Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Richard Hooker on Anglican Integrity

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Richard Hooker on Anglican Integrity

Article excerpt

It has been said that Richard Hooker invented Anglicanism. To the extent that this assessment is accurate, it is because Hooker strove, both in his early ministry and in his magnum opus, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, to reconcile divisions among English Christians of the late sixteenth century that are arguably comparable in character and depth to those which threaten the integrity of the Anglican Communion today. Even with regard to current issues not directly treated in his work (issues of gender, sexuality. and structures of authority within the Communion), Hooker offers aids to reflection. Perhaps most important, he offers a persuasive account of why this sort of communion might be considered a great good.

It has been said that Richard Hooker invented Anglicanism1 or at least that he may be the most accomplished advocate Anglicanism has ever had.2 The days are long past when he could be cited as a quasiofficial authority in church deliberations, and, not surprisingly, he liaslittle or nothing to say about many aspects of the present crisis of integrity in the Anglican Communion. He may provide useful aids to reflection on some aspects of die present situation, however, since the chief aim of his own early ministry and of his magnum opus. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, was to recover and foster integrity in the English church of Ins day.

Hooker's approach to the issues dividing the Church of England at the end of the sixteenth century was both critical and conciliatory, that is, constructive and pastoral. This is first evident in his ministry7 as Master of the Temple in London, a chief center of English legal studies and one where, in the late 15SOs, all attitudes toward the Reformation and the English church were acutely represented. In a series of sermons on the fraught topic of justification, for example, Hooker argued vigorously against then current Roman Catholic teaching on justification by works but contended equally vigorously that past generations of Christians who had accepted that doctrine were not necessarily damned thereby. Hooker did not extend God's mercy as far as Origen had, to the ultimate salvation of the Devil, and the overt focus of these sermons was on past generations, not on current advocates of justification by works. His central point, however, was that a saving faith in Christ was humanly compatible with the acceptance of doctrines logically incompatible with that faith. "Surely I must confess unto you, if it be an error to think that God may be merciful to save men, even when they err, my greatest comfort is my error. Were it not for the love I bear unto this error, I would neither wish to speak nor to live."3 Appealing thus to human inconsistency and divine mercy, Hooker sought to hold together a congregation deeply divided about the character of a true church - and consequendy about the state of their own church.

Partly for his apparent leniency toward false believing, he was denounced to the Privy Council by the Temple reader, a leader in the Puritan movement for changes of worship and polity in the direction of Calvins Geneva and other reformed churches abroad. Hooker survived this attack and determined to address its causes on the broadest and deepest level, not as differences within one congregation but as issues dividing a Christian nation. The result was Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the major English prose work of the sixteenth century.

A constructive or pastoral reading of the Laws is something of a third way in Hooker interpretation, compared with the traditional near-hagiographic view of him as a serene expositor of timeless but relatively unchallenging Anglican truths4 and a more recent New Historicist view of him as a velvet-gloved polemicist providing window dressing for the command structure of Elizabethan society."' The nostalgia underlying the traditional view underestimates the gravity of the English church's situation when Hooker wrote, while a purelypolemical view of the Laws overlooks both signs of Hooker's own dissatisfaction with the establishment he defended and marks of his sympathy with the establishments critics. …

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