As someone in search of a Via Media Church, I've found the distinction between the two ideal types of the "Monolithic" versus the "Over-Personalized" Church helpful.
The Monolithic Church embodies a model of authority we can term 'hierarchical heteronomy.' Members are told by clergy what to think, what to believe, and what to do, and these things are defined in the same way for everybody. This Church embraces epistemic and ethical objectivism. Absolute Truth is known within the Church with absolute certainty. Private judgment is considered anathema, for the Church hierarchy alone is the guardian of truth and goodness. Individual conscience and preferences must be submitted to the teaching authority of the Church hierarchy. Requirements for membership are maximal, so the Monolithic Church requires a strict consensus on all matters dogmatic and moral for persons to be considered good members.
The Over-Personalized Church embodies a model of authority we can term 'subjective autonomy.' Members are free to think, believe, and act as they individually please. Based largely on their personal preferences (likes versus dislikes), members choose whether or not to abide by Church norms and teachings. This Church embraces epistemic and ethical relativism. There is no such thing as Absolute Truth, only varieties of personal or subjective truths. Private judgment based upon individual reason and/or individual feelings is considered a virtue. Because the requirements for membership are so minimal, the Over-Personalized Church requires only a tangential consensus to maintain some semblance of a common life (e.g., 'we choose to be together because we individually like to do so').
As ideal types, neither the Monolithic Church nor the Over-Personalized Church exists as a verifiable, empirical reality. However, some Churches embody more of the marks of one ideal type than the other.
For example, Roman Catholicism, the Southern Baptist Convention, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Church of Christ tend to move rather far in the direction of the Monolithic Church (each one in different and distinctive ways, to be sure).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Unitarianism and Unity Church are good examples of the Over-Personalized Church type.In my judgment, the Episcopal Church and many of the “mainstream” Protestant denominations (Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church, etc.) fall somewhere between the Monolithic and Over-Personalized ideal types. Although one may certainly find individual Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Unitarians, Southern Baptists, etc., who also fall somewhere in the middle.
In the current culture wars rocking the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, we have a battle waging between a Right that tends to espouse a Monolithic Church model (claiming that it is true Anglicanism) versus a Left that tends to espouse an Over-Personalized Church model (claiming that it is true Anglicanism).
I disagree with both the Left and the Right. I believe that there is a middle way between these antithetical ideal types. It’s an option described as “generous orthodoxy” by Fr. Greg Jones of “The Anglican Centrist.” Here's what Fr. Jones says about it:
We hold to the classic essentials of the Christian faith:
- The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments “contain all things necessary to salvation,” and are the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
- The Apostle’s Creed is the “Baptismal Symbol” and the Nicene Creed is the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
- The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself – Baptism and Eucharist – are to be ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words and elements (water, bread, wine).
- The Historic Episcopate – the church’s living continuity of apostolic leadership in the institutional church.
We hold on to these massive pillars of faith – and we live out our life using the Prayer Book – again in whatever version currently used. We agree on the essentials, and tolerate disagreement on inessentials. The four points above are the essentials.
Of course, this leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Which is why our vision of orthodoxy is often called “Generous Orthodoxy,” a term coined by the great Episcopalian bible scholar Hans Frei.
In contrast to the Monolithic and Over-Personalized Church types, Generous Orthodoxy embraces a corporate and conciliar model of authority. We have overlap here with the Eastern Orthodox, for we, too, look to the early Church councils to define the dogmatic core of the faith (particularly as embodied in the Nicene Creed). And as Episcopalians, we gather in diocesan council and in General Convention to corporately address matters of common life and concern in an authoritative way. Corporate discernment and corporate consent is how we go about applying our faith and making decisions. This privileges neither private judgment nor a hierarchical “Father knows best” mode of authority. Over against a strict consensus on the one hand and a tangential consensus on the other, we generously orthodox Episcopalians affirm that an overlapping consensus in dogmatic and moral theology is sufficient for us to be the Body of Christ together, and we maintain that overlapping consensus through adherence to the norms of Constitution, canons, the historic creeds, the liturgies and rubrics in The Book of Common Prayer, etc.
To be sure, an overlapping consensus rather than a strict consensus means that we will have different interpretations of the same scriptures and aspects of tradition, and we will often disagree on particular moral matters (e.g., homosexual practice or abortion). That can be difficult, painful, and even potentially schismatic. But Generous Orthodoxy willingly runs those risks because of the conviction that while there is Absolute Truth, no one of us (and no group among us) knows it in its fullness with absolute certainty.
In his book The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1937), former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey writes:
For while the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as 'the best type of Christianity,' but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died (p. 220).
Ramsey affirms the place of the Anglican Church within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church and simultaneously affirms that ambiguities, tensions, and lack of absolute certainty are intrinsic to Anglican identity. In other words, Anglicanism per se does not entail the fullness of God’s revealed truth.
We live in a time in which the opposing models of a Monolithic Church versus an Over-Personalized Church are struggling for dominance, a struggle that is consuming more and more of the time and energy of Anglican leadership around the world. In such a context, Ramsey's reflections not only make for a fine endorsement of Generous Orthodoxy. They also remind us that both of these ideal types fall short of the Anglican vision for a Via Media Church.