glory of god

glory of god

Monday, November 3, 2014

On Richard Hooker, the Body of Christ, and the Great Grape Debate: A Sermon for Episcopal Divinity School

In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen.

I thought I would begin my homily with a few questions for you—to make it a little more interactive. There are no right or wrong answers. But you do have to think back—however far back you have to go—to the time before you came to EDS (or before seminary if this is not your first adventure in theological education). So, raise your hand if, before starting seminary, you had ever heard of a man called Thomas Aquinas. Okay, great. Now, here’s another one: raise your hand if you had ever heard of Martin Luther. How about John Calvin? And finally, think back to your foggy pre-seminary days. Had you ever heard of Richard Hooker?

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we know of the main or foundational Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed theologians—maybe not always what exactly they said, but certainly who they were. But when it comes to the foundational Anglican theologian, not so much. Why is that? Maybe it’s because Anglicans were late comers to the Reformation party, or because our theologians write in a particularly opaque sort of way, or maybe it’s simply because there isn’t anything necessarily unique about the substance of Anglican theology, even if there is a fairly consistent method or lens through which we look at things—a lens offered in part by Hooker, as it happens.

If I remember back, I think that I had heard just a little of Richard Hooker before starting at EDS in 1995, nearly 20 years ago, because I had read Carter Heyward’s book Touching our Strength when I was in college, and I believe she briefly references Hooker in it. I don’t know what he would think about being featured in a book on sexual theology, but there you go—he appeals to Anglicans of all backgrounds and perspectives—those of us here at EDS and no doubt our brothers and sisters at Trinity School for Ministry and Nashotah House who are celebrating him today as well. But despite that early introduction in Carter’s book, it wasn’t until I finally got here and started studying the figures of the English Reformation that I really learned what Richard Hooker was all about, and how significant he is—probably as much for giving us a roadmap for the work of doing theology and living together in church, as for the unique content of this thought.

Most often Hooker is credited with crafting the “three-legged stool” of Anglicanism, comprised of scripture, reason, and tradition. In the popular view, these three elements stand equal in strength and length, as would the legs of a well-balanced stool. Here is what Hooker actually writes: “Be it a matter of one kind or of the other, what scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.”

In other words, Hooker suggests a system which privileges scripture as primary, the longest leg of the stool, as it were, with the constant use of reason as its interpreter, and only tradition or the voice of the church, by which he usually means the early church, as a third and even distant source of authority. A very unstable stool, indeed, with legs of three different lengths. But, it’s still a profound method for the doing of theology and the ordering of the church’s life. Though, admittedly, it’s not always easy, clean, or obvious. Certainly, Hooker’s approach can lead to a lot of disagreement, as we each read scripture and utilize our own individual gifts of reason and interpretations of the tradition of the church—sometimes coming up with very different and even conflicting ideas of what’s right in any context or situation. I guess maybe that’s why Anglicans are so good at disagreement—we have taken to heart at least some of Hooker’s method.

Which, as it happens, reminds me of a major disagreement—a sacramental controversy even— that arose here at EDS when I was a student, as we struggled to sort out the right balance of scripture, reason, and tradition for our community. I’m pretty sure it was the 1997 to 98 school year. And at some point it was suggested, out of pastoral concern and a sense of justice and inclusion, that we should start offering grape juice at the Eucharist, as well as wine. That’s regular practice at EDS today, but 16 or 17 years ago it was a new.

You seriously wouldn’t believe how this innovation divided the community. “The Great Grape Debate” some of us called it. Things became so tense that Dean Rankin called for a community-wide forum to discuss it. Faculty debated—some offered a strong “pro-grape juice” position, arguing that inclusiveness and sacramental hospitality should be at the heart of who we are as a community, while others with equal conviction argued that the Prayer Book rubrics clearly state that the Eucharist must be administered with unfailing use of the words and elements that Christ used (and, of course, grape juice hadn’t been invented then). Not only that, they argued that it would be sacramentally impossible to consecrate anything other than regular fermented wine. In other words, it just wouldn’t work. Those holding the more conservative position also argued, as tradition long had done, that receiving in one kind is adequate and constitutes full sacramental participation.

As incomprehensible as it might sound today, the whole thing was really painful and divisive, separating dear friends and colleagues, because it really was about the sacramental center of our life together—who felt welcome among us, and who didn’t. Some members of the community even started wearing little knit grape clusters to witness to their support of adding a non-alcoholic option, while others refused to participate in any Eucharists that included the grape juice. There were notices in the weekly “Common Fare” newsletter alerting us as to whether grape juice would be offered or not, so that no one be offended or feel unwelcome.

Personally, I was perplexed by the whole thing. Several of my closest friends and a favorite faculty mentor were on the more “traditionalist” side, but I had plenty of friends who wore the liberationist grape clusters as well. I grew up in the Lutheran Church and we always had a choice of wine or grape juice, so I couldn’t quite understand what the big deal was. But being newer to the Episcopal Church I was really trying hard to understand all the arguments, thinking maybe I was missing something. Or maybe, I thought, this is just the way Episcopalians are. They don’t argue much about theology, unlike Lutherans who are expert at that—look at all the different synods—but these Episcopalians surely do care about liturgical minutiae.

Finally, in a debate on the subject in a class on the Prayer Book, I had enough and blurted out: “Look, if we can convince ourselves that wafers are really bread, then it seems to me that grape juice is close enough to wine.” I don’t think the professor, who was on the traditionalist side was too impressed, but I stood by it. These little details—wanting to be sure that we do things properly or that we believe all the right things—can become so all consuming that we miss the forest for the trees. I’m as guilty of that as anyone—just ask my altar guild or any of my former seminarians. But how much better would it have been if, rather than twisting ourselves into knots over whether the grapes were fermented or not, we had all understood that by making a small accommodation—one that didn’t hurt or take away anything from anyone—we would enable our fellow community members to draw closer to God. That, it seems to me, is the Hookerian way.

Like Jesus, Richard Hooker had no concept of grape juice. It wasn’t invented until 1869, by a Mr. Welch. But in his time Hooker was well acquainted with Eucharistic controversies. He was born in 1554 during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor, and grew to maturity under Elizabeth I. He died on Nov. 3 in 1600, just three years before Elizabeth. Even if he didn’t witness firsthand any burnings at the stake over eucharistic theology, he was certainly aware of them after the fact. And he was equally aware that many in his own time felt that the established church was leading people to their own damnation for teaching “Popery.” Hooker’s solution to these conflicts was to suggest that whatever theories we might have about what’s happening in the sacrament are far less important than God fulfilling God’s promises. For Hooker the emphasis was always on God’s action through grace, and then our faithful response to that action, rather than our theories.

So for example, for Hooker, the bread and wine are signs or symbols of God’s presence, a presence that is really enacted in the blessing, breaking, sharing, and eating. But, Christ’s true presence is to be found in the heart of the recipient, more than in the elements themselves. He writes rather famously: “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not therefore to be sought in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament.” However, although this is his personal view, he has no interest in excluding or excommunicating those who hold other beliefs. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Puritans—he thought they were all wrong—but still they were really and truly are members of the Body of Christ, and thus they also receive the full grace and power of the sacrament. It was quite the astounding, comprehensive, even liberal position for a Reformation theologian.

He came to that view, because ultimately, for Hooker, the underlying purpose of the sacrament, in fact the underlying purpose of the whole of human life, is always participation in Christ—that Christ may dwell in us and we in him. Everything else is extra—and our theories for how that happens are just that, theories. He explains:

“It is on all sides plainly confessed, first that this sacrament is a true and a real participation in Christ, who thereby imparteth himself even his whole entire person as a mystical Head unto every soul that receiveth him, and that every such receiver doth thereby incorporate or unite himself unto Christ as a mystical member of him, yea of them also whom he acknowledgeth to be his own; secondly, that to whom the person of Christ is thus communicated, to them he giveth by the same sacrament his Holy Spirit to sanctify them as it sanctifieth him which is their head; thirdly that what merit, force, or virtue soever there is in his sacrificed body and blood, we freely fully and wholly have it by this sacrament; fourthly that the effect thereof in us is a real transmutation of our souls and bodies from sin to righteousness, from death and corruption to immortality and life; fifthly that because the sacrament being of itself but a corruptible and earthly creature must needs be thought an unlikely instrument to work so admirable effects in man, we are therefore to rest ourselves altogether upon the strength of his glorious power who is able and will bring to pass that the bread and cup which he giveth us shall be truly the thing he promiseth.”

With that, Hooker suggests a roadmap to end heated philosophical and theological arguments. Rather than debate, he urges us all to take comfort and even assurance in the knowledge that God will fulfill God’s promise, which is to bring us into participation in the divine life—that Christ may dwell in us and we in him—and most especially into the salvation that such participation makes possible.

You know, as much as Anglicans like to appeal to Richard Hooker in a casual sort of way, I believe we need to set aside what we think he says, like the wobbly three-legged stool, and really read him, and reflect on his deep insights into the church community as the Body of Christ, not only for the 16th century, but for today, the blessed company of all faithful people, in which God lives, and in which God reconciles and transforms, in which God gives life—new, abundant, eternal life. Because when we do that, I think we’ll realize that our divisions are just our divisions, not God’s—whether of theology or liturgy or whatever may divide us. As Hooker reminds us, God desires nothing more than that we would be united—if not always in thought, then in spirit, in God’s Holy Spirit—so that we all may live in God and God may live in us.

I’ll close with one final reflection by Hooker on the Eucharist, which I think is especially beautiful and reminds us that our goal and purpose is always to simply receive the blessings that God so richly and freely offers us all, whoever we are, whatever we believe, whatever our divisions or disagreements. He writes:

“Let it therefore be sufficient for me presenting myself at my Lord’s table to know what there I receive from him, without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enemies to piety, abatements of true devotion, and hitherto in this cause but overly patiently heard, let them take their rest…. what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any congregation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my soul, thou art happy!”

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD