Richard Hooker



Richard Hooker, 1554 – 1600, has been acclaimed as one of the founding fathers of Anglican theology.

Hooker was born around Easter 1554 in Heavitree, near Exeter. Having excelled at the local grammar school – Hooker’s family were not especially wealthy – he won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College in the University of Oxford. Hooker came up to Oxford under the patronage of John Jewel, the bishop of Salisbury. He kept company with prominent figures of the new Anglican Church; the great nephew of Thomas Cranmer, the complier of the Book of Common Prayer, and the son of the Archbishop of York were amongst his companions.

Richard Hooker left Oxford to take up his first living here at St Mary the Virgin, Drayton Beauchamp. Parish records state that he held the incumbency from 1584 to 1585, and a flurry of activity in the parish registers would suggest that he actually was resident in the parish. His biographer, Izaac Walton, writing 62 years after Hooker’s death tells the apocryphal tale of Hooker being stranded in Drayton Beauchamp, having to look after the sheep, his wife, and a crying baby. And of how his Oxford chum’s father, Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of York took pity of him and had him appointed to the Temple Church in London. However, in defence of Drayton Beauchamp, Walton’s tale has many stumbling points; firstly the parish was a wealthy living and the concept of the rector tending the sheep would have been unheard of, and secondly Hooker did not marry until 1588, three years after he left the benefice.

Once in London Hooker entered into the hot political scene. Mary Tudor (reigned 1553 – 1558) sought to restore England to Roman Catholicism and the authority of the Pope following the Protestant Reforms of her half brother, Edward VI. This brought the country into turmoil, and it fell to Elizabeth I to unify the Church and Sate in a moderately reformed and inclusive Christian nation. The Elizabethan Settlement and Act of Uniformity, 1559 effectively established the Church of England, its relationship to the State, and the use of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Temple church, whose congregation contained many lawyers and judges, had become a centre for the radical, puritan elements of Calvinist theology and Presbyterian liturgy, which Elizabeth had been keen to suppress, as she sought to establish her ‘via media’ between Rome and Geneva. Hooker’s assistant. Walter Travers, a Reader and an arch-Calvinst used his pulpit platform to refute the moderate, inclusive sermons of Hooker. It was to be this great debate, this battle of the pulpit, which provided much of the inspiration and material for Hooker’s great apologia and treatise on Anglicanism, ‘Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.’

Ecclesiastical Polity means the governance of the Church, and it is through the lens of how the church is governed that Hooker expresses his Anglican theological identity. He saw the Church of England as being a middle way, a via media between the extremes of the authority of the Roman Church and the doctrinal arguments of the Lutheran and Calvinist, Protestant Churches. The overriding principle of Anglicanism was to be the use of tradition and reason, especially when interpreting the Scriptures, as well as reference to the context, “Words must be taken according to the matter whereof they are uttered.” (Book 4.11.7]

Hooker left the Temple in 1591 to take up a largely absentee appointment as a minor canon of Salisbury Cathedral and vicar of Boscombe. His final appointment was as Rector of Bishopbourne in Kent, where he died on 3rd November 1600.

The value of Hooker’s legacy is inestimable, and especially his fifth of his Laws, ‘On Anglican Faith and Worship’. It has been indispensible in understanding the practise and purpose of worship and church life, ranging from prayer, the Sacraments, furnishings, to the naming of churches. But it is more his principles of using reason and tradition, as well as authority in understanding how the church can be the living body of Christ on earth. In the twenty-first century, it would be of much merit for the hierarchy of the Anglican Church to remember the all inclusive via media championed by Elizabeth I and Hooker.