Arthur Middleton on the life and writings of Richard Hooker and
his wide vision of the continuity and wholeness of the Church’s Tradition
Richard Hooker was born in Exeter, educated at the Grammar School and sponsored by Bishop
Jewel of Salisbury as a student at Christ Church Oxford. He was diligent in learning and piety from 1567 to 1584 as student and tutor. On marriage he left the tranquillity of the scholar’s life to be a country parish priest in Buckinghamshire before a spell as Master of the Temple (1585–91). In London he was faced with the busy life and ecclesiastical controversies of the Puritans. He worked alongside Travers, a Calvinist who opposed his theology because Hooker would not condemn Roman Catholics. Weary of the aggravation, Hooker moved to a quiet living where he could devote himself to replying to the Puritans and justifying the Church’s system.
After eighteen months at Boscombe near Salisbury the first four books of his only work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, had been written and published in 1594. In 1595 he moved to Bishopsbourne near Canterbury. Here in 1597 the fifth book was published but the last three were left in manuscript and not published until after his death three years later.
His response to Puritan narrowness which saw the Bible as a handbook of regulations for everything in life and religion was to elucidate a much wider and realistic understanding of divine law. God was Creator as well as Redeemer. The harmony and purpose in the natural order are expressions of the divine Reason which lies behind Scripture and the decrees of Church Councils, emanating from God himself and found in the lives of all his creatures. God’s revelation comes to us in various ways and our reason and conscience arrives at knowledge of God’s will by ‘a number of concurrent means and faculties.’
To say that the Church has autonomy in many things is not to undermine the supremacy of Scripture, because it is reasonable to expect that the Church will have an authority over its own life enabling it to decree rites and ceremonies. He asserts the continuity of the Church of England as part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and therefore certain customs, orders, rites, and ecclesiastical government will continue, admitting that as in nature some laws are immutable so too are some positive laws.
Hooker is less universally acceptable to some Anglicans, where he denies the necessity of episcopal ordination in cases of ‘inevitable necessity’. In this he tends to reflect the generally inadequate conceptions of his age. A later generation of theologians and patristic scholars had to stress that in the three-fold ministry we have an historic guaranteed transmission of ministerial authority and sacramental grace that it is of the esse of the Church.
In Book V, the Church is not primarily a ‘visible society of men’, nor is the notion of a mystical body something apprehensible in ‘our minds by intellectual conceit’; here the Church and Sacrament become really and truly one.
Hooker understood and expounded the sacraments as major instruments through which we are incorporated into the mystical body of Christ: ‘Through them ‘the medicine that doth cure the world’ – God in Christ – was distributed to members of Christ’s body.’ Through Christ’s presence in the sacrament, God’s causative presence in the world was transformed into his saving presence in the Church. So for Hooker, the grace of the sacraments is the last link in a series whose terminus is the participation of the saints in the life of God.
Hooker’s firm grasp of Catholic doctrine, his wholehearted adherence to its principles and his lucid exposition of the same undoubtedly preserved the Church of England from embracing a merely negative and destructive Protestantism and paved the way for that church revival on sound traditional lines. Throughout Hooker there is that wide vision of the continuity and wholeness of the Church’s Tradition, for the transmission of certain living qualities of faith and order which link the present Church with the Primitive Church, being at once the assurance and norm of catholicity. ND