O’Donovan on the Anglican virtue of moderation

We will learn from them [Cranmer and his contemporaries] better than from Anglicans of any other age of the distinctive theological virtue in which Anglicans have sometimes spoken as though they had a monopoly, the virtue of ‘moderation’.  The word is appropriate enough, though it need to be used with some subtlety and not a little irony. The popular account of Anglican moderation, that it consisted in steering a steady middle path between tImagehe exaggerated positions of Rome on the one hand and Geneva on the other, simply will not bear examination. As our knowledge of late mediaeval thought grows greater, forwarded by the scholarly studies of the last half-century, it becomes more apparent that Calvinism, on all issues except that of church-order, took as much of the late-scholastic tradition into its system as any of the other schools of Protestantism. Its doctrine of predestination can arguably claim to be less ‘reformed’ – in the sense of being more mediaeval – than that of the Council of Trent! There was nothing particularly ‘middle’ about most of the English Reformer’s theological positions – even if one could decide between what poles the middle way was supposed to lie.

Their moderation consisted rather in a determined policy of separating the essentials of faith and order from adiaphora. Of all the continental spirits, they had learned most deeply, perhaps, from Melanchthon. ‘Surely odious it must have been, ‘ Hooker exclaims, ‘for one Christian church to abolish that which all had received and held for the space of many ages, and that without detriment unto religion so manifest and so great, as might in the eyes of unpartial men appear sufficient to clear them from all blame of rash and inconsiderate proceeding, if in fervour of zeal that had removed such things.’

Anglican moderation is the policy of reserving strong statement and conviction for the few things which really deserve them. Yet that does not mean that it is incapable of conveying certainties. Think of the church music of the Tudor period, after its composers had turned over to English and put away their soaring cloud-peaks of polyphonic sonority. It moves along at a deliberate, purposeful walking pace – not dancing like Purcell, not clapping its hands like Handel, not swelling its breast like Stanford. It articulates its text clearly in cool and measured understatement, without embellishment. It conveys confidence and assurance; and it can even suggest excitement, though under the strongest self-restraint.

O’Donovan, Oliver.  On the Thirty-Nine Articles. Conversations with Tudor Christianity.  SCM Press. 2nd Ed. 2011.  Pg 8


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