Richard Hooker and the Anglican Covenant disagreement

By Simon Barrow
November 3, 2010

On 3 November 2010, Anglicans commemorate the 410th anniversary of the death of Richard Hooker. Many are also using the occasion to launch a campaign ( against a proposed Anglican Covenant which they believe could stifle or deny the originating gifts he brought to Anglicanism.

My friend and colleague Savitri Hensman has today penned a powerful article (Anglican Covenant ignores the problem of evil) pointing out the considerable dangers involved in the abuse of biblical Covenantal language. This should be about the freely entered-into communion of people before God, not an attempt to win political struggles within an institution by subjecting the internal life of member churches (that need to be guided by the Spirit and communal Christian discernment and practice), to a bureaucratic body aimed at quashing variety, dissent or (heaven forfend!) "embarrassment".

I have personal interests in all this; and not just as an active member of the Anglican Church for nearly 38 years (into which I was voluntarily confirmed aged 15), though that is important, too.

For several years I lived in Heavitree in Exeter, Devon, where Richard Hooker was born, sometime around Easter Sunday, in 1554. There is a statue in his honour outside the Cathedral there, set in the parish where I worshipped for five years.

Two years ago I also edited a book that appeared in time for the Lambeth Conference, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, which has a Preface by Desmond Tutu and was published by Shoving Leopard in association with Ekklesia.

In his book Anglican Identities, Rowan Williams has two very stimulating chapters on the founder - along with Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker - of Anglican theological thought. He portrays Hooker as a vital, subtle, intelligent and faithful exponent of a via media between the Reformed and Catholic traditions, resisting totalising solutions and exclusions while holding to a clear vision of the Christian message.

That is something that for me goes to the heart of what Anglicanism has to offer. Now living in Scotland, I am glad to be free of its embroilment in the corrupting state-church form (only in the Church of England now), and I find its capaciousness helpfully qualified and corrected by the discipleship, community and peace traditions of Anabaptism - a strand of Christian non-conformism which it once tried violently to suppress.

This awareness of history, together with a sense of grieving for the entrenched contemporary disagreements that need to be negotiated with theological wisdom and
generosity (rather than vitriol and top-down organisationalism), makes a turn to centralism within the Church, whatever theological clothes it wears, a matter of real concern.

Indeed, Hooker argued that church governance is one of the "things indifferent" to God, and urged the priority of the moral and religious life of believers, including those in positions of leadership. That should be a chastisement to a lot of what passes for 'sound religion' in sections of Anglicanism today.

The No Anglican Covenant coalition (also more positively entitled Anglicans for Comprehensive Unity) has therefore rooted its appeal for a different and better way in the deep and considered tradition of Hooker - not in some ephemeral claims to fashion. Of him, they write:

"Hooker is often [seen] as the father of Anglican theology. He is best known for his appeal to three authorities—scripture, reason, and tradition—often described as his 'three-legged stool.'

"Hooker was a Church of England clergyman during the reign of Elizabeth I. He died in 1600 at the age of 46, busy preparing a defence against the accusation that he did not believe all the Thirty-nine Articles. His writings were mainly directed against the views of influential Puritans promoting some of the more extreme views of the early Reformation. Because the Reformers rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, they insisted that the Bible is the only authority for Christians.

"Many Puritans, believing that revelation completely transcends human reason, argued against all interpretation of the Bible; instead, their ideology led them to believe that true Christians would find every text easy to understand and should accept every statement and obey every command. Some even argued that Christians should not perform any act that is not in the Bible, and made heroic attempts to live accordingly.

"While not disputing that the Bible contains all things necessary to salvation, Hooker argued that it also contains much that is obscure, and it does not tell us, for example, how to build houses, solve mathematical problems, or rake up straw. We learn some things from scripture but others from nature, reason, experience, and practice. In this way, he reaffirmed the essential role of reason: in judging about matters not mentioned in scripture, in interpreting scripture, and in acknowledging the authority of scripture in the first place.

"Hooker understood tradition dynamically. Most Catholics and Protestants in his day claimed to be doing exactly what the first century Church had done, and they accused each other of innovating. Hooker could see that times had changed and that it was acceptable for the Church to change also: 'The Church hath authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both do well.'

"Equally important is Hooker’s insight that God has given us not one single, infallible source of authority, but a variety that need to be balanced against each other. We need them all because none is infallible. This means that when we face the challenges of our own day, we do not simply look up answers inherited from the past, but apply our faith in creative ways, sometimes producing genuinely new insights. His Puritan opponents would have given us a church that was always seeking to recreate the past and opposed everything new; Hooker taught that God’s gifts of scripture and reason can produce new insights in every age and contribute to an ever-developing, constantly renewed tradition."

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