
loose will be loosed." (Matt 16:19; 18:18)
- "If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth." (1 Timothy 3:15)
Detractors point to doctrines such as Limbo and Purgatory, the sale of
indulgences, and other "non-Biblical" or "non-Scriptural" doctrines or
arguments made solely from the opinion of the Catholic Church.
On the other side of the axis is the idea of Sola Scriptura - that only the Bible and the scriptures therein contain everything needed for salvation, thank you very much - there is no need to go get a priest's forgiveness because Christ forgives sins, and no need for a Pope to explain something that anyone can read. There are three levels of this: the Westminster Confession of Faith, which aims for a cautious need to rationally examine scriptures and balance them, or new school Evangelical thinking in which "Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it." And one which goes full throttle in trying to read the Bible like a set of bones cast on the ground, or like a Ouija board. This is exaggeration to make a point.
Detractors of this position caution that not everyone has the right training or mindset to interpret Scriptures properly, and point to the several dozen if not hundred Protestant branches, noting that the pursuit of truth in taking a scalpel to Scripture leads pretty much to anarchy. They'll point to the verses above that support their position, plus this one:
- "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation of things." (2 Peter 1:20)
This one gets trotted out a LOT, for example when Harold Camping decided the world would end in 2011 - or when the Evangelicals publish yet another best selling book pointing out that they've worked out when the world is going to end, and which countries represent which symbols in Revelation.
The Anglicans, for various reasons, have decided to steer clear of both sides of the debate, in essence, by valuing more than one position.
Anglicanism was born at a particularly interesting time in English history.
The split from Rome during the reign of Henry the Eighth was not the final say or the defining moment for Anglicanism. During the reigns of the monarchs that followed, it was a period of religious extremism. Therefore, Elizabeth I sought to unify the country as much as possible. Henry's decision to split from Rome so he could divorce was much less about "him wanting some strange" (as a Catholic Redditor argued to me recently) and much more about preventing another civil war, which England could not have survived. Getting the country unified under one king (or queen) was necessary for the survival of the country, and unification was one of Elizabeth's main goals.
Fortunately for Elizabeth, many Protestant reformers had unity in mind as well. They wanted a small-c Catholic church, one that was universal. Unfortunately, by the time Elizabeth took the throne, the idea of finding common ground had long since passed, and the forces of Puritanism and Roman Catholicism were fighting for their respective pulls away from that middle ground. Luckily, unlike her sister, Elizabeth was not particularly devout or zealous to any cause, and her innate pragmatism was a huge influence in her fighting for that common ground.
To which end, the signposts were erected as to what the limits of that inclusiveness were, but beyond accepting some main creeds and some main articles of religion, there was leeway for individual conscience and individual understanding as to what to what these articles of religion meant. They've stood the test of time so well, in fact, that a post-theist and almost atheist like Spong can advocate for a completely metaphorical understanding of Scripture, and still be within the bounds of the Anglican Communion.
The benefits of such an approach are two-fold: firstly, by not appealing to one way or one extreme on any axis, there's room to move, room to evolve, room to increase one's understanding as new parts of tradition, new insights from history and language, and new insights from human experience come to light. Of course, it can lead to criticism that you're following a path which allows you to pick and choose with no clear authority of any kind - and there's some degree of prayer and discernment necessary to figure out what to focus on. You also need the maturity to recognize that there will be fellow churches, even fellow parishioners who disagree with you - and for that to be okay. But it's quite liberating to follow a way in which you're never pulled too far in one direction, while giving you liberty to believe according to conscience without being worried about straying from the rest of your church.
Also, it makes for a far more inclusive church, one that is solid in the fundamentals, but not rigid enough to freeze out potential members. Elizabeth's foresight not only was a masterstroke of politics, but a religious one as well - which has given the Anglican Communion a rich and rewarding history of inquiry and inclusiveness, while respecting its traditions and Scripture.