This evening we honor Richard Hooker, one of the great Anglican Divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Now while the term Anglican Divines may conjure up images of a 1960’s singing trio, "ala Diana Ross and the Supremes," they were actually a group of extraordinary theologians who helped develop Church of England doctrine and polity in those tumultuous years following the Protestant Reformation –whose 500 anniversary is next year – and Henry VIII’s schism from Rome.
Along with Hooker, the Divines included such lofty thinkers as John Donne, George Herbert, and William Laud. If I were ever asked that classic question of “Who in history would you invite to a dinner party if you could only ask four people, these guys would be my “A” list!
Hooker was especially influential during the reign of Elizabeth I, a woman one of my Church History professors at General Seminary fondly referred to as “our foundress.”
Elizabeth came to the English throne after her two half siblings, Edward VI and Mary Tudor’s brief but violent reigns on the throne. Their common father Henry had been little interested in the details of the Church other than who was in charge of it so that he could obtain a divorce and marry Anne Boleyn, and who had control of the Church’s considerable wealth, especially that of the monasteries. His son Edward on the other hand was strongly influenced by the Continental Protestant reformers. When he came to the throne at Henry’s death, Edward and his court advisors clearly steered the English Church in a decidedly Protestant direction. Because he was sickly, Edward’s reign was short. At his death the throne went to Mary, a devout and ardent Roman Catholic. She steered the Church back to Rome, but not without some considerable conflict and bloodshed. Edward’s and Mary’s were a bloody period in English history between the Protestant and Roman factions. Mary was ruthless and hung and burned at the stake hundreds of Protestants. We have her to thank for that adult beverage known as the Bloody Mary; something to chat about the next time you’re at brunch.
Mary too reigned briefly. No one is quite sure why she died, although court intrigue through history would have us believe that her Protestant detractors slowly poisoned her with a touch of arsenic in her afternoon tea.
When Elizabeth gets to the throne, England is in chaos, threatened to be rent asunder by religious conflict. By then, it had grown worse as not only was it between Protestants and Catholics but between the extreme Puritan sect who loathed Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Church of that day, and between the Roman Catholics who loathed that same Anglican Church as well as the Puritans.
Elizabeth – an astute leader – realized that in order to save the nation she needed to quell this religious dissent. So she charged her Divines, primarily Hooker, to come up with a theology, doctrines and polity that would subdue the dissent. What Hooker and his associates came up with was something called The Elizabethan Settlement, which was really the document and act of Parliament that established the Church of England as we have received it in our day.
There are two important components of this new doctrine that are specific to Hooker. One is the understanding that Anglicans would make decisions about their faith based on scripture, tradition and reason. This is the famous three-legged stool of Anglicanism still used to determine how we will live as a Communion to this day. The second was the doctrine of the via media, Latin for middle way. Via media is a term of apologetics or theological reasoning. The idea of a middle way, was a brilliant concept developed by Hooker to forge a way forward between the papalist Roman Catholics and the radical reformers who threatened to destroy England in Elizabeth’s time. And it worked. Through Elizabeth’s leadership ad force of will and Hooker’s finding a theological methodology to bring the dissenting parties together, England’s religious wars subsided and the nation came to be one of the great powers and empires of the world.
Now the via media is not just some sort of process of compromise. It is not a wimpy, milquetoast dilution of one’s passions or beliefs. Ideally via media is a process of deep listening to and caring about what those you differ with are about. It is about more than just arbitration or negotiation; it is about hearing how God’s voice is present in even the most fractious of debates; religious and otherwise. It is also about mutual respect and a desire to move forward together discerning how God may be at work creating a new thing that will bring us together and not divide us. Which is the whole point about God’s work in Jesus among us, I would observe. Via media is finding the way between extremes. Yes, it may be a letting go of something, but that is done for the greater good. With the understanding that we are stronger and better as a person, a people, a religious faith, a nation and a culture when we can stand united and not in enmity or worse, bloodshed. As a priest I know once described it, via media is not some narrow path, it is a broad highway of multiple lanes embracing as many people in it as it can as it moves forward together.
Just as in Edward, Mary and Elizabeth’s time, we live in a time of great chaos and enmity; a period of horrific divisions and the fear of violence in our nation. Fear and hatred of others is rife. An ugly and frightening monster has been awakened and unleashed in this nation, most especially in this presidential election cycle. The threat of civil unrest is a real one and it is an unrest that could destroy our precious values and us as a people of liberty and justice for all. Early 21st century America is feeling a lot like sixteenth century England.
We would be wise to see Richard Hooker’s great doctrine of the via media as a way to help us address the situation we find ourselves in today. Patient listening, mutual respect for the other, a willingness to let go so we can find something new and better and a desire to move forward in unity is the only way we will heal the divisions that threaten us. And in so doing we will become that great, multi-lane highway, embracing all nations, peoples, creeds and races, which is not only an American ideal, but God’s as well.