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Reform from within or without? Richard Hooker on heresy in the Church

My family and I spent a week this summer in the woods, amid the spruce and fir, fresh smelling, surrounding Faraday Lake. While my son was napping, I was able to spend some long hours shut up in our cabin, or out on the porch, thinking and praying. A couple of months or so after General Synod, my mind is still buzzing; I’m continually asking myself about the future of the Anglican Communion, the Anglican Church of Canada, and what role I might play in all of this.

My natural inclination is to reach for some arguments about what it might mean to “stay” or to “leave.” But I’m tired of arguments, not because I don’t find them compelling, or their logic inexorably convincing. I suspect other people are also tired of persuasion and unconvinced by impersonal arguments.

Still, I will have to resort to some kind of argument, and perhaps a little bit of story.

I find myself within the Anglican Church of Canada for all kinds of reasons I don’t understand, and many over which I have little or no control. I would like to say that I scrupulously examined all the pertinent questions regarding what a church should be, and after years of research I had come to some kind of objective conclusion about a shimmering entity called Anglicanism.

The reality for me (and I expect for many others) is that we did some searching, and some drifting. Circumstances outside of our control pushed us this way, our friends and family another, and somehow we’ve ended up here in the Anglican church. Now we are trying to come to terms with what that means, and how to “stay.” And I trust that God’s providence has somehow infused this whole process with a whole lot of grace.

Regardless of whatever movements brought me to the Anglican Church of Canada, I’ve decided to offer myself completely to serve Christ here. It is something like being driven by the winds of young love and, somewhere along the way, deciding to make a commitment to marry a person, whether those winds continue to blow or not.

Having made this commitment to serve Christ here in this church, I discovered — or rather, I’m still discovering — that I actually believe Anglicanism (with all of its warts) is a profound and compelling expression of the Catholic faith as given in Scripture and received by the early Church. And the Anglican Church of Canada, at its best, is still a reflection of this.

Fine, you might be thinking, but if the “Church of Rome hath erred,” can’t the Anglican Church of Canada (or the Episcopal Church) err too?

Sure it can. I actually think it has. So why haven’t I departed?

Reading Richard Hooker a few years ago, I was swept away pretty quickly. One of the rather minor points he makes in “A Learned Discourse on Justification, Works, and how the Faith is Overthrown” stuck with me, to which I have returned again and again.

Hooker goes on about whether his forefathers could be saved given that they had fallen into “popish superstitions.” He refers to Revelation 18:4 (“Go out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues”), and he identifies Babylon with the sinful Church.

So if the people of God are part of sinful Babylon, what is a godly woman or man to do? Hooker suggests:

He who saith, “Depart out of Babylon lest ye be partakers of her sins,” showeth plainly that he meaneth such sins as, except we separate ourselves, we have no power in the world to avoid; such impieties as by law they have established, and whereunto all that are among them either do indeed assent or else are by powerable means forced in show and in appearance to subject themselves.

It is time to “leave” Babylon not when or because it has erred, not when sin is present, but when we can no longer keep our own hands clean. As far as I can tell, all churches or Christian bodies are sinful to some degree or another. By leaving the Anglican Church of Canada or the Episcopal Church, we are not cutting ourselves off from sin, but only from one kind of sin. Whatever group we join hands with next is going to be sinful in some way or another. Ecclesial purity, in our present state, is impossible to achieve.

A time may come when some will feel the need to separate themselves from the ACoC or TEC, but that is or ought to be when impieties are established and everyone is forced to pay lip service to them.

The Episcopal Church has removed canonical impediments to same-sex marriages and authorized rites for their solemnization. The Anglican Church of Canada appears to be moving, by a small margin, towards a similar position. Does that mean we have reached a place where everyone assents, or that we are forced to “bow the knee” as Anglicans?

That day may come, but it has not yet arrived.

Hooker’s point strikes me as utterly sane. When there is no resistance to doctrinal perversions, or when I am told that I must assent to the new orthodoxy “or else,” then on that day some kind of drastic reform movement will be necessary, perhaps involving a walk into exile. But how? And where? These are questions to which I don’t pretend to have answers.

For now there is still reason to hope, and there is still faithful witness, and for that I give thanks to God, setting my eyes to the greater task to which Christ has called us: to preach the gospel to all creatures.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hooker’s “Learned Discourse on Justification” is the best thing he ever wrote, in my opinion. I was always struck by his generousness in that essay in defending the proposition that the Roman Catholic Church, even if in error by his evaluation, remains truly a part of the One Church. That’s a position very much at odds with the followers of Luther and Calvin. But the question your piece raises for me is this: How would Hooker defend the Anglican Reformation on these terms?

  2. Thanks for your question, Fr. Jonathan.

    By the way, I am a big fan of your pieces on Covenant, and also watched your youtube series regularly when you were doing that. So thanks for your witness.

    It was with your question in mind that cause that I struggled for quite a long time and reading this piece by Hooker is actually what settled my conscience. A number of years ago, I was back and forth over whether I should convert to the RCC, simply because I thought if one reformation, on “split” was defensible, then what was the rationale for staying in a Church that had “left.” I wanted to commit myself fully to the Anglican Communion or the RCC, but I needed to be sure that I was being consistent. I now realize that there are different readings of the English Reformation, about who was leaving what, etc.

    In any case, though I may have been too sparse in my article, Hooker, I think, answers the question shortly after the quote that I pulled out. He points to a few examples that warrant separation because all of the faithful are forced to believe these heresies or to at least assent to them, namely, “that the pope is supreme head ministerial over the universal Church militant; that the bread in the eucharist is transubstantiated into Christ; that it is to be adored, and to be offered up unto God as a sacrifice propitiatory for quick and dead; that images are to be worshipped, saints to be called upon as intercessors, and such like.”

    I know, I know, all the Anglo-Catholics will be up in arms with these examples. The principle is correct though, I believe: it is not that these things are taught in the churches, even by bishops; rather, what is at issue is that these are said to be mandatory beliefs that at best are extra-scriptural, and at worst repugnant to Scripture. I think it’s analogous to what has been happening in the ACoC and TEC insofar as this right now if officially taught to be something good in many of our dioceses. Still, it is not a required belief, and there is no forcing out orthodox clergy for dissenting – at least not yet. From my perspective then, there is still room for faithfulness and witness right here, in the Anglican Church of Canada, or The Episcopal Church.

    Does this answer your question? Or do you find it less than satisfying?

    Best,

  3. It appears that John Wesley got his take on schism from reading Hooker:
    http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-75-On-Schism

    “But, setting aside this case, suppose the Church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein. And if I separate from it without any such necessity, I am just chargeable (whether I foresaw them or not) with all the evils consequent upon that separation.”

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