The following "rumination" was originally preached as the homily at a midweek Eucharist at St. Francis Church in November 2003 to commemorate the Feast of Richard Hooker, who died on this day in 1600. Those who remember recent history in TEC will remember that the fall of 2003 was a particularly "unsteady and confusing time" for many. I have slightly edited the homily and updated it to be shared in this context, but essentially it what I said then (and still believe today.)The gospel reading appointed for the day is John 17:18-23.
O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The English Reformation, from which the Anglican Church was born, didn’t have a central figure who led the charge akin to Martin Luther or John Calvin. Rather, Anglicanism grew out of both a desire, and the necessity, of finding Christ in the midst of competing and very different theologies. Some wanted the Church to remain close to Rome, while others wanted it to be more Reformed. Luther, Calvin, and the Pope all had their followings and “theological camps” in England.
The Reformation as it unfolded on English soil was therefore different from what unfolded on continental Europe. Over the course of Anglican Church history the pendulum has swung at some times toward a more catholic sensibility, and at other times toward a more protestant piety--and all the while there was no small amount of confusion and dissent. But over that extended period of time what begins to emerge is the great gift of Anglicanism: a deeper awareness that truth is mediated in and through differences, not unanimity. The “via media”, or middle-way about which we pray on this day is, at its best, “not a compromise for the sake of peace, but a comprehension for the sake of truth.”
There is no central figure for us like Luther or Calvin, but there are important leaders. Thomas Cranmer was one of them, the liturgical and linguistic genius who revised the Latin Mass and the daily prayers of the monasteries to create The Book of Common Prayer–a book to order prayer that might build up the Body of Christ rather than tear it apart into factions. That document has gone through revisions and changes over more than four centuries, but its essence remains unchanged. One can hold up that first Prayerbook, and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and see the commonalities. Still, the goal is to fashion a people after God’s own heart, a people who come from different places to one Table, a people who ask God each morning to “open our lips” not in order to gossip or lie but that our “mouths may proclaim [God’s] praise.” We pray that we might do so not only “with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to [God’s] service” and by walking always in the presence of God. (BCP 80-102)
But our praise doesn’t end with the morning office. We sing God’s praises throughout the day, at home, and work, and at play until we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes “behold the vesper light.” (BCP 118) At the end of the day we ask God for “a peaceful night, and a perfect end” and know that even if this day is our last we are prepared to die, “for these eyes of [ours] have seen the Savior whom God has prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of [God’s] people, Israel.” (BCP 127-135)
Cranmer taught us as Anglicans to pray together, even in the midst of dissent; to offer common prayer that binds us together to love and serve the Lord. It was left to people like Richard Hooker, whom we remember on this day, to reflect on what that all meant theologically: not by writing a new creed or catechism but by articulating what it means to be a praying Church.
The quote from Lesser Feasts and Fasts requires some degree of reflection, but it goes to the heart of what Hooker understood the Church to be, and just as importantly of what he knew it was not. Hooker was challenging the Puritans, a group that was to have an extraordinary influence in the new world and especially here in New England. They tended to see the congregation–the Meeting House–“the assembly” as synonymous with "the Church."
But Hooker saw (correctly I believe) that assemblies–whether liturgical or legislative–are not the right metaphor for what it means to be the Church. Rather, Hooker talked about the Church as more akin to a “Society.” Assemblies belong to the Church, but they are not the Church.
What’s his point? I think it is goes directly to the struggles we face as a Communion, as a denomination, and as a congregation. The point is that what happens in an Assembly to elect a bishop, or an Assembly to confirm a bishop, or an Assembly to ordain a bishop, or at an Assembly in Dallas or Lambeth matters a great deal. But none of them are the whole truth–-and even the sum of them is not the whole truth. Assemblies require there to be winners and losers. They resemble the political process, because they are political processes. They are necessary because faith communities do need to make decisions to the best of their ability, hopefully after much thought and prayer and with God's help. Decisions–even innocuous ones–will always lead to disagreement and to some degree of conflict.
We tend to think, on both the right and on the left, that our “Communion” is in danger. We tend to think one more Assembly might fix things. But I think Hooker would insist that we have that wrong. He would insist in the twenty-first century as he did in the sixteenth century that the Church is not ultimately an Assembly, but a Society, i.e. a mystical Body. As another great Anglican, Charles Wesley, put it: a “mystic sweet communion…a fellowship divine.”
No Assembly regardless of its ideology to the right or to the left can undo that, because that Society is a gift is of God. The Church, Hooker saw, is organized not around an ideology but a Person: the Person of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The Church is His Body for the sake of the world, not just when life is settled and calm but even in the midst of conflict and struggle. Especially then, when it may well be harder to notice.
That doesn’t make conflict go away, and it doesn't make conflict "not real." It does, however, re-frame the question. It allows us to see that the Church is bigger than all of our Assemblies. In practical terms, it means that we can (and must) co-exist with those with whom we disagree because we are all "in Christ" - like it or not. You cannot declare "victory" of one side over another and still call that "Church." It is Jesus Christ who creates the Church of which we are living members in and through Holy Baptism. Our job is to try to understand what that means, with God’s help.
Hooker’s great gift to us is to remind us we are called into that “mystic sweet communion” with God and with neighbor: not final resolutions of conflicts, but to friendship with God and one another. We are called to practices of hospitality and reconciliation more than we are called to making pronouncements.
Can truth, and peace coexist? Our collect this day insists that they can, in God. Our job is not to make them exist but to approach that reality through prayer. Our Anglican “middle way” at its best is not about political compromise, nor about being wishy-washy (although I realize we do often experience it that way.) Rather, as we have prayed: it is about authentic discernment, about a deeper comprehension of the truth that leads to a peace that passes all understanding.
Or as the reading from John’s Gospel puts it: our common prayer leads us once again to the insight that just as the Father is in Jesus, and Jesus is in the Father, so, too, is God the Holy Trinity in us. That makes us one–just as the God the Holy Trinity is one. Whether we like it or not.