Hooker on the edifying power of liturgy and symbol

What was the key concern of the English Reformation? Different people will give different answers, of course, but Bradford W. Littlejohn, in his recent companion to Richard Hooker, argues that ‘the root concern…was edification’ (35, emphasis his). He continues:

The dissenters in the…1560s were not just being stubbornly nitpicky. They knew that the Reformation in England was an exceedingly fragile thing, having nearly been extinguished by the five-year reign of Mary, and in danger of withering again should the political climate again become unfavourable. If it was to take deep root, the mass of the people must be truly converted and trained in the new faith (35).

One of the most divisive debates in this period was the question of how the people of England would be edified. From the point of view of the shape of corporate worship, many Puritans would argue that to grow in this new faith required nothing less than a complete break with the old ways of doing things.

Given that these masses were liable to be influenced as much by visual symbolism as by explicit teaching, a truly reformed church must work to root out the visual markers of continuity with the Roman church, which might continue to lead the ignorant astray. If the priest still wore more or less the same garments, and followed much the same order of service, and still used the sign of the cross, etc., many churchgoers would assume that not much of great significance had changed. This was all the more so given that good Protestant preaching was hard to come by; most ministers were uneducated, and often had to serve multiple parishes, overseen by bishops with overwhelming administrative responsibilities (35-36).

In this context, many Puritans turned to Scripture in the belief that it contained ‘the details of worship and church order’ (36). For those who used Scripture in this way, ‘it was no longer a matter of merely requesting the freedom for the minister to omit unedifying ceremonies as he sees fit, but insisting on his obligation to resist any unbiblical ceremonies’ (36-37). At its most extreme, Littlejohn notes that it ‘threatened to impose…a new legalistic burden: instead of “nothing but what is in Scripture may be required for belief” it was now “nothing but what is in Scripture may be used or believed”’ (37, emphasis his).

This was one of the concerns Hooker directly addressed in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity; his work was not merely about demonstrating the legitimacy of the structure and worship of the English church, ‘but that it is actively edifying to the spiritual health of the people’ (39). Littlejohn points to Hooker’s doctrine of correspondences, which helps to illuminate the point. One of the basic principles underlying Hooker’s defence of the liturgy and worship of the church was that, being ‘creatures of sense, we need sensible aids to help our souls rise to the contemplation of divine things’ (169). Outward signs, insofar as they resembled and corresponded to their inward realities, would guide and direct worshippers, deepening their faith in Christ and belief in the gospel. Hooker writes,

If we affect him not far above and before all things, our religion hath not that inward perfection which it should have, neither do we indeed worship him as our God. That which inwardly each man should be, the Church outwardly ought to testify. And therefore the duties of our religion which are seen must be such as that affection which is unseen ought to be. Signs must resemble the things they signify. If religion bear the greatest sway in our hearts, our outward religious duties must show it, as far as the Church hath outward ability. Duties of religion performed by the whole societies of men, ought to have in them according to our power a sensible excellency, correspondent to the majesty of him whom we worship. Yea then are the public duties of religion best ordered, when the militant Church doth resemble by sensible means, as it may in such chases, the hidden dignity and glory wherewith the Church triumphant in heaven is beautified (Laws, V.6.2, quoted in Littlejohn, 169-170).

Yet Hooker was clear that symbol and ritual were not themselves a means of sanctification and edification. Certainly, ‘in the act of public worship, the visible church symbolically enacts the believer’s inward worship of God, and indeed aids it’, but ‘outward worship in itself, without the active participation of a conscience yearning after God, does no good’ (170). Hooker would be as critical of those who merely go through the motions of the liturgy as the Puritans were, but unlike them, recognised that the abuse of the liturgy and symbolism in worship did not require these things to be done away with. The issues with the medieval Church were not fundamentally liturgical, but theological.

Thomas Cranmer, in crafting the Book of Common Prayer, recognised the wisdom of the Church’s tradition in the forms of worship the English Reformers inherited. That is why he did not do away with them, but instead reformed their content so that the liturgy would communicate the truth of Scripture. And Hooker would staunchly defend this reformed liturgy. Far from leading people astray, the worship of the church, proclaiming the gospel through its words, and giving substance to its hope through its symbolism and sacramentality, was necessary for the edification of its members and their formation as disciples of Christ.

For Anglicans following in the footsteps of Cranmer and Hooker, this continues to be true today.

Christians are not called to fill their time with church activities

Bruce Reed’s The Dynamics of Religion is a fascinating psycho-social study of the role of religion in enabling people to live in and face the realities of the world and contribute in meaningful ways to society. Reed draws heavily on a psychological model of oscillation, a theory positing that humans regularly cycle between stages of extra-dependence and intra-dependence, and argues that the liturgy and collective worship of the Church function as a stage of extra-dependence for Christians who are out living and working in the world each week. Their ability to contribute to the flourishing of the worlds they inhabit depends on whether corporate worship meets the needs of the extra-dependence stage.

Proper worship – and Reed rather unapologetically considers the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Communion service to meet the criteria for ‘proper’ worship – is essential if Christians are to face the world of their experience and live faithfully within it. For Reed, whether or not an act of worship meets the needs of the worshipper in extra-dependence is

manifested in its results – in the welfare of the social system in which it is practised, and in the development of that social system in response to the challenge of new conditions, its enrichment, its enlightenment and its enjoyment… Our conclusions must always submit to the test of what happens outside the church… Members of the local church…had better concentrate on worshipping God in church and on the priestly and pastoral work which promotes this, so that outside they will be prepared to become wholly absorbed in being occupied with the affairs of humanity (112-113).

If the purpose of worship, then, is to meet the needs of believers in extra-dependence and equip them for the stage of intra-dependence, why is so much of the Church’s life taken up with extra activities, Reed asks? From social events to Bible studies to institutional boards and programmes, ‘we need to ask why the churches in our time sprouted these multifarious activities when compared with churches from past centuries’ (114). Reed theorises that in a post-Christendom age, the Church demands more of its members as it becomes one institution among many others competing for people’s loyalties. Thus this proliferation of groups and activities serves both a manifest and a latent function:

The manifest function of the activities of the local church apart from those devoted to worship, the preaching of the Word and the ministry of the sacraments, and pastoral care in times of transition or crisis, is to edify and maintain the members of the church, but their latent function may be to preserve it against assaults and erosions caused by forces originating from the environment (115).

But this attempt to protect the members of the Church, Reed notes, prevents a church from fulfilling its proper function, ‘to facilitate the oscillation process in order that the social environment might exhibit the marks of well-being and development’ (115). He concludes that

the function of the local church which facilitates interaction with the environment is of more importance than the function which turns the church members in on themselves, however spiritual and worthy those activities may be. In this light, the present day activist church programmes are more like reactions to contemporary pluralistic sub-cultures than the growth of new insights into the mission of the people of God (115).

I have been in – and, I must not fail to add, benefited in many ways from – contexts where the activities of a particular parish or local church can easily absorb a person’s non-working life. Even in those times free from organised activities, parishioners are often encouraged to be in each other’s homes, continuing to deepen their fellowship. On the one hand, I understand the concern many churches have that life spent outside the body of believers, with the exception of that given over to evangelism, can have a corrosive effect. But at the same time, I think what Reed says has much to commend; to borrow from Alexander Schmemann, the Church exists for the life of the world, not for itself.

The key then, for Reed, is the liturgy. His argument is not that we abandon all the activities of church life, only that we reassess the demands our churches place on parishioners’ lives and whether those are detrimental to their calling to make known the presence of the kingdom of God in all their spheres of life. What is most important is that the content of our worship be carefully examined. If we are going to pray at the end of each service, ‘Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory’, then the Church needs to work to ensure its worship adequately equips believers to do just that. In this way, we can be confident that what we receive in the stage of extra-dependence will form us and sustain us for the stage of intra-dependence.

There is much more to say here; I would be particularly interested, for example, to know what Reed would think of what Rod Dreher has termed the ‘Benedict Option‘. But the point is simply that churches must release Christians to fulfil their calling to make known the kingdom. And if we truly believe that God is at work through the means of grace, we should be willing to let them go, confident that the Spirit that has worked in them will also work through them.

On not calling people ‘nominal’ Christians

Richard Hooker, like most of his fellow reformers, upheld the classic Protestant distinction between the visible and invisible church. However, as Bradford W. Littlejohn notes in his recent book, where Hooker differed from some of his contemporaries was in his unwillingness to sharply define the boundaries of the visible church. Reacting to the tendency of the Puritans to define the visible church so narrowly as to exclude all the unregenerate, Hooker instead opted for what might be called a ‘charitable assumption’. He writes,

Who be inwardly in heart the lively members of this body, and the polished stones of this building, coupled and joined to Christ, as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones but he mutual bond of his unspeakable love towards them, and their unfeigned faith in him, thus linked and fastened each to other by a spiritual, sincere, and hearty affection of love without any manner of simulation, who be Jews within, and what their names be, none can tell, save he whose eyes do behold the secret disposition of all men’s hearts. We whose eyes are too dim to behold the inward man, must leave the secret judgement of every servant to his own Lord, accounting and using all men as brethren both near and dear unto us, supposing Christ to love them tenderly, so as they keep the profession of the Gospel and join in the outward communion of saints (Works, 5:25-26, quoted in Littlejohn, 154).

This is quite a challenge, especially to those of us from more evangelical backgrounds. It is remarkably easy to pass judgement on those who gather for worship each week, annoyed at their seemingly half-hearted participation, silently questioning their motives, wondering if anything in the liturgy or the sermon is sinking in. The word ‘nominal’ quickly begins to pass our lips when these kinds of thoughts are entertained.

It is not hard to see where this tendency comes from, however. Like the Puritans of Hooker’s day, it is often begins borne out of good will and a desire to ensure that people are not trusting in their attendance at the Sunday service for their salvation, but on the work of Christ. But these good intentions rapidly turn to judgement and condemnation, and before long a culture is cultivated in which the majority of those attending a church are considered nominal Christians, suspect of being unconverted unless they sign up to extensive doctrinal statements and outwardly demonstrate a level of piety that rivals Timothy’s grandmother and mother. This is why Hooker adamantly refused to police the boundaries of the visible church, and rightly so; as a friend once remarked to me, pinning the label ‘nominal’ on other believers comes off as elitist slander, and simply cannot be legitimised.

This has profound implications for pastoral ministry. If a minister constantly suspects their parishioners are either unregenerate or nominal believers, they will be unable to love them and to offer the spiritual care they need if they are to grow and flourish in faith. Leander Harding, the rector of an Episcopal church in New York, makes this point in a very convicting way in a lovely piece written on Ash Wednesday several years ago. Harding challenges us to look at the gathered believers entirely differently:

I have become more and more suspicious of the concept of the nominal Christian. Our parish churches are supposed to be full of nominal Christians who are just going through the motions, of half-believers who are relying on their good works and who have not really surrendered to Christ and accepted the Gospel. In any parish church there are a few real apostates, and a few real scoffers and perhaps a few who genuinely hate God. Their numbers are routinely exaggerated. Most of the people who come to the church Sunday by Sunday know they are dying and are placing their hope in Christ. It may be an inarticulate hope, it may be a confused hope. Often there are huge brambles of misunderstanding that must be cleared away before the whole power of the good news can come in upon them. Often there is real darkness into which the light of Christ has not yet come and which cries out for a light-bearer. Yet, they come. When Jesus saw such as these gathered in their multitudes on the hill side, the sight provoked in him not contempt for the nominal but compassion, ‘for they were like sheep without a shepherd.’

What Harding beautifully articulates here would, I suspect, resonate very deeply with Hooker. Ministers are called to treat their parishioners with love and compassion no matter where they are on the road of faith. To be sure, some will be near the starting line of that journey, seemingly unwilling to move. And some genuinely might not have faith. But that is not our business. If they profess faith and commit themselves to the ministry of the church, labelling them ‘nominal’ not only wrongfully passes judgement on them, but effectively asserts that they are beyond the transforming work of the Spirit.

If we want to establish boundaries for the visible church, we can do no better than what the apostle Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (10:9). Taking anyone who makes this confession seriously is where Hooker would have us start. A fruitful ministry of making disciples will never begin with assuming the worst about our parishioners. It must instead begin by seeking their flourishing in faith regardless of where they currently stand, walking with them in such a way that ‘the whole power of the good news can come in upon them’.

You don’t need to hear the whole sermon each week

Over on Facebook, John Barach says that people need to stop worrying about their children distracting them from hearing the whole sermon in a church service:

I sometimes tell parents, “If God had intended you to hear a whole sermon every Sunday, he wouldn’t have given you children.”

And after all, the sermon isn’t the main thing on Sunday, with some extras before and after. The service is a whole. Even if you’re in and out with the kiddos or distracted by caring for them during the sermon so that you can’t remember anything the pastor was saying, you’re still likely going to be able to participate in much of the rest of the service.

That is, you’re going to enter God’s courts with thanksgiving and songs of praise, kneel and confess your sins, be raised up and forgiven by God through the minister’s declaration, sing (at least some of) the songs, hear (at least some of) the passages of Scripture read, pray (at least some of) the prayers, present your offerings to God, feast at the Lord’s Table, and receive his blessing.

Sure, it would be nice on top of all that to be able to hear more than a few minutes of the sermon without distraction. But even if you don’t, you – and your children – are worshiping God. He didn’t call you to sit through a talk, take notes, track with everything that’s being said, and be able to narrate the whole thing back afterwards. He called you to worship.

And you did, together with your children.

Sermons are good things, and much is to be gained from hearing the exposition of Scripture each Sunday. But we have little hope of growing into disciples of Christ if our formation depends solely on an unhindered intake of intellectual content, not least because most of us do not function in that way. And that, very simply, is why the Church has a liturgy. It is no accident that throughout the ages, guided by the Spirit, the Church has given such careful attention to its liturgy and practices, because these things train us and shape us as followers of Christ. Without devaluing preaching, the wisdom of the Church down through history has been that being at church on Sunday and participating in the liturgy is just as important as hearing a sermon.

What’s more, even when it makes it harder for us to keep focused, by keeping our children in church, we are training them to be worshipers and disciples as they observe and model our enacting of the faith. And what can be more important than that?

Situating Richard Hooker

Anglicans of every variety often claim that Richard Hooker is the founder of Anglicanism. Are they justified in doing so? That is a complicated question, not least because the history of the ecclesia Anglicana stretches back much further than Hooker. However, his contribution to the reformation of the Church of England in the 16th century does make him a major figure in the shaping of modern Anglicanism.

W. Bradford Littlejohn, in his recent book, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work,  concludes the following in a chapter that evaluates Hooker’s theology in relation to his Protestant Reformed contemporaries:

It appears very likely that Hooker understood himself, and should be understood, as following more or less within the footsteps of the leading Protestant Reformers. Not only that, but if we had to place him more precisely, he would appear on most questions to fall fairly unproblematically within the broad and varied Reformed theological family that was developing so fruitfully at this time. This does not make him an uninteresting figure, simply restating established orthodoxies in a predictable form. Far from it. Hooker always remained his own man, and demonstrates a strikingly independent theological mind on many of the points that vexed his contemporaries. But his novelty perhaps lies more in the way he reshuffled the existing deck of theological cards he had been dealt, rather than in introducing new cards into the deck. That is to say, he takes up many of the tensions that we see within the Reformed tradition, on issues such as the role of reason, the efficacy of the sacraments and role of liturgy, and the nature of predestination, and seeks to offer a creative synthesis within the general bounds of the tradition, though sometimes outside the mainstream. It is also clear that he had no interest in defining himself narrowly within a party label, but hoped to claim as much of the Christian tradition as possible – Reformed, Lutheran, the best of medieval Catholicism, and the Church Fathers. In this, perhaps more than anything else, it can fairly be said that he prefigured the spirit of Anglican theology (67-68).

So while we might not go so far as to call Hooker the founder of Anglicanism, his work plays a decidedly significant role in beginning to set Anglicanism apart as a unique theological tradition.

Meilaender on the limits of work

The idea that human work is somehow a participation in God’s work is one that is given much attention in the theology of work, often expressed in terms humans being ‘co-creators’ with God. In the introduction to his book, Working: Its Meaning and its Limits, Gilbert C. Meilaender suggests that this vision of work is found appealing by many ‘because it responds to a desire…people have for work that is meaningful and productive’ (5). Meilaender notes that this idea finds clear expression in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Laborem Exercens:

The Church finds in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth… These truths are decisive for man from the very beginning, and at the same time they trace out the main lines of his earthly existence, both in the state of original justice and also after the breaking, caused by sin, of the creator’s original covenant with creation in man… Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the creator of the universe.

But Meilaender sees a number of problems with this vision of work. In the first place, it locates the inherent worth of work in the work itself, and thus would require that ‘no one should have to do work that cannot be done as humanly fulfilling activity’. This, he says, is simply not possible in a fallen world, especially in a capitalistic economy where ‘the person’s work becomes a commodity to be bought and sold’ (9). Secondly, when linked with the concept of vocation, which casts a ‘vision of work as a calling from God’, we see ‘an enhanced religious aura to the world of work – reinforcing and perhaps in part giving rise to the modern idea that work is integral to human identity and flourishing’ (12-13).

Important for Meilaender is that we do not allow the way we speak of work to ‘lead us to ignore the empirical realities of the work many people do’. Further, language such as ‘co-creation’ can lead us to ‘easily forget some of the ways in which work has and ought to have only limited significance’, and ‘may challenge us to devote the whole of our powers to work that lies before us’ (13, 18). In the end, ‘we live in relation to God…[and] our work…[cannot] divulge the ultimate significance of a human life’ (19).

As helpful as Meilaender’s word of caution on this particular paradigm of work is, I’m not entirely persuaded by his critique. Certainly his concern that our identity not be wholly wrapped up in our work is something that needs to be said loudly and clearly. But the fact that work is difficult and that many struggle to find meaning in it does not negate its original purpose and worth; it is simply a testament to the distorting effects of sin. Most proponents of the co-creation paradigm readily acknowledge these difficulties, moving beyond romantic notions of work. Yet Meilaender does not give adequate attention to this; he instead seeks a theology of work that begins with the reality of work as we know it. In the end, this seems to leave him unable to make space for any sort of transformation or redemption of work, and we are left with little more than an attempt to cope with the struggles of modern work.

Doing theology starts with the assumption that the Church is right

As it would be the height of folly, on one’s first arrival in Switzerland, to make it appear that he is the first to investigate the Berner Oberland, since common sense compels him on the contrary to begin his journey by making inquiry among the guides of the country, the same is true here. In its rich and many-sided life, extending across so many ages, the Church tells you at once what fallible interpretations you need no longer try, and what interpretation on the other hand offers you the best chances for success. On this ground the claim must be put, that the investigator of the Holy Scriptures shall take account of what history and the life of the Church teaches concerning the general points of view, from which to start his investigation, and which paths it is useless to further reconnoitre.

…The investigator does not stand outside of the Church, but is himself a member of it. Hence into his own consciousness there is interwoven the historic consciousness of his Church. In this historic consciousness of his Church he finds not merely the tradition of theologians and the data by which to form an estimate of the results of their studies, but also the confessional utterances of the Church. And this implies more. These utterances of his Church do not consist of the interpretation of one or another theologian, but of the ripest fruit of a spiritual and dogmatic strife, battled through by a whole circle of confessors in violent combat, which enlightened their spiritual sense, sharpened their judgment, and stimulated their perception of the truth; which fruit, moreover, has been handed down to him by the Church through its divinely appointed organs. It will not do, therefore, to place these dogmatic utterances on the same plane with the opinions of individual theologians. In a much deeper sense, they provide a guarantee for freedom from error, and he who belongs to such a Church has himself been moulded in part by them. This gives rise to the demand, that every theologian shall, in his investigations, reckon with all those things that are taught him by the history of the churches concerning well and badly chosen paths in this territory to be investigated; and, also, in the second place, that he shall take the dogmas of his Church as his guide, and that he shall not diverge from them until he is compelled to do this by the Word of God. Hence, one should not begin by doubting everything, and by experimenting to see whether on the ground of his own investigation he arrives at the same point where the confession of his Church stands; but, on the contrary, he should start out from the assumption that his Church is right, while at the same time he should investigate it, and only oppose it when he finds himself compelled to do so by the Word of God.

– Abraham Kuyper, Sacred Theology, 252-253.