By Christopher Wells

I come now, in my column series (part one; part two), to Richard Hooker, whose monumental Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) has remained foundational for Anglican thinking about the Church. Downstream of the first generation of Anglican Reformers, Hooker cannot simply evoke the corruptions of Rome and stipulate the authenticity of the nascent Church of England. Following any period of institutional upheaval must come a time of reconstruction and reordering, and careful, well-communicated thought is necessary if reforms are to be received.

For Hooker, this meant setting the Church of England within a wider, recognizably catholic ecclesiology, at once ancient and accountable to the cultural constraints of English society, subject to the crown. He presents, therefore, a Church of England as the normal vehicle of Christian formation in one place, properly established to this end, over against other contenders — not only Rome but also Geneva in Puritan guise. In this way, Hooker paints on a larger canvas than John Jewel, and bequeaths to Anglicans, even outside England, a set of questions that remain unavoidable.

Seeing a need for maximal breadth, Hooker repairs to Augustine in order to ask and answer the primary, pre-denominational question of the nature of the one Church, her character and features. First and fundamentally, says Hooker, the Church is a single “body mystical” that incubates would-be disciples who seek to develop a sound and sincere love that comes, in the words of St. Paul, from “a pure heart and a good conscience and a faith unfeigned” (1 Tim. 1:5). At this level, the Church is hidden and invisible, a mystery, and only God can pronounce on the state of each person. At the same time, the Church has duties, and here we pass into the realm of visible verifiability, what Hooker calls “a sensibly known company.” This “visible Church” is likewise singular, and enjoys moreover a “uniformity” of faith, as all her members, according to Scripture, profess one faith, one Lord, one baptism (all from Laws III.i.1-2; see Keble’s edn., revised by Church and Paget: Oxford, 1888).

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Thirdly, however, simply naming our belief in Christ does not prove us to be Christians “unless we also embrace that faith,” and here Hooker comes to the ineluctable mixture within the visible Church. For many who profess faith in Christ are “impious idolaters, wicked heretics, persons excommunicable, yea, and cast out for notorious improbity.” They in fact do not belong to Christ’s mystical body. Thus, our Lord compares the Church on earth to a field, writes Hooker, where “tares manifestly known and seen by all men do grow intermingled with good corn, and even so shall continue till the final consummation of the world. God hath had ever and ever shall have some [such] Church visible upon earth.” We find this in the Old Testament, as well, wherein the “people of God” wend their way through calf worship, brazen serpents, the gods of other nations, Baals, and on and on. But because they retained “the law of God and the holy seal of his covenant,” they remained “the sheep of his visible flock…, even in the depth of their disobedience and rebellion” (III.i.5-8). Likewise, where St. Cyprian’s second Council at Carthage (in 256) supposed that “baptism administered by men of corrupt belief” could not be accounted as a sacrament, the Nicene Council would come to a different conclusion (III.i.9).

On all counts, Christians must be prepared to adjudicate between “parts of the Church,” concludes Hooker, recognizing that from the beginning, each has not always been “equally sincere and sound.” Thus, Judah is more faithful than Israel; or, in St. Paul’s time, the church in Rome has more integrity than those in Corinth and Galatia.

Christians in the Church of England certainly hope, writes Hooker, “that to reform ourselves, if at any time we have done amiss, is not to sever ourselves from the Church we were of before. In the Church we were, and we are so still.” But this must be true of others, as well — the Lutherans, for instance, and even the Church of Rome, with which the Church of England can still seek to “hold fellowship,” insofar as it “lawfully may” (III.i.10). And here Hooker comes to a fascinating point, drawing the opposite conclusion of his Puritan interlocutors — and of Jewel:

Even as the Apostle doth say of Israel that they are in one respect enemies but in another beloved of God (Rom. 11:28), in like sort with Rome we dare not communicate concerning sundry her gross and grievous abominations, yet touching those main parts of Christian truth wherein they constantly still persist, we gladly acknowledge them to be of the family of Jesus Christ; and our hearty prayer unto God Almighty is, that being conjoined so far forth with them, they may at the length (if it be his will) so yield to frame and reform themselves, that no distraction remain in any thing, but that we “all may with one heart and one mouth glorify God the Father of our Lord and Saviour” (Rom. 15:6), whose Church we are.  (III.i.10)

Hooker has traveled some distance beyond St. Augustine’s more clearly demarcated end point — to wit, return to the Catholic Church that you may be saved. Perhaps he has even wandered off the path, insofar as Hooker imagines, as Augustine did not, the possibility of multiple parts of the Church sharing a common identity and location in the one body. Hooker’s picture is biblical, displaying and commending pursuit of unity with other Christians in other places and jurisdictions, to the extent that we see ourselves as bound to them in a single family, as he says. Moreover, since we share the “main parts of Christian truth” (III.i.10), we all may seek the same end, albeit by various means in sundry locales. In each of these ways, Hooker presumes and applies the Augustinian dialectic of visibility and invisibility, set within a horizon of God’s sure sifting and just judgment. A principled, historically verifiable permeability has appeared around the edges of the Church, which consists of plural churches — each given a name “betokening severalty, as the Church of Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, England, and so the rest” (III.i.14); each, therefore, reckoned to be a reputable “part of the house of God” and “limb of the visible Church of Christ,” as he will say later, in direct reference to Rome (V.lxviii.9).

There are questions here for Anglicans certainly, and for ecumenical Christians thinking along similar lines, including Roman Catholics who may note resonances avant la lettre with Vatican II’s account of a singular Church incorporating multiple communities. If “the Catholic Church is … divided into a number of distinct societies, every of which is termed a church within itself,” as Hooker finally concludes (III.i.14), how to make sense of overlapping denominations in single geographic areas? — Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and many others, ensconced cheek by jowl in most corners of the world; denominations that, moreover, stretch round the world in would-be global fellowships, including an “Anglican” communion notionally centered around but no longer confined to England, something Hooker could not have foreseen.

In this case, do the various churches function as merely ecclesial societies, inculcating distinct denominational mores and byways? Is our task simply to cultivate peculiar Christian subcultures, perhaps increasingly introverted and introspective, or otherwise competitive with one another, like so many brands, left to market themselves? If so, society will have lost much of its missionary richness, evoking as it did for Hooker deep encounter with place, hence history, language, regional sins, and much more.

Similarly, what of the visible Church in such a situation? Will it have gone into hiding? Indeed, in an ecumenical age, how can various churches seeking to sing off of the old Augustinian song sheet imagine that they are somehow working together, and so faithfully profess one Lord, one faith, one baptism? With so much water under the bridge since the 16th century, what is the state of the Una Sancta today, where may she be found, and how might Anglicans, among others, serve her? I will take up these questions in the next and final installment of this series.

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation.

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation.

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C R SEITZ

It is hard to know where to place all this. Invisible; but also visible! Rome will return to the True Church, but of course that has not happened on the terms he imagined as an “English Catholic Reformed entity.” Augustine’s mixed body in one and only one Catholic Church, now re-distributed into lots of sub-communities. Hard to draw a line from Augustine to Hooker at this point. And to what degree does his understanding actually rely on the Crown and all that that implies — and which no longer is true, and certainly does not conform to anglicanism as a… Read more »