By Calvin Lane

During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when many of us turn our attention to the twin subjects of ecumenism and ecclesiology, it is helpful to hear a variety of voices on the nature of the church, especially pertaining to baptism.

Placing baptism at the center of this conversation has been de rigueur in the Episcopal Church since the twentieth-century liturgical movement, and I hasten to add a very good thing. God welcomes us by his grace into the Body of Christ through the waters of baptism, waters which both drown sin and propel us into second birth. God constitutes for himself a new people in the common font and then the common table.

In short, when we think about ecclesiology, baptism ought to be a big part of the conversation. Nevertheless, Anglican thinking about baptism and its relationship to the nature of the church has varied, and I have written in several places about the problem of isolating and lifting up one voice as normative for the Anglican tradition. Even with such caveats in mind, it is still salutary to hear from the judicious Richard Hooker who, in his Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, went rather helpfully to the subject of baptism in his thinking about the nature of the church.

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In Book III of the Lawes, Hooker begins with a chapter on defining the church, and the bulk of the conversation is on baptism. Anchoring his reflections in Ephesians 4:5, the unity of the church around one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, Hooker distinguishes between the visible church and the invisible church. On this subject, we can easily categorize Hooker among Reformed theologians (cf. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 1).

Christ’s Body, Hooker argues, is spiritual and the members of this body are known only to God. However, the duties of the church outlined in Scripture belong to a visibly discernable community, and the visible church must be united in core doctrine. Here, and a bit later, is where Hooker pushes hard on the limits of what we think of as membership in the visible church. All baptized persons are members of the church, and that even includes excommunicated heretics who, Hooker explains, are still members, though “maimed.”  Here Hooker, predictably, reminds readers of Christ’s parables about the net with many different sea creatures, not all of which are fish, and the field in which both wheat and tares grow (Matthew 13:47 and 12:34). These were standard texts for early and medieval Christians to reference when thinking about the nature of the church. This leads Hooker to a discussion of the heresy of Donatism and also how the church has always been present even through the worst of medieval superstition. Christ’s church abides!

All the foregoing is to be expected of a late 16th-century Reformed theologian. However, in the second half of this chapter, Hooker gets really interesting and, I believe, helpful for our contemporary ecumenical reflections. We dare not, Hooker writes, participate in the grievous “abominations” of Roman idolatry, but that does not mean, he insists, that Roman Catholic Christians are not part of the church. On the contrary, Hooker continues, “we gladly acknowledge them to be of the family of Jesus Christ,” and then he prays for reformation among Roman Catholics in the specific hope of eventual reunion. Much like Luther, who, despite calling the pope antichrist, did not deny the presence of the church among Roman Catholics, Hooker was unwilling to “un-church” Rome (as many Protestant theologians of the late 16th-century confessional era regrettably did).

His conversation then returns, again, to baptism, and he wades into some hypothetical casuistry about the suitability of baptizing the children of parents with dubious faith credentials, specifically Roman Catholics. Disagreeing with both John Calvin and John Knox but agreeing with certain other Reformed theologians, Hooker writes that wherever the Christian faith is not completely extinct (including, to use his idiom, among papists and heretics) the children should be welcomed to the font. He writes, “forasmuch as men remain in the visible church, till they utterly renounce the profession of Christianity, we may not deny unto infants their right by withholding from them the public sign of holy baptism.”

This is a lesson for us when the most random of would-be “Christian” parents show up on our doorsteps seeking baptism for their child. To be sure, we ought to engage in rigorous pre-baptismal preparation sessions, including serious conversations about actively raising Christian children in the church. Yet Hooker’s words here guide us away from denying the sacrament altogether.

Hooker’s approach in this casuistical exercise defaults to generosity and grace, and this posture has clear implications for the nature of the church: the boundaries are set very wide. He goes on to say that even heresy, gross sin, and consequent excommunication do not completely sever one from the visible church, though they could exclude one from participation in worship. And the church itself is much more than liturgical assemblies — it is, he explains, a society. Certainly, the church assembles for teaching, breaking bread, and the prayers (per the example of the apostles), but when an assembly finishes its work, it dissolves. The church, though, does not dissolve at the dismissal. Rather, he writes, the church is a society that exists even outside its assemblies.

Hooker here offers a brilliant metaphor, one that may be much more helpful in our ecumenical reflections than the Tractarian “Branch Theory” of the 19th century. He writes, “As the main body of the sea being one, yet within divers precincts hath divers names; so the Catholic Church is in like sort divided into a number of distinct Societies, every one of which is termed a Church within itself.” In other words, while we might speak of the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Artic, the Indian, the Mediterranean, etc., in truth, water flows around the globe and the boundaries between such oceans and seas exist mostly on our maps. Now, that doesn’t mean that navigating around Cape Horn is the same thing as negotiating icebergs, or that sailing the Suez Canal is the same thing as negotiating the Bering Strait. The differences between seas, much like the differences in our churches, do matter. But the waters still flow.

I think I particularly like this nautical language because, whether Hooker intended it or not, we can’t miss the echo of baptismal waters, waters that unite us as Christ’s one Body just as the waters of this globe form one great ocean. Yes, there may be hurricanes, typhoons, algal blooms, and even mountains of plastic floating around. And calm waters may be few and far between. But the ocean is still one. So too the church (Ephesians 4:5).

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane is associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio, affiliate professor of church history at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of history at Wright State University in Dayton.

 

 

About The Author

Calvin Lane is associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio, affiliate professor of church history at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of history at Wright State University in Dayton.

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