Sermon: Richard Hooker


The 1549 Book of Common Prayer was the first Book of Common Prayer. There are many significances to its publication, but primarily, it established a uniformity of worship within the English Church, now separated from the Church of Rome. When it was published, Edward VI was king and he had some very protestant leanings. Three years later, in 1552, we have the second Book of Common Prayer, Edward was still king, but those protestant leanings took a wild swing towards Calvinism, so the revisions were quite severe.

In 1553, at the age of fifteen, Edward VI died. Lady Jane Grey ruled England for nine days and was then executed. She was seventeen. At this point the Book of Common Prayer went out the window as Queen “Bloody” Mary, a staunch Roman Catholic ascended to the throne. She lasted about five and a half years, then died and was followed by Elizabeth I—our beloved “Bess”, who became Queen in 1558. Elizabeth’s inheritance was a kingdom on the brink of civil war between the protestants and the Catholics. What was such a Queen to do?

To begin, as part of the Elizabethan Settlement, Elizabeth issued the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, which sought a middle ground between these two warring factions. For example: in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer, when the priest distributes communion, he says to the communicant: “The body of our Lorde Jesus Christe whiche was geven for thee, preserve thy bodye and soule unto everlasting lyfe.” This is a very Catholic statement in that it points to the real presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine. In the 1552 English Book of Common Prayer, the priest says, “Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving.” This is a protestant view of the sacrament, in that the bread and wine are only a memorialization. Elizabeth, in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, had the priest say: “The bodie of our lord Jesu Christ, which was geven for the, preserve thy body and soule into everlastinge life: and take and eate this in remembraunce that Christ died for thee, feede on him in thine heart by faith, with thankesgevynge.” It was a combination of the two views. This type of compromise can be found throughout the 1559.

Calvin once got into an argument with his tiger, Hobbes, which resulted in a compromise. Calvin’s opinion on the result: “A good compromise leaves everybody mad.” (May 1, 1993) Elizabeth’s solution basically accomplished the same result, but it was a beginning. This way of seeking the compromise is known in the Anglican Church (Episcopalians included) as the via media / the middle way. It is very much what defines our church. We are neither Catholic or protestant. We are—and I agree—the best of both worlds.

According to the Episcopal Dictionary, “Via media is often misunderstood in a negative way to mean compromise or unwillingness to take a firm position. However, for Aristotle and those Anglicans who have used it, the term refers to the ‘golden mean’ which is recognized as a more adequate expression of truth between the weaknesses of extreme positions.”

Why all this talk of the development of the Book of Common Prayer and the via media? It was our saint for the day, Richard Hooker, who was the great apologist/defender of this Anglican Way. In his great work, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, he puts forth the arguments that allowed the Elizabethan Settlement to be more fully realized and to continue to this day. Even Pope Clement VIII (died 1605) declared: “It [the book] has in it such seeds of eternity that it will abide until the last fire shall consume all learning.”

The via media today tends to get hijacked by whichever side is in power, but in the end, the prayer is that it will come back to that “golden mean”, where there are no sides, but only the truth.

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