A Sermon by the Very Rev. Tom Purdy of Christ Church Frederica on St. Simons Island for the Evening Prayer service of the 200th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia on
Thursday, November 4, 2021
The Feast Day of Richard Hooker, Transferred
November 4, 2021
The Episcopal Diocese of Georgia Convention Evening Prayer
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick, GA
The Very Rev. Tom Purdy
So, I’m sitting at the coffee shop working on my sermon for tonight, and the guy next to me says, “What are you working on?”
I said, “I’m writing a sermon about Hooker.”
He gave me a funny look, furrowing his brow, before he said, “Oh! TJ Hooker – I used to like that show – 80’s, right? William Shatner is a great guy!”
I laughed and said “Agreed – Shatner is great, but no, not that Hooker.”
“Oh, Ok,” he said, cutting me off, “I guess I remember that story in the Bible of Jesus and not casting stones at the woman.”
“I think that was a story about adultery,” I admitted. “Different kind of Hooker. This one is the Protestant.”
He said, “I don’t care what you call it, that’s a strange thing to preach about. What kind of church is this, anyway?”
I said, “I’m an Episcopalian, but I think you misunderstand me I’m talking about Richard Hooker.”
He thought for a moment and said, “Richer, huh? Well, I always knew you Episcopalians were top shelf.”
I said, “Let me try to explain again, I’m not expressing myself well.”
And he said, “No, no need to buy me an espresso – I’ve already had my coffee.”
And that was the end of it. It was like we were speaking a different language…or maybe he just didn’t hear me very well.
But you all know who Richard Hooker is, right? He’s inspired countless philosophers and theologians; he inspired ZZ Top to grow their famous beards. Ok, not really, and he doesn’t look anything like William Shatner, but the guy did have style. He’s one of the Anglican theologians that most Episcopalians know about, even if they think he’s a furniture maker because when we learned about him, we learned about his three-legged stool. We’ll come back to that.
When they gave me the option to choose the readings for tonight as preacher, as I thought about transferring the feast of Richard Hooker, I realized he is perfect for this occasion. I mean, how can you not celebrate Richard Hooker at a convention in which we are taking up a major revision to our constitution and canons? Polity is his thing. I actually looked to see if there were any Richard Hooker bobble heads as patron saint gifts for our Constitution and Canons Committee, but shockingly, I couldn’t find any.
I think we need Richard Hooker right now. We need a Richard Hooker moment in the Church, and a Richard Hooker moment in this nation. Some of you are probably thinking, “What does an old, white, English dude from the 16th Century possibly have to offer us here in Georgia in the 21st Century?” Well, think of it this way; in Hooker’s day his country was being torn asunder by politics, a back and forth that very much pulled churchgoers and clergy into the fray for generations. He was born under the Catholic rule of Mary the First, five years after the first Book of Common Prayer was published, but grew up under Elizabeth the First, who championed moderate Protestantism.
Today, if someone comes to me and demands that I use a particular liturgy or prayer book, I’m tempted to ask, “You and what army?” In Hooker’s England, that might not have been the question to ask! The army could be just outside the door, ready to enforce use of the prayer book. Politics and religion were incredibly intertwined so that it became hard to separate what was political from what was theological and what was both. Were they going to be Catholic or Protestant? Papal or independent authority?
The shores of institutional trust were shifting sand. That sand was eroded by waves of infighting and controversy, polarization, and extremism, which were tearing things apart from within. This is the world in which Hooker trained as a priest and theologian.
Richard Hooker is credited with being able to step back and get the big picture to sift through how institutions could faithfully serve God and God’s people again. His seminal work was the eight volumes of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, although the last three volumes were published after his death and may or may not have been completely his. Regardless, while he was a defender of the authority of the monarchy, his mastery came in articulating how to live in the center of the extremes between the papacy and puritanism.
He was concerned about civil and spiritual structures. His writing articulated the elements we know today in shorthand as scripture, tradition, and reason, which make up the legs on that stool we talked about earlier. The proverbial stool the Anglican Church sits on to chart its course using the bible, the traditions of the Church before us, and the brains God gave us. Richard Hooker never really built the stool we credit him with, not in so many words. But he left the parts lying around the theological woodshop. Those who came after him pulled it all together into the teaching we have today.
Like the Caroline Divines in the next century, who took his work and were able to articulate the Via Media – the Middle Way between Catholicism and Protestantism – not as a compromise born out of weakness, but as an intentional and admittedly uncomfortable place from which to bear witness to the breadth of God’s revelation through the Church – even though the Church is so fragile and fallible. He knew institutions would be good or bad, strong or weak, depending on the season, but the faith and piety – the hearts of the people who made them up mattered most. If the people are oriented properly towards God, institutions would reflect that reality.
Hooker also knew how hard this work was during times of change and upheaval. He took what became the original classical Anglican stance of treasuring the medieval Church’s witness and practices while also recognizing a need to embrace change coming out of the Reformation. It is the grounding in the foundations of the past, he would say, that allows change and newness to be possible without the whole thing collapsing.
The Church can do a new thing without everything being new.
Friends, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re in a period of upheaval and stress; some say it goes in roughly 500-year cycles[i], and you and I are fortunate to be living through one now(!). Our institutions have been decimated in so many ways, including the Church. We face an increasing pandemic of political polarization, and we haven’t done a good job of flattening the curve yet. The physical pandemic has accelerated many of these challenges, as I am reminded by looking out at a congregation wearing masks. We can’t pretend that the Church lives in one world and politics in another much longer. I’m not saying we should all become politically active, or that the Church should take political sides. On the contrary. We need to figure out how the Church – the Body of Christ – can regain its voice in a way that effectively shapes the world around us – shapes it in ways it so desperately needs as we bring the kingdom to bear on earth as it is in heaven.
Hooker noted that in the fight for reformation and change people and their institutions were drifting farther and farther apart, which leads to “strife, jealousy, discord, and bad blood.”[ii] Sound familiar? He agreed with St. Augustine and so many others[iii], who caution us against forming our institutions around what we’re against, and not what we’re for. He saw it on display in what he would call the excesses of the reform movement that, in places, staked out its position around opposition to what was before.
We need, as the theologians might say, a common object of love, not hatred, not fear – love. But listen and hear: our common life is being defined by fear and hatred, some would say contempt for one another[iv]. We’re often afraid of a changing world, or of people who are different than we are, and we lash out by diminishing one another and failing to honor the dignity of every human being. We’re being pulled apart at a time we so desperately need to be coming together. Political polarization is driving so completely through our society, it’s even taking up residence in our churches.
A recent article in The Atlantic describes the effect of politics on the Evangelical church, highlighting what happens when this unity around opposition takes root inside the Christian faith – when the faith is shaped by fear and contempt instead of metabolizing and transforming it with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. One pastor admitted how common it is for congregants to leave their church because of their politics but has never heard of someone changing their politics because it didn’t match their church’s teaching[v]. I’m with him on that one.
And we know how that happens, right? The article describes the tough spot pastors are in to be faithful but not offend; a tightrope walk many of us in this room and many of my ecumenical colleagues know well. It’s not that every church is suddenly becoming more partisan as we preach the gospel. It’s no coincidence that Episcopal Churches, often seen as progressive, are seeing the exact same trends as Evangelical churches, which are often seen as conservative. Our society has become hyper partisan, which makes the Gospel seem to be political or even partisan, whether we intend it to be or not, whether we’re progressive or conservative, protestant, catholic, evangelical, or any other kind label we use.
We don’t get to control that narrative, unfortunately. One of the best lines from The Atlantic article explains, “Sermons are short. Only some churchgoers attend adult-education classes, and even fewer attend bible study and small groups. Cable news, however, is always on.”[vi] Sermons are short (this one may not be), but there’s cable news 24/7, and I would add social media to that description, with its magnifying algorithms.
Y’all, we don’t need algorithms. What we need are rhythms of prayer and repentance, word and sacrament. This was Hooker’s strategy. Focus on the hearts of the people, the piety of those who make up the institutions. We don’t need Hooker’s monarch though; we have one. And we need to look to him instead of all the usurpers who clamor and shout about their earthly plans for salvation. We have the plan – we have The Way, we just need to follow it. And him. The political intrusion into the Church is an onslaught that seeks to confine and intimidate us about how we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and we need to push back by living out the politics of love and preaching that Gospel in word and deed.
If this were a Eucharistic service, we’d be hearing the preface for baptism tonight, in which the presider prays for God to make us all citizens of God’s kingdom. Again, we hear that civic cross-over. We know about being citizens of this world and what it entails; we engage with that citizenship easily and all too frequently. What about the citizenship of God’s kingdom? What about living into those baptismal vows many of us will recite on this All Saints Sunday? We need to heed Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about “the wisdom and rulers of this age” and instead set ourselves firmly on God’s wisdom.
Those who came before us, who have labored in God’s workshop have worked the lathe, cut, and measured, and assembled much of our theological furniture. They may not have built precisely what we need for these days in this century, but they have left us the parts to work with, and Hooker is a good place to start; after all he taught us how to assemble and build with such things. As he would say, we can meet these days without fear because we have a tradition to rest on and build up from.
We must be careful not to be so afraid of change, so afraid that we’ll abandon who we are, that we give in to the pathological fear that hastens our demise[vii], even as we pride ourselves on being a top-shelf tradition for the faithful few – those smart enough to “get it”. The Church can do a new thing without everything being new. We can keep continuity with the past and embrace the future. We must. We must pull from the breadth of tradition and scripture – there is no end to the tools we have at our disposal to shape ourselves and the world around us and to assemble the Kingdom we’re called to inherit.
We need not be a people of fear, or hatred, or contempt. We have the luxury of an abundance of love, a love which drives out all the rest of it[viii]. We must reclaim the via media, the middle way between the various polarizing and competing forces that seek to divide and destroy. This middle way is not a hiding place, nor is it an easy place, and it won’t make everyone happy. In fact, it’s more like to make people quite unhappy because they won’t find cover for the wisdom of this age to grow in their hearts unchallenged. But you know what? This was never supposed to be easy.
The Episcopal Via Media is our place of strength from which to unleash the power of God’s love. We don’t have a Richard Hooker. We don’t really need him. Because we actually have thousands of them, including the hundreds gathered here tonight. The world now, or 500 years from now, may not understand these Episcopalians who gathered in 2021 speaking some foreign language, this language of love, but I hope no matter what they say about us, they won’t be able to say they didn’t hear us.
[ix] Final Notes from the Preacher
[i] The Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer is the original source of this, although Phillis Tickle popularized it.
[ii] The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in Modern English, Davenant Press 2019, p.5.
[iii] This is articulated by Brad Littlejohn at the Davenant Institute in his article, “In Defense of Discrimination: Why Richard Hooker Still Matters, posted March 22, 2019. It is also articulated in Arthur Brooks’ book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From The Culture of Contempt, Broadside Books, 2019.
[iv] One of Arthur Brooks’ theses in Love Your Enemies is about the culture of contempt. He also shares the common theme around the Church’s need to be based on love, something we also hear a lot about from our Presiding Bishop.
[v] “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart”, Peter Wehner, The Atlantic, October 2021.
[vi]“ The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart”.
[vii] Again, brought out by “In Defense of Discrimination.”
[viii] 1 John 4:18
[ix] Mr. Littlejohn’s and Mr. Brooks’ thoughts helped me to shape the arc of this sermon overall, in putting this moment in perspective and helping me see how Richard Hooker fits into it.