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One of the most important principles we need to keep in mind moving forward in this series is ‘via media.’  This little Latin phrase encapsulates nothing less than the guiding formative principle of the Church of England and Anglicanism throughout our history.

Literally, via media means "the middle road" or the "way between (and avoiding or reconciling) two extremes."  It is a concept that reflects the constant tension of differing visions for our church that have marked its milestones and is captured in many ways throughout the evolving versions of the Book of Common prayer over 400 years.

But if our church has been formed from efforts to find this ‘middle way’ between two extremes, then what are they, one may ask?  There is no easy answer to that question, since, in 400 years of our history as a church, the extremes have reflected the theological debates of differing periods.  Through it all, however, the Anglican Way has been defined by the “Middle Way,” balancing the need for unity and concord while allowing the broadest room for differing interpretations.

The very beginning of the Church of England was mired in divisions and differing visions of that this Church should be.  With the growing popularity of Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther, ?? Zwingli and John Calvin in Europe, England, in the person of Henry VIII made it clear that such foolishness would not happen on his soil.  Henry actually wrote a scholarll paper defending Rome’s doctrine of seven sacraments against the upsart Luther.  The Pope at the time was so impressed with Henry’s support that he gave him the title, “Defender of the Faith.”  Despite his peity, however, the uncontrollable growth of protestant popularity and the need to make certain political decisions led Henry to set himself up as the Head of the Church in England and our Church was born.

This new church, under Henry’s leadership was not meant to be radically different from the Roman Catholic Church, but only an Anglo-Catholic Church.  Though he made some changes to the practices of worship, such as commanding that both bread AND wine be given to the people during communion and directing worship should be done in English, the service itself was to be nothing more than a English version of the popular Roman rite in England at the time – The Sarum Rite.

Although the composition and editing of the first, 1549 version, of the book of common prayer was started under Henry VII under the guidance of his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, it was not published and made law until two years after his death.  In those two years, Cranmer and several political leaders advising (?-year old) Edward VI, who were more greatly influenced by Protestant theologians than Henry, produced a Prayer book that read like the Sarum Rite, but had some clear Protestant leanings – the first via media.

Protestant leaders in England immediately made their displeasure at the BCP know, including (Uprising).  Within three years, a second Book of Common Prayer (1552) was published and made law.  This book read much like the 1549 version but with some prayers and directions that made it far more of a Protestant book than its predecessor.  Not only was it a via media between Catholic and Protestant views, but by this time, Protestantism was split into two borad groups which included Lutherans and Calvinists.  Cranmer was strongly influenced by both camps, but definitely leaned towards Calvinism.  The 1552 Prayer Book was such a hybrid of theologies that it was equally unsatisfactory to all parties.  This prayer book was only starting to be distributed, when, in late 1552, Edward VI died and his sister, Mary I, a staunch Roman Catholic, halted all reformation efforts and restored the Church under Roman Authority.

It was not until Mary’s death and Elizabeth I’s ascension to the throne in 1558 that the reformation and its prayer book could safely raise its head again.  Thomas Cranmer (Elizabeth’s godfather) and most of the reformed leaders had been executed, while others had escaped to mainland Europe.  Elizabeth inherited a kingdom that was divided among many different lines, not the least of which being religious.  The powers that most effectively aligned with her own agenda were mostly protestant in theology and so she, more Catholic herself, sought to bring an end to at least this form of division and unnecessary bloodshed.  Her acts early in her reign are generally referred to as the Elizabethan Settlement.  A significant part of this settlement was Elizabeth’s use of via media to guide the revision of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer.  This version was very strongly related to the Protestant themed 1552 version,  but included some changes which were meant to appease the more Catholic-minded of her subjects.  The best example of this via media is found in what is called the Words of Administration, the words said to those who are receiving the bread and wine at communion.

The Words of Administration in the 1549 version read:

“THE Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and  soul unto everlasting life.”


“THE Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.”

The Words of Administration in the 1552 version read:

“Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.”


“Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.”

The Words of Administration in Elizabeth’s 1559 version included both to be said together.

Without getting bogged down in further details, suffice it to say that even the 1559 version was not the end of the arguments over Anglican Theology and how were should worship. Later arguments arose between Puritans and Roman Catholic influencers, High and Low Church, and many more.  It could truthfully be said that the one truly “common” aspect of Common prayer throughout the history of our Common Prayer has been this drive to maintain unity in the midst of great diversity.

Note: The image above is of the book that started me on my journey of exploration of Anglican Church and liturgical history.  In it is contained the complete texts of the first two Books of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) conveniently provided in modern English.