Sunday, October 20, 2013

Richard Hooker




I want you to imagine for a moment that the Dean of Derby preached this morning, a sermon of erudite and orthodox Anglican theology.  Then this evening, along comes the reforming Canon Chancellor and purports to correct, nay to refute the Dean’s teaching, accusing him of popish heresy and of ignoring the Scriptures.  And that this is a pattern that overall continues for several years. 

This is, of course, not what is happening here tonight.  I do not stand here to refute the Dean’s heresies.  Rather I stand here to speak of a man for whom this experience of sermon and counter-sermon was a regular occurrence.  The man is Richard Hooker, and he has come to be seen as the greatest apologist for Anglicanism, and even by some as the inventor of Anglicanism!

To understand how this came about, we must look a little at what had happened to the Church of England in his lifetime.  Richard Hooker was born in Heavitree near Exeter in about 1554.  There is a little uncertainty about the date, but if he was born in 1554, then he was born the year after the death of Edward VI – the boy king – under whom a strongly Protestant Church of England was forged.  In 1555, England was formally reconciled to the Papacy under Mary 1 and her Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury Reginald Pole.  Mary’s short reign saw firm suppression of Protestantism and many leading reformers fled abroad, not least to Geneva and to the city of John Calvin.  When Mary died, shortly after Pole, her half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne.  Hooker would have been about four years old at this time.  A different sort of Anglicanism came too, and there is a real case for Elizabeth herself being seen as one of the great Anglican theologians who have shaped the Church of England.  With Elizabeth came a real sense of Anglicanism as a via media, a middle way.  Under Elizabeth the Church of England once more broke from Rome, and Royal Supremacy (now under a ‘Supreme Governor’ rather than Henry VIII’s ‘Supreme Head’) was restored.  Cranmer’s prayerbook was also restored, but modified to allow some traditional practices and beliefs to continue.  The Church of England now faced opposition on two flanks – from Roman Catholics on the one hand (Elizabeth was excommunicated in 1570) but now for the first time from Protestants as well.  Those who had fled Mary’s persecutions returned to England and argued that the Church of England was not nearly reformed enough.  They became known as the Puritans – those who wanted to purify the English Church. 

The Puritan agenda was varied and rarely stable.  Amongst other things, they wanted to do away with Bishops, and introduce congregational governance; to firmly separate the church from the state and to do away with worship that relied on beauty, visual or musical.  Only this week on an edition of ‘In our Time’ on Radio 4, I heard one scholar claim that it was Elizabeth’s preservation of Cathedrals and Cathedral Choirs that particularly irked the Puritans!

In 1573, well into Elizabeth’s reign, a leading Puritan called Walter Travers produced what is often thought to be the finest and most scholarly account of the Puritan objections to the Elizabethan Church of England.  It was called ‘A Clear and Full Exposition from the Word of God of Ecclesiastical Discipline and the Anglican Church’s Deviation Therefrom’ (pithy titles were not a requirement).  Travers was a Puritan who did not seek ordination because he regarded the role of bishops in appointing clergy to be contrary to the pattern laid down in Scripture.  He was Reader at the Temple church in London.  Having been de facto Master of the Temple Church for three years, he was a candidate to be appointed Master in 1585, a post that went to the candidate proposed by the Archbishop of York – Richard Hooker.  Travers, who was also related by marriage to Hooker, stayed on at the Temple as Reader.  Hooker reinstated the used of the Book of Common Prayer, robed in cassock and surplice for worship and had commissioned a musical setting for the service of matins. For the next two years, Hooker would preach in the morning at a service conducted according to the Book of Common Prayer, and Travers would preach a rebuttal in the afternoon at a service according to the Geneva Prayer Book.  Their sermons were a debate between the defender of the Anglican establishment and one of the leaders of a group who would reform that establishment in many different ways.

Travers was removed from his post at the Temple in late 1586, having tried to unseat Hooker through a complaint to the Privy Council.  Hooker stayed another five years, but in defending himself from Travers’ complaints he, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, found that he was producing a theological account of the Church of England and the Elizabethan Settlement.  Hooker left the Temple in 1591, ultimately taking on a parish in Bishopsbourne in Kent, and in 1593 published the work for which he is known – Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.  This is a long work, that deals in matters of theology, church order, worship and the relations between church and state.  Of its eight books, only five were published in Hooker’s lifetime.  Hooker’s early death in 1600 meant that the publishing of the book was far from straightforward.  At first, it made little impact, and was never translated into Latin or any European language.  Hooker wrote long, flowing and often difficult prose.  One writer suggests that the paragraph was his natural medium, and some of Hooker’s paragraphs are long and very dense.  But over time the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity came to be recognised as the great apology for Anglicanism.

In the time remaining to me, I want to look at two aspects of Hooker’s work and how they might still help Anglicanism today.  First, I want to look at how Hooker uses the Bible; and then at how conflict functions within his work.

So first, the Bible.  In his arguments with the Puritans, Hooker offers a means of understanding the Bible that has become definitive of an Anglican approach in that he appeals to Scripture but also to tradition and to reason.  Sometimes this is described as the ‘three-fold stool’ of Scripture, tradition and reason that constitutes something distinctive to Anglican theology and worship.  However, as in so much of his argument, there are many subtleties in Hooker’s approach.  First, Hooker is clear that this is an argument about reading Scripture.  It is less about what it contains, but rather about what one does with the contents of Scripture.  With the Puritans, Hooker complains about the Roman Catholic tendency to add traditions of the Church to Scripture and see them as being necessary for salvation.  Nor would he allow that human reason trumps the Scriptures.  For Hooker, as for the Puritans, the Church and human reason are under the authority of Scripture.  Where Hooker parts company from the Puritans is in his insistence that both tradition and reason are part of how we read the Scriptures.  The Puritans thought that one could simply read out of Scripture an account of how to organise a church.  Hooker disagreed.  Scripture is important and must not be contradicted, but we need to understand what is being said and done, and may find that the traditions of the church offer a better way forward.  In fact, a strong reading of Hooker would suggest that he feels that the Puritans themselves are using tradition and reason to understand scripture.  They are simply not acknowledging this, and short-circuiting the work needed to argue their case.

It follows from this approach to Scripture that the image of the three-legged stool does not really work.  That image implies that Scripture, tradition and reason are equal in the contributions that they make to theological argument.  Hooker would not have accepted this, for him Scripture is the ground of that argument.  A better image might be that of a pair of spectacles for reading the Bible: one lens is reason, the other tradition; both are used to understand and to read the Scriptures.  This is a far cry from a common approach to Church politics, in which the Church of England has three ‘parties’, the Evangelicals who take their primary authority from Scripture, the Catholics who take their primary authority from the traditions of the church, and liberals who take reason as their primary guidance.  Hooker would not have welcomed this.  Rather, he would have said that we are all engaged in a conversation over the reading of Scripture in which all our different understandings and traditions have a contribution to make.  Perhaps the Church of England needs to recover this sense that we are all engaged together in the same activity of reading the Scriptures.  We will disagree, but we are all trying to do the same thing!

Another consequence of Hooker’s approach to Scripture is that conflict and dispute is inevitable.  That should hardly surprise an Anglican.  There has never been a time when the nature of Anglicanism has not been in dispute.  It was true in Hooker’s day; it is true in our day.  But what Hooker has to offer here are some means of handling conflict.  First, he refuses to write off anyone because he disagrees with them (or they with him).  In a sermon ‘On Faith and Works’, he says, “You must learn that it is not in itself harmful, neither should it be scandalous, nor offensive, if in cases where there is doubt about doctrine, we listen to the differing opinions of others … If this offends you, the fault is your own.  Maintain peaceable minds and you may find comfort even in this variety of opinion.”  So we see Hooker taking Puritan argument seriously and sharing their concerns to be true to scripture.  We also see Hooker refusing to write off Roman Catholics.  It was his sermon on 1st March 1586, on the prophet Habbukuk, that led to the complaints about him to the Privy Council.  In particular, his statement that  “The Church of Rome, however broken and misshapen by its heresies, is still part of the church.  She has never directly denied the foundation of our faith.”  For Hooker, the Church of Rome was mistaken, but that did not mean that Catholics were beyond salvation, either in terms of the Catholic ancestors of the Reformed Church of England, or in terms of Catholics of his own day.  As a later Anglican theologian (David Jenkins) was to put it, “we are justified by faith, not by faith in justification by faith!”

Hooker’s second contribution to the handling of conflict in the church is to insist that theological disputes should be settled by theological work.  He would not permit the quick and easy route of solving a theological controversy by recourse to authority.  This put Hooker in opposition to the Roman claim to papal authority as a means of settling dispute.  But it also placed him in opposition to the Puritan claim to settle argument by recourse to the Bible.  For Hooker the statement ‘the Bible says’ was the beginning of an argument, not the end of it.  Hooker would have approved of the claim attributed to Bishop Rawlinson of Derby that “The Church of Rome claims to be infallible.  The Church of England is more modest in her claims; she merely says that she is right”.

Alongside his refusals to write off those with whom he disagreed and his refusal to take the quick route of an appeal to a deciding authority, Hooker’s work demands of us self-criticism.  If we are invited to join a great conversation about the meaning of Scripture, then we should take part as those who have something to learn from it.  Rather wonderfully, his work includes quotations from the Jewish Mishnah, alongside the Church Fathers, Thomas Aquinas and the Reformers.  This threefold method of refusing to write off opponents, insisting on theological work rather than an appeal to authority, and a self-criticism that is willing to learn would be a real contribution to dealing with the disagreements of contemporary Anglicanism!

Hooker, in common with many systematic writers, is not always clear whether he is writing about the Church of England as it is or the Church of England as it should be.  But he has much to offer both, and continues to be a resource for Anglican theology over 400 years after his death.  Isaak Walton, his first biographer, said that ‘He who praises Richard Hooker, praises God’.  Certainly, let us thank God for the gift of this thinker and writer who has given so much to the Church of England.  But let the last words be Hooker’s, words from the Preface to the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.  They are words that speak to Hooker’s use of Scripture and handling of conflict; words that speak of our common human nature; words that offer us a challenge and a way forward; words that we need to hear more often than we might like.  This is Hooker’s advice to his readers:  “Think ye are men, deem it not impossible for you to err”.  Amen.

Given at Derby Cathedral Evensong 20.10.13. as part of a series on 'Great Anglicans'

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