By Eric Tuttle

Today we commemorate Richard Hooker. In the words of today’s collect, he arose “in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning the great charity of the catholic and reformed religion.” I want to consider how the “great charity” of holding the Catholic and Reformed streams together uniquely shapes the Episcopal Church’s ability to engage in ecumenical dialogue. More specifically, I want to explore how Hooker’s argument for keeping the historic episcopacy in his day should influence questions of polity in ecumenical discussions of our own day.

Although Hooker argued for the continuation of the historic episcopacy, it is not clear that he gave an unqualified defense of the episcopacy for all times and places. Yet in the preface to his 19th century collection of Hooker’s Works, John Keble enshrined Hooker’s reputation as the great defender of the historic episcopacy. Keble wrote that although “on the whole, it should seem that where he speaks so largely of the mutability of church laws, government, and discipline,” the actual substance of Hooker’s views were that the “episcopacy grounded on apostolic succession was of supernatural origin and divine authority” (lxxiv–lxxv). In other words, although Hooker entertained the possibility of reform, in Keble’s interpretation, when it came to the question of the historic episcopacy, Hooker spoke only from the Catholic stream and argued that bishops were instituted by divine law.

This reading of Hooker has entered our collective Anglican identity to the point that the fourth article of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral is often taken to mean that other churches must adopt the historic episcopacy before we can enter into full communion with them. If, following Keble’s interpretation of Hooker, the historic episcopacy is of supernatural origin, it is essential to what it means to be the church and it would be unthinkable to enter into communion with a church lacking such a polity. But this a priori insistence has made ecumenical discussions more difficult than they need to be. Taking a second look at Richard Hooker will, I think, help us move ecumenical discussions forward, following in his spirit of “great charity.”

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First, we need to look at Hooker’s understanding of law and polity, which he lays out in his main work, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. For Hooker, a law assigns the appropriate means for achieving an end (I.2.1-4). Although Hooker offers several different kinds of law (the Eternal law being primary), the one that concerns us here is what he calls natural law. Natural law orders and guides the agency of all creatures, directing them towards their ends (I.15.3). For humans, this law is discovered by reason. If this is the point where Reformed theologians have the most trouble stomaching Hooker, it is perhaps because they misunderstand what he means by reason. Reason is not some magical intuition that allows humans to discover messages hidden about God throughout the world. Instead, reason is simply the ability to give an account—a reason—for why you are doing something. If I were to ask you why you are reading an article on Covenant right now, you may respond that you want to learn more about Richard Hooker or that you want to know where this argument will lead. We always give a reason for our actions relative to some end, or relative to our intention for that action. Acting in accordance with reason, then, is being able to give an account of how my actions are leading me towards an end. The end of an action is what orders and limits that action—or put differently, the end is what determines the law by which that action takes place.

This means that the end of a law is what matters, rather than the exact temporal shape of that law. In an important chapter for this article (III.10), Hooker examines the changeability of laws. He says that if the suitability of a law is determined by its aptness for achieving an end, when the end of a law is known to us, we are in a place to judge its ongoing suitability for achieving that end. If the intended end of a law ceases to exist, Hooker says, there would be little sense in continuing to enforce such a law (III.10.1) In the same way, even if the end remains, if the means for achieving that end changes, the law may likewise change (III.10.3).

As an illustration of what Hooker is getting at here, consider traffic lights. The intention or end of traffic lights is to ensure safe and efficient traffic patterns. However, if someday all cars are self-driven, there would no longer be need for traffic lights in order to achieve safe and efficient traffic patterns. The cars would presumably all communicate with each other to safely and efficiently navigate intersections. There would be no reason for traffic lights, and in fact they would impede efficiency. The end of a law is what matters and determines the law’s ongoing temporal shape.

With this framework in mind, we can turn to Hooker’s debate with the Puritans over keeping the historic episcopacy. Because the Church is concerned with joining humanity to God, the authority of its laws comes from their ability to direct people towards God (III.9.2). The Church’s laws, when established as properly ordered towards God, are taken as binding on the community. The Church’s historical decision to use an episcopal form of polity, then, holds great weight for Hooker. The community does not have the autonomy to recreate itself, but rather finds itself already within an ecclesial context. The church is, in a sense then, bound to its previous decision to have an episcopal form of polity, even if at one point this was not the only possible decision nor was it mandated by Scripture.

Think again of our traffic light illustration. Suppose that a traffic light is installed at an intersection where there just as easily could have been a traffic circle. The decision to use the traffic light is initially somewhat arbitrary, but once the decision is made, it becomes binding on the vehicles going through that intersection. One cannot presume to use a traffic light as a traffic circle and expect the same result. Hooker is basically saying the same thing about the historic episcopacy. At one point in time, it was an intentional decision to concentrate episcopal oversight in the single pastoral personality of a bishop. The Church could just as easily have adopted a more conciliar approach to exercising this same episcopal oversight. But once this structure was in place for the English Church, it became binding, and so the Puritans were not justified in wanting to abolish the historic episcopacy.

But what does Hooker’s framework mean for new churches founded outside of England? Say, for example, in the new republic called the United States? This could be an entire article in itself, but the most important thing to point out here is that the American Episcopal Church also made a historically contingent decision to retain the historic episcopacy. In fact, as is clear from William White’s The Case of the Episcopal Church in the United States Considered, the exact shape of the American episcopacy was an open question at one point. If White’s plan had been carried out in its entirety, bishops would have had a much smaller role in the American Episcopal Church than they do today. This fact alone should give us pause when insisting that other churches adopt the historic episcopacy just like we did. The American Episcopal Church is not the Roman Catholic Church nor is it the Church of England. If we want to follow Richard Hooker’s framework, this historical particularity matters a great deal. To demand that other churches adopt the historic episcopacy is like suggesting that because one intersection uses a traffic circle, all intersections with traffic lights need to be remodeled to have traffic circles before the roads can be connected.

Rather than an a priori insistence that other churches adopt the historic model of the episcopacy, we need to learn to ask more interesting questions of their existing structures. How and to what extent does a church’s existing polity reach the same ends that the historic episcopacy reaches? How does another church’s polity tangibly reflect that church’s participation in the apostolic succession of the catholic Church? How does that church’s polity provide oversight and pastoral guidance for individual local churches?

Notice that all these questions are about the function or intention of episcopal oversight rather than a simple comparison to the historic model of the episcopacy as expressed through bishops. Answering these questions within particular ecumenical discussions will not be a simple task. It will mean an ongoing process of mutual discernment and prayer. But the “great charity” of Hooker’s theology means keeping these questions open long enough for creative solutions to emerge through that process of prayer and discernment.

If we follow Hooker’s example, any a priori demand for another church to adopt the historic episcopacy is misguided and, dare I say, unreasonable. Instead, we need to ask what ends the historic episcopacy was instituted to reach and evaluate other church polities accordingly. This, I think, is what it means to defend “the great charity of the catholic and reformed religion.” It is to love and value the tradition of the Church so much that we are willing to leave its questions open to further discovery and interpretation, holding on to this tradition as something that both shapes us and continues to be shaped by us.

Eric Tuttle recently finished an M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary and is currently a postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of New Jersey, studying for ordination at General Theological Seminary.

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