Design a site like this with
Get started

Book Review: Latta Griswold’s The Middle Way

If there’s one term that gets misused in Anglican-Episcopal circles more than any other, it’s the via media, the middle way, which Anglicanism is supposed to embody. Probably it’s original intent was best expressed by the men who “translated” the King James Bible. In their dedication to their “dread sovereign,” they said the following:

So that if, on the one side, we shall be traduced by Popish Persons at home or abroad, who therefore will malign us, because we are poor instruments to make God’s holy Truth to be yet more and more known unto the people, whom they desire still to keep in ignorance and darkness; or if, on the other side, we shall be maligned by self-conceited Brethren, who run their own ways, and give liking unto nothing, but what is framed by themselves, and hammered on their anvil; we may rest secure, supported within by the truth and innocency of a good conscience, having walked the ways of simplicity and integrity, as before the Lord; and sustained without by the powerful protection of Your Majesty’s grace and favour, which will ever give countenance to honest and Christian endeavours against bitter censures and uncharitable imputations.

These days it’s often used to either avoid taking a firm stand on something or to conceal the firm stand that’s being taken. Where the middle is depends upon where the extremes are, and the major change in the Anglican-Episcopal world it the last half century or so is the location of those extremes, and thus the ever-shifting location of a middle that is increasingly impossible to maintain.

Before this excitement–but sadly not all of it–we had a church world whose divisions resembled those King James’ men faced (although, in their case, the Roman types were driven underground in Anglicanism, not to surface until the Oxford Movement.) This is the world that Latta Griswold, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Lenox, Massachusetts, lived and moved and had his being, and into which he wrote The Middle Way. (He was probably related to Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop and Sufi Rumi devotee, but I haven’t pinpointed the connection.) Published in 1928, the same year of the fabled Prayer Book, it’s basically his idea on how to best implement that Prayer Book in the ceremonial of the church.

So what’s Griswold’s idea of “the middle way?” That’s the first problem: Griswold is a committed high churchman, one who more than edges his way into Anglo-Catholicism. He approvingly notes the importation of a great deal of Catholicising practices into a liturgy which had just made a major shift in that direction. Trad Catholics and #straightouttairondale types would be at home with many of these. One that surprised me was his approval of adding the “Last Gospel” at the end of the Mass, which is an import from what is called now the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM.) As far as ad orientem is concerned, his comment that the “minister should face the altar when he addresses Almighty God, the congregation when he addresses or reads to them, and the opposite stall during other parts of the service” pretty much takes care of that. Calling this “the middle way” is IMHO a stretch, but I will say that Griswold is more pastorally minded as to the sensibilities of his people than the absolutists who dominate the scene today.

Such a view and the topics he discusses might give the impression that he’s cooked up a recipe for a dull book. But The Middle Way is anything but, especially for those of us who were raised in that tradition. Griswold wrote novels as well; he crafts precise and sometimes witty prose, and probably the best way to give a feel for the book is to cite some of that.

Let’s start with his advice to ministers and the way they should be conducting the service:

His (the minister’s) demeanour during the service is important. It should be reverent, without being solemn; dignified, but not pompous; cheerful, but without levity; alert, but unhurried. If his personal mood does not accord with what he is doing, it can and should be concealed. Similar considerations apply to the choir. A service is like a play; it is a drama, and it needs to be rehearsed. The more faithful and carefully laboured the practice, the more natural, smooth, and satisfactory will be the performance. (emphasis mine)

Don’t let them know you’re having a bad day!

Twenty minutes is a wise limit for most preachers to set themselves for the sermon. If they do not use a manuscript, they should use a watch, and heed its monition. Nothing more defeats a preacher’s intention than to miss an admirable point at which to end his sermon.

That’s pretty standard advice for liturgical churches, but one which is often honoured in the breach.

If the service is well planned, if the musical setting, anthems, sermons, notices are not too long, such a Matins as has been described should not last over an hour, never over an hour and a quarter; and that is about the time the average congregation in the present day can concentrate upon divine worship.

We complain about the short attention span our people have today, but there really isn’t anything new under the sun…

Too often the presentation of the alms is conducted with so much pomp and ceremony, and this particularly in churches where ceremonial is affected to be despised, that it appears as if it were the climax of the whole service, a circumstance that invariably gives the intruding Philistine occasion to blaspheme.

Anglican-Episcopal types “trash talk” prosperity types, but this was a fault my home church Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach was notorious for. We had the largest silver trays I have ever seen, and the celebrant’s elevation of same at the altar, accompanied by the organist’s all-stops-open rendering of the Doxology, outdid the elevation of the Host at Communion. I’m sure the Philistines said some ripe things!

If some one could devise a method by which more people could be induced to attend evening services, he would be rendering the Church a great good.

This is a struggle that Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are losing (or have lost) today for the same reason their Main Line counterparts did a century ago: secular pursuits by the congregation. It surprised me that Griswold brought this up: I was raised with the idea that twice-a-Sunday church was something that “they” did, not “us.”

Happily there is a growing tendency to bring children to Confirmation much earlier than formerly…The child is to go on with religious education all the rest of his life–at least that is what we should hope. Postponing Confirmation to the period of adolescence, as is so widely the practice, seems to me to place it at the most unsuitable age of all. It is then that children are apt to be less interested in religion than at any other period of their lives.

This was another shocker for a Bethesda veteran–I don’t know if it was a diocesan rule (probably was,) but Bethesda wouldn’t present anyone to the Bishop for Confirmation until he or she was 12. Griswold’s observation about the unsuitability of waiting until the teens for Confirmation was true enough in his day; it was on steroids in the 1960’s and beyond.

But apologetic sermons are better than a sort preached by some men, who seldom lose an opportunity of announcing from the pulpit how very little of the Christian religion they deem worthy of acceptance.

I think this passage should be etched on the tombstone (or other memorial) of people like John Shelby Spong. Griswold was a minister in a church where the whole life of the church revolved around the Book of Common Prayer. Lex orandi, lex credendi not withstanding, the weakness of that type of spirituality is that it lulls the church into a false sense of security: if the BCP is being faithfully and aesthetically executed every Sunday, life is good. But behind the BCP are the essentials of the faith from the Holy Scriptures. In Griswold’s day the rot was already underway, propagated by the seminaries; the explosion of the 1960’s and again in the 2000’s were only the lighting of the fuse, the explosive material of unbelief was in ample supply both times. Looking at Griswold’s time and the years immediately following leads one to think of a quote from Gregory the Great:

There was long life and health, material prosperity, growth of population and the tranquillity of daily peace, yet while the world was flourishing in itself, in their hearts it had withered away.

That’s the challenge in front of American Christianity today, Anglican and otherwise. Do we really believe the basic truths? Or will we too sell the pass? That’s the challenge in front of us. Are we up to it?

There is much in The Middle Way that may not interest too many people now. For those of us raised in this type of Christianity, or those who attempt to maintain worship according to the 1928 BCP, it’s a fascinating read. But some of Griswold’s pithy observations have a prophetic ring to them, and for those whose objective is to carry on where other churches have failed, it’s a worthwhile read.


2 Replies to “Book Review: Latta Griswold’s The Middle Way”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: