The Simplicity and Purity of Primitive Christianity

Bishop Moorman on the Via Media of the Caroline Divines:

In the eyes of those who were shaping the destiny of the Church in England there was no sense of separation from the rest of the catholic church. The Church in England was, as the title-page to the first Prayer Book had implied, a part of the catholic church, even though it had repudiated papal jurisdiction. It was catholic, but it was also reformed. Its roots ran back to the primitive church, but certain customs and ideas which had clung to it during the Middle Ages had now been cut away. The fundamental doctrines and constitution of the Church remained the same, but a number of genuine reforms had been carried out, such as the vernacular liturgy, the administration of the Sacrament in both kinds and permission for the clergy to marry.

[Their] point of view. . .may be summed up in the dying words of Thomas Ken, who had inherited the great tradition laid down by the Caroline Divines. ‘I die,’ he said, ‘in the Holy Catholic and Apostolick Faith, professed by the whole Church before disunion of the East and West. More particularly, I dye in the Communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from all Papal and Puritan Innovations, and as it adheres to the doctrine of the Cross.’ These words indicated the basis of the work of the Caroline Divines. Theirs was an attempt to get back to the early Church before the accretions of the middle Ages which the reformers had been so anxious to get rid of. The Anglicans stood between two great religious systems. On the one side was Rome, active and aggressive under the impetus of the Counter-Reformation, trying to rebuild a Christendom shattered by the cataclysms of the sixteenth century. But to the Anglicans there could be no return to Rome since the faith which she taught was, in their eyes, impure — corrupted by the ‘innovations’ which were no part of the Holy Catholic and Apostolick Faith’ as taught by the Primitive Church. As Laud said, they could not return to Rome ‘until she is other than she is.’ On the other side were the Calvinists and Lutherans, who had separated from catholic tradition and had magnified certain doctrines out of all proportion. The Anglicans were equally clear that they could not fall into line with them since they had abandoned things which the Early Church thought essential. The Caroline Divines, therefore aimed at a Via Media between two extremes; but the Via Media which they sought was not a compromise, a ‘lowest common denominator’; it was a real attempt to recover the simplicity and purity of primitive Christianity.

Moorman, John R. H. A History of the Church in England (London, A. and C. Black, 1953). 212, 234.

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