Master Hooker

Paul Griffin wonders how the sixteenth-century theologian would tackle the situation in today’s Church of England

Outside Exeter Cathedral, the usual herring gull sat on Richard Hooker’s hat. I thought about the Church he propounded in the Elizabethan Settlement, commemorated here, next to the splendid cathedral he must have known in almost the same state as it is now.

In the time of Elizabeth I, the Church of England was every bit as contentious as it is today. There were those who disliked Rome, and those who abhorred Geneva, while in the middle were countless churchgoers with moderate or no views on the matter.

These formed the central part of what we may view as a Swiss Roll, with extremists at the edges. Hooker’s solution was to slice off a little at each end and make a Church in which the edges could just live with each other – an institution which a cynic might call a Church of Don’t-Much-Cares, but which a modern-day liberal would call ‘Inclusive’. Outside it, no holds were barred: people who desperately cared could be banished, fined, lampooned, executed, without compunction.

This worked for a bit. In subsequent years, the behaviour of Archbishop Laud and Oliver Cromwell, both of whom who did desperately care, launched the land on decades of bloodshed, and made Hooker’s solution very desirable. This was demonstrated in the Restoration Settlement, reached on similar lines, slicing off only the extreme Rome-haters and Puritan-haters. The land sat, like that seagull, comfortably on Hooker’s hat.

Today we find a new situation that causes us all to look about for a new Settlement. Where we have become increasingly up against it is in the fact that most of the middle of the Swiss Roll has collapsed. For centuries, Sundays meant church for most people: the ritual attendance of Sir Roger de Coverley and his parishioners, of Jane Austen, and the Victorian Vicarage, at Matins and Evensong by the Book of Common Prayer.

The First Great War brought new attitudes and customs. My own parents professed and called themselves Christians, but were cynical about the Church as Christ’s representative, and ceased to attend. Mercifully Grandma introduced me to the Eucharist and an Anglo-Catholic school instructed me soundly. Few were as lucky, and after the Second World War most of the remaining worshippers were lost to the fashion for dismissing history, and ‘moving on’.

These days, you spend Sunday morning cleaning the car or going fishing, and enter yourself on the records as ‘Church of England’. Perhaps you turn up at Harvest, Remembrance, and Midnight Mass, earning you the right to oppose the incumbent when he tries to do what is best, for it is your Church according to the law.

So far, therefore, as the cake has a middle, it is these people, still disliking and even fearing the edges. Consult the Anglican on the omnibus, and he will say about those edges: ‘I can’t stand those happy-clappies’, or ‘I can’t stand those people who deny a woman’s right to be a priest’.

We need one of your Settlements, Master Hooker, don’t we? I demanded of his statue in the Exeter Close. The extreme Puritans will have to be sliced off to go to the Free Churches, and the traditional Anglo- Catholics would have to find themselves another Church.

I thought the old man winced a bit as he contemplated a Church of England of sensible Evangelicals and sincere Affirming Catholics, with a mass of Don’t-Much-Cares in the middle.

No doubt he was wondering, as I wonder, whether that or stumbling on a bit longer was the more use to the Kingdom he and we wanted and want so badly.


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