Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 4th November 2012

4 November 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

In the Church of England’s book of services known as Common Worship there is a Calendar, where many days of the year are assigned to particularly significant people. Included in the lists are those who are officially recognised by the whole church as saints, but there are also some, particularly those who lived after the Reformation, who were not declared saints by the church as a whole but who are nonetheless recognised as worthy people who made a major contribution to the life of the church in their age. I want to use the three Sundays I have this month for addresses at matins to consider three of those whose days are in November in that Calendar.

Yesterday was set aside to remember one who was very significant in the early days of the Church of England after the break from Rome and whose influence extended well beyond his own times. Richard Hooker was born in Devon in 1554. His family, who were neither noble nor particularly wealthy, sent the young Richard to school at Exeter Grammar School from where he went on to Corpus Christi College Oxford. At the age of 23 he became a fellow of that College and was ordained two years later.

He came into public prominence when he preached at St Paul’s Cross, which was an open air pulpit in the churchyard of the old St Paul’s Cathedral later destroyed in the Great Fire of London. St Paul’s Cross was a sort of speakers’ corner of its day, where public controversy on matters of religion was allowed. There Hooker protested about certain aspects of the Puritans who were prominent in London at the time, particularly disagreeing with their doctrine of predestination, the notion that God had somehow decided in advance who would or would not be saved.

That set him off on the path of opposition to Puritanism, and it became greater when, in 1585 at the age of only 31, he was appointed Master of the Temple Church by Queen Elizabeth, which is the church set in the midst of the Inns of Court and with a particular relationship with the legal world. There Hooker found a reader who was a staunch puritan, and it says much for both Hooker and his opponent, Walter Travers, that while they disagreed theologically they retained a personally warm relationship, illustrating the tolerance that was a mark of Hooker’s approach to ecclesiastical controversy.

Hooker argued strongly for what became known as the Anglian Via Media, or middle way, although that was not a phrase used by him personally. He pursued it not because he was a natural compromiser, but because he wanted a wide and open understanding of the Christian faith that could incorporate with respect those who held different views. For him it was a way between Roman Catholicism on the one hand and Puritanism on the other. One of the sources of major conflict between Catholics and Puritans at the time was how anyone could be saved, was it by the grace of God alone, as Puritanism taught, or was the Roman recognition of what was called ‘good works’ to have any say? Hooker, in conformity with official Anglican doctrine in the 39 Articles of Religion, believed that salvation was only by the grace of God alone, but he did not believe that you were predestined, that is only chosen by God to believe that, and neither did he think that the absence of that official belief in Roman Catholicism prevented the possibility of salvation for Roman Catholics. In the religious intolerance of the sixteenth century his was a remarkable example of broadmindedness.

It was probably as a consequence of his controversy with Travers that Hooker decided to embark on his major work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. It was a major work, both in length - it went into 8 volumes, although the last three were published after his death and may not have been entirely his own work - but it was also major in influence. The influence was not immediate in his lifetime, he died in 1600 at the age of 46, but subsequently his thought has been profoundly significant for Anglican thinking. At least four elements stand out.

First, the tolerance that he showed in his dispute with Travers extended as a major theme of his work. He distinguished between those things that he thought were essential to Christian faith and those that were matters of indifference, and on the latter he allowed that tradition and reason both had a part to play in deciding what was sensible for a church as well as what scripture might say. So on the much discussed issue of the time on whether Bishops were needed in the church, which debate divided Catholics from Puritans, he concluded that they were desirable in the context of England but he arrived at that conclusion as much from an examination of English church history as from any ideological belief that it was laid down by God. That paved the way for him to have reasonable relations with those from other churches who had not embraced Bishops.

Secondly, his emphasis that matters in Anglicanism were to be decided by the use of reason and tradition as well as by reference to scripture put him in opposition to much Puritan thinking of the time, where the emphasis on the Bible was far more exclusive. He recognised that in all sorts of matters the use of a God-given mind reflecting on Christian experience, as well as the valuing of the traditions of the church, should always be carefully considered before a sensible judgment on any matter was reached. So when, for example, much after his life towards the end of the nineteenth century some aspects of science were challenging traditional approaches to the Bible on matters like the first few chapters of Genesis Hooker’s emphasis on the importance of reason was of great value. And when it came to the role of Bishops he was quite happy to allow the traditions of the church to have their part of play as well as reason and scripture.

Thirdly, he disliked the undue emphasis put on preaching in the Puritan tradition. He held that properly ordered worship and the regular saying of prayers in the context of moderate ritual was as much a vital part of Christian practice as listening to preachers. For the Church of England he saw that as being maintained by the Book of Common Prayer of which he was a great defender.

Fourthly, and perhaps more fundamentally he believed that God was to be discovered through the whole experience of creation and not just the revelation of scripture. In the second volume of his Ecclesiastical Polity he wrote of how wisdom was to be discovered, and as in scripture, wisdom is described by him as feminine. ‘Some things’ he wrote ‘she openeth by the sacred books of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature: with some things she inspireth them from above by spiritual influence, in some things she leadeth and traineth them only by worldly experience and practice.’ His was essentially a large and open vision of a world in which God was to be discovered in all sorts of ways, in the Bible certainly, but in other things as well.

In all four of those things Hooker has left a profound influence on the Church of England, and he was probably the first and greatest exponent of what would today be described as Anglicanism. He died 412 years ago yesterday. It is surely right that the church continues to remember him with respect and with gratitude.

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