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Judicious fight for the faith

11 July 2014

Anglicans should pay Hooker the tribute of study, says Paul Avis

Richard Hooker and the Vision of God: Exploring the origins of "Anglicanism"
Charles Miller
James Clarke £25

IF WE can read only one Anglican theologian, it should unquestionably be Richard Hooker. When he died in 1600, he had certainly never heard of "Anglicanism". But he had laid the foundations of the Anglican understanding of the Church in his great work Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity.

Hooker is difficult to read, even for those who love Shakespeare. It takes a while to get on to his wavelength. We need guidance to inhabit his universe. If we have time to read only one sensibly sized and reasonably priced book about Hooker's thought, it should, in my view, be this one.

Because the modern Church of England suffers from acute historical amnesia, Hooker is little- known, and hardly even heard of by Church of England ordinands. But, quite apart from Hooker's substantive teaching on ecclesiology, there are (as Miller suggests) good reasons to grapple with his thought.

First, he teaches us to think theologically, always bringing specific issues back to first principles. Second, Hooker shows by example how Christians should conduct themselves in theological controversy. He was a formidable opponent, but most of us do not doubt his sincerity when he says that his desire is to find agreement in the truth with his adversaries. Third, there is the unity of theology and spirituality, of study and prayer. To read Hooker on the eucharist is to find ourselves uplifted in praise and adoration.

Hooker wrote at a time of crisis, with passion and urgency. The Elizabethan Puritans sought to demolish much of the Church of England as Hooker knew it - the liturgy, episcopacy, the Christian year, and much of the sacramental dimension (their successors succeeded briefly in the 1640s and 1650s). Hooker said he was writing so that these things might not pass away as in a dream. He knew it was a fight to the death.

Miller usually refers to those who were discontented with the Elizabethan "settlement" as "non-conformists". In spite of a rather confusing explanatory note, this usage is eccentric and misleading. The Puritan critics of the 1559 Prayer Book and of episcopacy were clergy and laity of the Established Church. They did not refuse to conform, though they did so with an ill grace. There were also many Roman Catholic "church papists" who conformed outwardly. The true Nonconformists at this time were the Separatists, a numerically minuscule group who challenged the State as well as the Church, and whose leaders paid the penalty of death or exile.

Miller provides a clear and interesting exposition of Hooker's thought, organised by prominent themes and broken down by subheadings. He has absorbedHooker's writings, and is abreast of much recent secondary literature. He normally uses John Keble's 1838/41 edition of Hooker's works, which has modern orthographyand so is reader-friendly, rather than the definitive text of theFolger Library Edition, which reproduces the original spelling, etc. Miller does not set out to break fresh ground in research or interpretation, but he captures Hooker's vision.

It was a vision shaped by the principles of rationality (through reason we can know reality, though God surpasses human knowledge), hierarchy (society should reflectthe divine order and authority), and participation, or, as we might say today, "communion", and is ultimately the vision of God, the fullest realisation of human well-being.

The Revd Professor Paul Avis is a former general secretary of the Church of England's Council for Christian Unity, Canon Theologian of Exeter Cathedral, and editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology.

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