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Angela Tilby: In time of peril, look to Hooker  

03 November 2023

Chris Dorney/iStock

A statue of Richard Hooker outside Exeter Cathedral

A statue of Richard Hooker outside Exeter Cathedral

LAST week’s Church Times cover picture was a visual parable of the face of the contemporary Church of England. Instead of the altar of welcome, there is the separating desk of bureaucracy. No priest ministering the sacrament, but a smiley man in a suit. It summed up, in a well-crafted image, the current widening gap between piety and management.

Many of us who are now retired, or in other ways on the margins, recognise a quiet surge of dictatorial behaviour from our senior leaders, who, while cooing winningly about Jesus, and claiming to be Spirit-led, press ahead to amalgamate parishes, close churches, minimise pastoral care, and sack clergy, while spending millions on supposedly evangelistic initiatives, backed up by ever more diocesan posts.

Today (3 November), the Church celebrates Richard Hooker, the Church of England’s greatest theologian, whose Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was forged in the fire of pulpit battles with the Puritan Walter Travers at the Temple Church in London. Hooker realised that those who claimed that the Holy Spirit gave them “freedom” from law, order, and liturgy were deceiving themselves.

A “Spirit-driven” polity is always divisive, because it is not grounded in the providence of God and drives the Church simultaneously into anarchy and tyranny. So, today, we see anarchy in, for example, the refusal of infant baptism and the insistence on rebaptism of those baptised as infants; and tyranny in the bullying of clergy, backed up, as it often is, by compliant lawyers, HR officials, and the threat of disciplinary measures.

Hooker could never have accepted the view that the Church was a mere instrument of mission, its success counted in money and numbers. The Church cannot be reduced to a function, because it is, in essence, the mystical body of Christ, a benign gospel hierarchy, ordered by God’s providential laws, which embrace liturgy, order, and polity.

The “Jesus-centred, Spirit-filled” culture of today’s Church is thin, split between showy piety and ruthless pragmatism. The obvious manifestation of this is the abandonment of the Ordinal’s call to follow the Good Shepherd: “We don’t do pastoral,” as some have been heard to say.

But pastoral life is no optional extra. It is the core of our participation in one another. Without it, we have effectively ceased to be Trinitarian. The smiley man behind the desk has won. Hence, the promotion of bullying personalities, the silence in the face of abuse claims, the NDAs enforced on those pushed out of jobs, and, of course, the cost of reputational management.

The fault is theological at core. We need to relearn the Trinity. As a good disciple of Calvin and Melanchthon, Hooker would not have approved of the intercession of the saints. But, please, Richard Hooker, in the C of E’s time of peril and need, pray for us!

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