RICHARD HOOKER AT THE TEMPLE

‘Be of good comfort,’ said Hooker: ‘we have to do with a merciful God, rather to make the best of that little which we hold well; and not with a captious sophister who gathers the worst out of every thing in which we err.’

Richard Hooker was appointed Master of the Temple in 1585. England was in alarm. The threat from Catholic Europe had revived: there had been rebellion against the Queen and Settlement in 1569; in 1570 the Pope had excommunicated Elizabeth and declared her subjects free from their allegiance; Mary Queen of Scots was linked with ever further conspiracy against her cousin; and the danger of Spanish invasion was growing.

England’s radical reformers were convinced: England’s only hope of spiritual and political safety lay in the example of Calvin’s godly state, Geneva. The ‘head and neck’ of English Calvinism were Thomas Cartwright and Walter Travers. Since 1581 Travers had been the Reader (lecturer) of the Temple. In 1584 the Privy Council ordered the Inner Temple to continue his stipend ‘for his public labours and pains taken against the common adversaries, impugners of the state and the authorities under her Majesty’s gracious government.’ Hooker and Travers were to be colleagues. Their differences soon became clear. To recover the purity of the primitive church, Travers would be rid of all that intervened and would forge the English church anew. Hooker was steeped in classical and medieval thought; saw the roots of his own (and Travers’) understanding in Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas and Calvin himself; and acknowledged –even valued – the differences to which such a rich tradition could give rise: ‘Be it that Peter has one interpretation, and Apollos has another; that Paul is of this mind, and Barnabas of that. If this offend you, the fault is yours.’ As then, so now: ‘Carry peaceable minds, and you may have comfort by this variety.’ When Hooker carefully and bravely explored the possibility that individual Catholics could be saved, the scene was set for the most famous public debated of the day. ‘Surely I must confess unto you,’ said Hooker: ‘if it be an error to think that God may be merciful to save men, even when they err, my greatest comfort is my error. Were it not for the love I bear unto this “error”, I would neither wish to speak nor to live.’

We hear of Hooker’s preaching at the Temple: ‘his voice was low, stature little, gesture none at all, standing stone still in the pulpit, as if the posture of his body were the emblem of his mind, immovable in his opinions. Where his eye was left fixed at the beginning, it was found fixed at the end of the sermon. …The doctrine he delivered had nothing but itself to garnish it.’ Travers, by contrast, was a natural orator, and he was himself a distinguished thinker; he later became the first Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. Hooker held his ground and deepened his reasoning. It was to disclose and offer the comfort of faith that he spoke: ‘Have the sons of God a father careless whether they sink or swim?’ The Temple sermons that survive stress the simple conditions of salvation: ‘Infidelity, extreme despair, hatred of God and all godliness, obduration in sin – cannot stand where there is the least spark of faith, hope, love or sanctity; even as cold in the lowest degree cannot be where heat in the first degree is found.’

The debate was brought to an end by Archbishop Whitgift: In March 1586 Travers was forbidden to preach. In 1591 Hooker resigned, and was appointed vicar of Bishopsbourne in Kent. Here he developed his thought in his masterpiece, Ecclesiastical Polity, the foundational – and still, perhaps, the most important – exploration of doctrine in the history of the Anglican church. Hooker elaborated a theory of law based on the ‘absolute’ fundamental of natural law: this is the expression of God’s supreme reason and governs all civil and ecclesiastical polity. ‘Of Law there can be no less acknowledged, than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world: all things in heaven and earth do her homage, the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power: both angels and men and creatures of what condition soever, though each in different sort and manner, yet all with uniform consent, admiring her as the mother of their peace and joy.’ Hooker’s influence has pervaded English thought ever since. He was admired by Laud and by the puritan Baxter, extolled by the Restoration bishops, and brought once more to prominence by Keble and the Oxford Movement; he has now been rediscovered (in a recent monograph by Richard Atkinson) within the modern evangelical church. His reach has extended far beyond theologians. Ecclesiastical Polity was the starting-point for Clarendon’s History and seminal for Locke’s philosophy; its self-critical balance touched Andrew Marvell; and Samuel Pepys read it at the recommendation of a friend who declared it ‘the best book, and the only one that made him a Christian.’

 

THE BATTLE OF THE PULPIT

In 1585 the Master of the Temple, Richard Alvey, died.  His deputy – the Reader, Walter Travers – expected to be promoted, but Queen Elizabeth I and her advisers regarded his views as too Calvinist, and Travers was passed over.

Instead a new Master, Richard Hooker, was appointed from Exeter College, Oxford.  On Hooker’s arrival, a unique situation arose.  Each Sunday morning he would preach his sermon; each Sunday afternoon Travers would contradict him.  People came to call it the Battle of the Pulpit, saying mischievously that Canterbury was preached in the morning and Geneva in the afternoon.  There was a lasting result of all this: Hooker published his teaching as Ecclesiastical Polity and came to be recognised as the founding father of Anglican theology.