Comprehensiveness, Mystery, and Proper Certainty

A second characteristic of Hooker is a belief in authority mingled with a great distrust of infallibility. He is ready to believe, certainly, in what God has shown and done, but equally ready to shrink from claims for the infallibility of the language in which God’s revelation is at any time expressed. A sentence in Hooker expresses this: “Two things there are that trouble these latter times: one is that the Church of Rome cannot, another is that Geneva will not, err.” This remains an honest Anglican characteristic, and if we want to unravel it, I think we need to probe into religious language and the extent to which its use is inevitable in expressing divine relationship, although not in making a mathematical statement.

A sense of mystery and of the mysteriousness of divine truth is something Hooker felt very strongly indeed. Again and again we find him pausing and saying, “Do not ask me to define it, do not define it yourself, it really is truly mysterious.” And he combined that sense of mystery with a real certainty about what God has given through Christ and in the church. Here again, unraveling the implications of Hooker’s sense of mystery still leaves a lot of probing to be done.

Michael Ramsey, The Anglican Spirit (New York: Seabury Classics, 2004), p. 9.

This statement from one of the greatest Archbishops of Canterbury captures the spirit of Richard Hooker and of Anglicanism itself quite well. We dare not lose either the sense of humility and fallibility and consequent openness to divergent voices, nor the sense of “real certainty about what God has given through Christ and in the church.”

For my part, I am convinced that there is an entire spirituality bound up with Anglican views of Catholicity as comprehensiveness. It is not the simple minded, “lazy pluralism” of much postmoderninism and multiculturalism. Nor is it the facile accommodation with well-heeled “cultured despisers” that underlies the popular stereotype of Catholic-light. Rather, it is a “mere Christianity,” at once deeply conservative and deeply radical, because it gathers a community of “all sorts and conditions” around the life changing mystery of “what God has shown and done.”

It would be a profound mistake to insist that Anglican Christians have no certainty or grand narrative. To the contrary, we have the deeply unsettling story of the Babe in the manger and the Savior on the cross. Christianity’s deep enemy is not certainty per se, but the misplaced certainty of idolatry. Every statement about God involves mystery, because GOD is unfathomable mystery. And yet the Gospel is true—really true—and the mystery is really given to be touched, tasted, and handled. (See 1John 1:1-4)

The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as rector of Emmanuel Parish, Shawnee in the Diocese of Oklahoma. His new parish blog is Emmanuel Shawnee Blog

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