Blessed words

Commemoration of Richard Hooker, priest and theologian (1553-1600?)


Psalm 19:1-11

Sirach 44:10-15

1 Corinthians 2:6-10, 13-16

John 17: 18-23

…Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better. …

…There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit. But the manner of men’s writing must not alienate our heart from the truth, if it appear they have the truth… — quotations from Richard Hooker

Among the stars in the crown of Anglican theologians, Richard Hooker certainly merits a rather large, bright one. His most famous work is a multi-volume treatise called The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, an in-depth discussion of law and good governance (both ecclesiastical and civil) and how these derived from the natural laws God established and are viewed by humanity through the lenses of scriptural authority, tradition and reason with a large helping of experience thrown in. The Laws was an exposition of what we call the via media, the middle way, of Anglicanism as opposed to the Calvinist congregational form of government (each church was autonomous) and the Roman Catholic model of top-down hierarchy. Although Hooker never referred to the “three-legged stool” (scripture, tradition and reason) by that particular metaphor, that is probably the thing most Anglicans associate with Hooker.

Hooker walked the middle way in a time when both church and secular politics were precarious. The Reformation was going full-tilt with Calvinists insisting on their interpretation of how life should be lived and how their laws and government should be done while Roman Catholics on the other hand struggled to maintain their position as the prevalent church and ecclesiastical (and sometimes temporal) authority. It was a time of change, an uncomfortable time since no change is ever totally comfortable, especially for people caught between two very strong and opposing forces. Still, there must have been something civil, polite and memorable about his writing because Pope Clement VIII, against whose church Hooker pitted his own church polity, stated that his Laws “…has in it such seeds of eternity that it will abide until the last fire shall consume all learning.”

In this season of elections here in the United States and the campaigns, some more or less ugly than others, I wonder if perhaps Hooker would have responded as he did in his own struggles between the Roman Catholics and the Calvinists. I find it hard to believe that any candidate for any office in this election can say something similar about their opponent that the Pope did about Hooker’s words. We’ve come to a time when sharp wit and sharp words make it look more like a verbal brawl than a debate and an crusade more than a sharing of good news. I wonder — what would Hooker have said about sound bytes, media spin and campaign war chests? While debate has always been about scoring points against an opponent, it has traditionally been based on one topic, extensive research and knowledge and an ability to refute the arguments of the opponent with facts and citations, not with rapier-like slashes and personal attack. Most of all, it has been about answers, not the raising of more questions. That’s something there doesn’t seem to be a lot of in this election period.

Hooker is right about change, and he is also right about words of charity and meekness. They would be a welcome change from sharp words and sometimes biting attempts at wit, not only in politics but in so many areas of life. I have a feeling I could come up with half a dozen in our own life if I thought about it for thirty seconds or so. There are some areas where I would welcome change — in others as well as in myself — but how to accomplish that?

I guess it is sort of like the old saw about how to get to Carnegie Hall, not by taking bus or subway or taxi but practice, practice, practice. I can’t change our political system, make politicians speak more kindly or honestly, even get a co-worker to stop using all capital letters in notes and emails. Ultimately what I am left with is that the only person I can change is me, and even that change has to be the result of kindness and charity rather than mental flogging or cutting thoughts and words.

I can hope that somehow we can have a kinder, gentler campaign this election year, but somehow I am not all that confident. I wonder — what if before embarking on a campaign, a potential candidate was required to read Hooker’s Laws? What if they had to have the quotation about three words spoken with charity on the wall in front of their desk where they would see it a dozen or more times a day? What if we, as constituents, demanded that our potential representatives (whether for the Presidency or the local vestry) model civility, charity, kindness and concern for and toward each other as well as for the constituents they will represent? What if we demanded that of ourselves in our daily encounters?

I have a feeling there would have to be a whole lot of changin’ goin’ on, and it wouldn’t be fun or pleasant, but what it might do is bring the kingdom just a bit closer. And that is what it should ultimately be about, isn’t it?

So now to give myself a polite but firm talk. I wonder – do I dare even think of challenging our candidates to do the same? Nah, but I can always hope (and pray a lot!). On his commemoration day, perhaps Richard Hooker can give just a little nudge, purely as an amicus curiae, as it were? Now that might be doable.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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