Arthur Middleton warns that if we tamper with God’s gift of episcopacy we risk losing the means of our salvation

John Keble and the Tractarians were rooted deeply in continuity with the past and possessed a strong sense of the sanctity of order and tradition, seeing the shallow and self-confident rationalism of Liberalism as supremely distasteful. Keble’s father introduced him to the wide-mindedness and sanctified divinity of the great seventeenth-century Anglican divines with its roots in the early Fathers.

Divine appointment

In 1835 Keble edited the Works of Hooker. Hooker’s ‘resolution to make the best of things as they were, and to censure as rarely and as tenderly as possible what he found established by authority’ affected him and deepened Keble’s own character. From Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity he learned that episcopal authority rested on divine appointment, yet the acute situation of his time compelled him to make qualifications.

This became impossible after the fuller vindication of episcopacy in the Ignatian epistles by Archbishop Ussher. Keble wrote to Froude: ‘I am more and more satisfied that Richard was in most things a middle term between Laud and Cranmer, but nearer the former; and also that he was in a transition state when he was taken from us, and there is no saying how much nearer he might have got to Laud, if he had lived twenty years longer.’

Saving the Church

Hooker’s reverent treatment of the deepest doctrines, his faith in the reality of sacramental grace, his sense of the quasi-sacramental value of all Church usages, his treatment of fast and festival and of church property as all being expressions of man’s sacrifice to God, seemed to Keble God’s chief instrument for saving the Church from Rationalism in the sixteenth century.

Keble’s concern was for the perils of the nineteenth-century Church of England and hoped that Hooker’s Polity might awaken the Church of England to a sense of that danger, by focusing their attention on the primitive Church and its faith and order as the ark of refuge divinely appointed for the faithful.

Another influential divine was Henry Hammond, whose holiness, charity and devoted labours impressed a tone upon his contemporaries which bore good fruit afterwards. He embodied seventeenth-century Anglicanism in the tradition of Hooker, Andrewes and Laud, illustrating the impact of the Ecclesiastical Polity in the thought of the day. These influences moulded the character of Keble’s father as a priest and through them Keble himself.

It was not conservatism or abstract tradition but the living tradition – the continuity on English soil of the Primitive Church in its apostolic faith and order that anchors it in the original events of the Gospels.This is the tradition of truth in which the apostolic teaching is not so much an unchangeable example to be repeated or imitated but an eternally living and inexhaustible source of life and inspiration.

A charismatic principle

Tradition is the constant abiding Spirit, not only the memory of words, and is therefore a charismatic not an historical principle. Together with Scripture it contains the truth of divine revelation, a truth that lives in the Church. Then theology becomes, not primarily a matter of intellectual clarity, but the union of human lives with God in the way of holiness. This is saving life, salvation-life. And so Keble’s poem, ‘Blest are the Pure in Heart’. Purity must precede vision as vision must precede theology; the climax of purity is the threshold of theology.

No wonder Keble was outraged when the government abolished six Irish bishoprics. His objection was theological, not political. Bishops were a divine institution, God’s gift to his Church and not man-made. We cannot tamper with God’s gifts. Episcopacy is the guarantor of the Church’s sacramental order and to tamper with it is to risk losing the means of our salvation, the saving life.