HOMILY at MORNING PRAYER and at the 10h30 MASS for the THIRD SUNDAY in LENT (A) 2017
Anglicanism and the Reformation
III Another trinity – Scripture, Tradition and Reason in the Anglican method
Today’s two readings at Morning Prayer – from the prophet Amos and from S. Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth – remind us of the difficulties and dangers of trying to facilitate communications between God and humanity! Amos is a foreigner – he comes from Judah and is now prophesying in an elite shrine – Beth-el – in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The priest of Beth-el, no doubt an influential figure, warns him off. Go back home you Seer (in itself probably a term of insult) and prophesy there! And be warned, I have marked your card with the King (Jeroboam II – whom, apparently, Amos has spoken against). Amos responds by citing his background. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamores. The latter task involved piercing the immature fruit of these mulberry figs in order to produce sweet and ripe fruit. But Amos had been called from producing sweetness to uttering words of judgement. It’s always easier to do the former! And in the second reading, the beginning of a letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul speaks of the suffering which must inevitably come to the faithful followers of Christ. He goes on to illustrate this with a personal experience of something terrible that happened to him in Asia, perhaps in Ephesus where we know he was imprisoned. Things, however, were so bad that he doubted he would survive – and, he goes on, it is only thanks to God that he did. The God who consoles us in our suffering.
We are continuing this morning to think about our Anglican heritage and its relationship to the history of the Reformation. Just as Amos found, and just as Paul found, so it is that in every generation, controversies arise, disagreements and worse, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, these difficulties are faced, new insight is achieved, and doctrine develops. Anyone who thinks that the Church of New Testament times was all sweetness and light has only to read the letters of Paul to discover how false such a picture is! And that wasn’t just Paul’s fault, either! Together Christian people have always had to wrestle with difficulties and disagreements. The time of the Reformation was no different in that respect, nor are our own times.
From the sixteenth century, and before, various names stand out as formative figures in Anglicanism. But it is impossible….
The Gospel reading which we have just heard – long as it was – is enormously significant (in the fullest sense of that word). And the first significance is the place where it happened. At a well. Jacob’s well, in fact. And in the history of Israel, significant things happened at wells – Abraham’s servant met Rebecca and procured her as wife for Isaac, Jacob met Rachel, Moses met Zipporah and her sisters. Clearly, the well was a place for wooing a potential spouse.
More significance unfolds when we read the Gospel for today in conjunction with the first reading. Two kinds of life-giving water appear. One from the rock at Horeb. The other a spiritual living water of life, and the giver Christ our Lord.
So what do we make of these stories? The meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman certainly had an impact. Maybe there is a suggestion that Jesus is wooing the Samaritans to true faith. When his disciples catch up with Jesus they are certainly concerned about something inappropriate going on. But this meeting produces results – the woman goes off to the village and tells others about the man she has met at the well. And, we’re told, plenty are converted and follow him. Like the woman, they discover in Christ what they have been thirsting for. The one who will slake that thirst with the living water of new life.
That living stream continues to flow down the ages through the life of the Church. Opening up opportunities for us to meet with the Risen Christ. Being refreshed by the water of true life which we discover in him.
We are continuing to think about our Anglican part of that Church, and our specifically Anglican heritage, and the way in which it came into being – the way in which it continues to provide an opportunity for these meetings with the Risen Christ. And last week we thought a little of how important in the mission of that Church is the work of theology – of expressing what Christ is and does in and through our human intellects and understandings.
And it is impossible to think about Anglicanism, and particularly the forces that formed it, and above all about Anglican theology, without mention of the name of Richard Hooker, who lived in the second half of the sixteenth century, from around 1554 up to 1600. His Treatise on the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is probably of its time the most accomplished and profound interpretation of Anglicanism, and as a noted Anglican scholar of the present day, Paul Avis, writes Hooker is the primary architect of an enduring Anglican ecclesiology – an idea of the Church of England that is neither torn from its pre-Reformation roots nor a muted echo of the Continental Reformers.
Others have said that Hooker is probably the most accomplished advocate that Anglicanism has ever had. Even though this is unlikely, his influence has been enormous.
Even if I had the ability to do it, I would not attempt to give you some kind of summary of the five books of this enormous work that Hooker published in his lifetime, with their detailed and complex arguments. Such is their scope, that they are endorsed by those of all shades of churchmanship – Catholic, Evangelical and Broad. And that should not surprise us, for Hooker’s objectives included the unifying of these differing perspectives within the Church of England. But this could not be at the expense of the denial of any single one of them. The Church of England is Catholic and Reformed, recognisable to both parties but identified with neither to the exclusion of the other.
Hooker began his great defence of the Church of England as he recovered from a bruising and difficult time as the Master of Temple Church in London beginning in 1585. When appointed, he inherited as Lecturer at the Temple a Calvinist preacher, Walter Travers, who had received Presbyterian orders in Antwerp. Eventually Travers was dismissed by Archbishop Whitgift on the grounds that he would not receive Episcopal Ordination in the Church of England. However, Travers and his followers made Hooker’s life a complete misery. Though it was to be out of this misery that the great work of Hooker’s life came. At the Temple, Hooker was forced first into controversy with Travers, and after his dismissal, with Travers’ Calvinist followers.
Calvinism motivated the Puritans in England at the time, and the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity started life as a justification for the three-fold order of ministry within the Church of England, of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. But Hooker went much further than that. He looked at things much more radically, in the true sense of going back to the roots. So in a discussion of the sacraments and sacramental practice in the Church of England, Hooker begins with a lengthy discussion of the person of Christ. Sacraments exist to further our union with God, and we cannot discuss that without first thinking about the union of God with humanity in Christ. He writes – in this section on the sacraments it seemeth requisite that we first consider how God is in Christ, then how Christ is in us, and how the Sacraments do serve to make us partakers of Christ. He goes on to give a summary of the teaching of the Church Fathers on the Person of Christ, designed to show that the incarnation is not just saying something nice about Jesus, but the ground for a renewal by God of the whole human race.
There is always in Hooker a concern to express the priority of God and God’s grace in all things.
More than this, Hooker is one of the first to adopt a new approach to theological thinking. A new method of theology, which was to become distinctively Anglican – right down to the present time. This method is one that embraces three authorities – those of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Hooker – for all his prolific writings – did not write anything comparable to Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, or Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. And there is – to this day – no specifically Anglican corpus of doctrine. Anglicanism is not committed to believing anything because it is Anglican but only because it is true. As we have seen already during this Lent, that can lead to problems, but in reality this Anglican method liberates us from the tyranny imposed by any one of the three identified authorities working alone.
So for Hooker, Tradition on its own is not enough. Reason on its own is not enough. Scripture on its own is not enough. We need to attend, in our theological thinking, to all three together. And this is the distinctive Anglican method of theology that Hooker first lays before us.
Hooker’s time was one of great upheaval, in Church, in politics, in society and in education. The dawn of science was breaking. In the early medieval period, faith sought understanding, and Christian faith had resorted to the understanding of the philosophy of Aristotle. But with increasing scientific knowledge, faith’s dialogue with reason had to take another step. Scriptural authority is undeniable, but is not immune from the critique of rational thinking. Although he perhaps did not foresee this, Hooker paved the way for future Biblical Criticism which was to impact upon the Church from the late nineteenth century onwards. A criticism that, far from undermining scriptural authority, enhances its true authority as a tool of human witness to God’s prior action in Christ.
Similarly, Tradition must never be a tyrannical force in Christian living, but in dialogue with Reason and Scripture enables us to discern the providence and care of the living God in Christ – with us in the past and present life of his Pilgrim People. Unlike many of the Reformers, Hooker’s approach to Tradition was a conservative one. Unless what was received through the life of the Church could be seen to be contrary to God’s revelation in Christ, then there was no need to reject it and every rason to continue to learn from it and preserve it.
Centuries on, we probably don’t appreciate very much just how revolutionary Hooker’s contribution to the Anglican theological method proved to be. In the sixteenth century when he lived, Scriptural authority (based upon authoritative interpretation, either by the Church or by one of the giants of the Reformation) reigned. It was very much a pre-critical authority! Until the very end of the sixteenth century, everyone held a pre-scientific cosmology. The unexpected or improbable was accounted for by reference to magic, witchcraft or malign spirits. And the English Church of Hooker’s day was rife with controversy, the Puritan movement inspired by Calvin (and aided by some of the returning Marian exiles who had been part of the Anglican congregation here in this city!) was intent upon stern reforms which would have left the Church unrecognisable, and with a grace-less gospel.
Hooker gave the shape to the reformed English Church. Whilst he shared wholeheartedly the Reformation insights of free unmerited grace, he vindicated the Church of England’s continuity with the Church of the medieval period, of the early Fathers and of the Apostles. He loved the Church, and it was the Church that occupied his writings.
Yet not for the sake of the Church. Only because the Church was (and is) the Way to Christ, the means of Christ, and expressive of the truth of Christ. The Church is the place of meeting with the Risen Christ in whom springs up the stream of life-giving water, to cleanse, heal, revive, refresh and enable.
Today, in our post-modern world, there is much suspicion of the Church as an intrusive and unnecessary institution. Perhaps we need a new Richard Hooker? Or perhaps rather we need – as Anglicans – to demonstrate how to be Church. To be a place of safe dialogue in which the participants are indeed Scripture, Tradition and Reason. And all that we may be wooed at the well of life by the Risen Lord. Not always a comfortable trio. But one that enables us to discern the Word of Life, if not sweetness and light.