This past Thursday saw the first meeting of the Richard Hooker reading group at CDSP. About a dozen students joined me. Most were first and third year Master of Divinity students with a smattering of students from other programs, plus an exchange student from Ripon College Cuddesdon in England. We gathered as people seeking to learn about Hooker and his Lawes. Some of us had read significant parts of his work before, some none at all.
We began at the beginning, with the Preface. People in turn read aloud from Hooker, one sentence at a time. We stopped after each sentence, mulling it over before moving on. Sometimes, explanatory comments were offered or questions posed. Other times the sentence spoke for itself. We got through five pages in an hour, reading the short first section of the Preface in which Hooker set forth the rational for the work and half of the second section in which Hooker narrated the history of John Calvin’s Geneva.
Even in five pages Hookers distinctive ethos has emerged. Take this passage for example:
“Thinke not that ye reade the words of one, who bendeth him selfe as an adversarie against the truth which ye have alreadie embraced; but the words of one who desireth even to embrace together with you the selfe same truth, if it be the truth, and for that cause (for no other God he knoweth) hath undertaken the burthensome labor of this painefull kinde of conference.” (Preface I.3, lines 1-6)
Upon hearing this passage one participant commented on how Anglican it sounded. Hooker here sets forth his argument with his Puritan opponents not as argument for the sake of argument, but as ultimately a search for truth. Granted, Hooker argues vigorously and perhaps polemically for his view but he does so with the hope that he can unite with those he disagrees at least in the search for the truth found in God. And this perhaps is one of Hooker’s important contributions: the disagreements and arguments over the form of the church ultimately ought to yield to the truth established in God alone.
I recently came in possession of the Folger Library edition of Richard Hooker's Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity. As I stood in my office hefting volume one in my hands, I thought, "When on earth will I actually read this?" In Anglican circles Hooker'swork is like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time -- often referenced and rarely read. I have read my share of Hooker as a historian of Christianity and professor of church history at an Episcopal seminary. But I knew very few people who had ever read the whole thing.
So I stood in my office and thought, "I am only going to read this if I do it with someone." I thought of offering an elective course, but I doubted either that many students would register or that we could finish the entire work in a semester. An informal reading group seemed like the right vehicle for a project as daunting as reading all of Richard Hooker's Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity.
So this is the project that has been undertaken at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific this fall semester. We will gather as a group of faculty, staff, and students to read Richard Hooker from beginning to end. We will read him aloud, deciphering his Elizabethan prose and spelling one sentence at a time. We will begin with the preface and work our way through all eight books talking about his argument as a group. I have no idea when this project will end; it may take years. But it seems like a project worth doing.