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.

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