The “Golden Mediocrity”: Bartlett’s Anglican Tradition

A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition (2007) (Amazon) is Alan Barlett’s contribution to the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series edited by Philip Sheldrake and published by Darton, Longman, and Todd. Bartlett’s book is not the first on Anglicanism in the series; L. William Countryman’s The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Tradition preceded it.
Although not structured as a rebuttal, Bartlett’s book responds to Countryman’s book; Countryman’s thesis seems to be that Anglicanism does not have a doctrinal core so much as a continuous community, as seen and expressed in its poetic tradition. Bartlett disagrees. He insists that despite its reputation, and despite the attitudes of certain participants in Anglican discourse, the tradition does have central doctrinal content, as well as a set of features that may not be unique to Anglicanism but are at least distinctive of Anglicanism. Put together, these form an identifiable, if often obscured, Anglican identity and tradition. A recurring theme in these features is that of moderation, of finding the golden mean or, in the early Church of England’s phrase, the “golden mediocrity.” Mediocrity here means middle, not poor quality; I’ve taken it as the title for this post to suggest that, at least according to Bartlett, what many people see as a mediocre tradition is, rather, a golden one.

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Most of my attempts to photograph my rabbit Aswan with the book also involved her attempts to eat it. If I get a better one, I will replace it.

This post is intended as a general review and summary of the book. Future posts will tackle more specific issues that arose for me during my reading.

I immediately became anxious when I read the following passage in the introduction, despite the fact that I believed myself interested in the topic:

I think this method [the three-stranded cord of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason] is best exemplified in the treasures of Classic Anglicanism (from the Reformation to, very roughly, the 1660s). So we give most space in this book to selected (not comprehensive) expressions of Anglican faith from this period: the depth of Cranmer’s prayer books; the wisdom of Elizabeth; the passion of Donne; the simplicity of Herbert; the joy of Traherne. […] Within this rich company, […] much space will be devoted to Richard Hooker, the great theologian of Elizabeth I (p 17).

While I had intended to research the history of Anglicanism at some point, and especially the roles of Cranmer and Hooker (as the liturgical and theological founders of Anglicanism respectively), I had not expected to do so with this volume. I was expecting an overview of more contemporary expressions of Anglican spirituality because, to be frank, I had not expected to profit much from the early Anglicans: theirs was a much different time, and the Church of England was founded in subterfuge, oppression, and much political compromise. My opinion before encountering Passionate was that the Anglican Church of Canada became a place from which I could seek the truth (rather than a place in which I could find the truth) more by historical accident and the wisdom of generations of adherents rather than by its founders’ particular vision.1

Bartlett’s opinion is somewhat different: he credits the major figures of Classic Anglicanism (including Lancelot Andrewes, whom he should have mentioned in the excerpt for all the times he quoted him) with introducing many of the foundational elements of Anglicanism, even as they contributed to the Church of England’s violent beginnings and even as some of them—Cranmer especially—lacked moral integrity in many areas of life. At the same time, Bartlett offered a view much like the one I brought to the book: that the Church of England has improved since that time in a process he at one point he calls “ecclesial evolution.” Indeed, it has precisely been the crises which Anglicanism faced, including the early wars of religion, which forced the Church of England to grow and improve. It is not mere historical accident that produced the wisdom of generations of adherents, and as regrettable as they are the subterfuge, oppression, and political compromise contributed to that wisdom.

So what were those things that the Classic Anglicans brought to the tradition, according to Bartlett? All summaries are unjust, but a summary is unjust to Bartlett in particular since his work is so historically and theologically specific and demonstrates such mastery of both foundational and contemporary Anglican documents, from Hooker’s Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie to the Lambeth Commission’s Windsor Report. The ideas that Bartlett describes are thoroughly demonstrated, and it is in his long discussions that these ideas gain relevance, nuance, and a specifically Anglican character. Nonetheless, these are the principles that Bartlett considers central to the Anglican tradition:

  • a diversity and balance of voices, primarily within Anglicanism but also seen in the bible itself, derived from the recognition that the voices one is tempted to exclude today might provide the wisdom the church needs tomorrow
  • “generous orthodoxy” expounded, not enforced, with “passionate patience” (Rowen Williams’s phrase, quoted by Bartlett) and expressed afresh in each generation, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the two sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and the historic episcopate
  • theological and ecclesial modesty, in which only the “generous orthodoxy” is sufficient for salvation and all other theological speculation is undertaken with humility
  • the three-strand cord of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, which he links to the three tribes of Anglicanism (Evangelicalism, Catholicism, and Liberalism, respectively, though none of these have a monopoly on their preferred authorities and each engages with all three authorities)
  • a commitment to the vernacular, by which is meant not just local language but a commitment to expressing the Gospel in ways appropriate to each generation and in each context
  • a sacramental and liturgical focus in “the quest for Christ-like personal and social holiness”

Many of these are more nuanced, more historically literate, or more precise versions of the things which attracted me to Anglicanism in the first place. As I think is usual for embryonic Anglicans, in my first encounter with Anglicanism I found the liturgy so powerful that it seemed to satisfy an almost physical appetite. After becoming involved in St. Faith’s in Vancouver, however, I also found myself impressed by the tradition’s Unity in Diversity model, its avoidance of systematic theology for more context-specific work, its adaptability, and its general attitude of welcome. I had associated these traits more with the Anglican Church of Canada, and St. Faith’s in particular, than with Anglicanism writ large, and so I have been unsure whether the Anglican Communion could be my denominational home. If Bartlett is correct, it could be a fairly good fit—though I do still have a few reservations, some of which I will consider over the following month.

One disappointment for me was that Bartlett gave very little specific guidance for Anglican spirituality. His advice, which is easy to miss, is mostly that Anglicans should regularly receive the Eucharist and that both clergy and laity would benefit from praying the Daily Office. I had been intending to try a spiritual discipline from each of the books to see how it went for me; since receiving the Eucharist is already an obligation for me as an Anglican, this left me with few options! In particular, I have been having trouble finding an Anglican Breviary that doesn’t cost more than I can afford. I could—and probably will—save up for one, but in the meantime I’m somewhat at a loss.

I have other irritations. Bartlett’s discussion of the relationships between Scripture, Tradition, and Reason is careful and extensive but, in my opinion, unclear and unresolved. Perhaps this more reflects my own desire for clear-cut distinctions where none exist, but as a result I feel I still do not understand how these are supposed to work with the precision I was hoping for. Also, while Bartlett was using end notes to try to make the main text more streamlined, I found some of the most interesting discussion hidden back there; flipping between the main text and the end notes made the text less streamlined for me. Finally, the book does not have an index and I feel the lack.

Overall, though, I found it a very helpful book: the prose is precise and nuanced, and Bartlett marshals an impressive set of historical and contemporary resources. He also seems to fully appreciate the horrors, as well as the “treasures,” in Anglicanism’s history, which is very important to me; I cannot take seriously an author who does not seem to understand the moral obstacles people might have in adopting what they are selling. On a personal level, although Passionate introduced me to facets of Anglicanism with which I have significant difficulty, I might start feeling comfortable calling myself “Anglican” rather than “Anglican-ish.” My primary wish is that I had read it with my church, so I had a better sense of how well some Anglican clergy and laity felt Bartlett represented the tradition as they know it.

Over the following month, I want to discuss four specific topics that came up in the book: Anglican orthodoxy, Anglican reason, Anglican aesthetics, and Anglican crisis.


1. The distinction between “a place in which to find the truth” and “a place from which to seek the truth” is one I had made, in those exact terms, before reading it in Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday.

Index for the Widespread Hunger series

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5 thoughts on “The “Golden Mediocrity”: Bartlett’s Anglican Tradition

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