Page 9, 17th December 1999

17th December 1999
Page 9
Page 9, 17th December 1999 — Blowing the dust off a prophet

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Locations: Exeter, York, London, Oxford


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Blowing the dust off a prophet

Hal Jensen examines the legacy of Richard Hooker, intellectual father of Anglicanism Richard Hooker: Prophet of Anglicanism by Philip B Secor, Burns & Oates £19.95 HANDS UP if you have read any Richard Hooker recently. If your hands are raised, perhaps you could explain why, for there are a number of seemingly irremoveable obstacles between most of us and Hooker's magnificent prose apologia, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

The first is its size and age: one doesn't settle down with an eight-volume 16th-century work, certainly not without some expert guidance. The second is its reputation: the Folger Library publishes the Laws, in a meticulous scholarly edition, and it is academics of a theological or (less so, these days) literary bent to whom this work seems to appeal. You won't find a Penguin paperback. The very qualities designed to lend it wide acceptance — its reasonableness and oncefamous Olympian style render it distant and uncompelling. In a word, dull.

The third obstacle is our lack of knowledge about Hooker himself. As with Shakespeare, our information consists largely in official documents: those things that least define us. (Imagine someone attempting to capture your personality, using only your CV.) We do have Izaak Walton's famous Life, published in 1665. Although written more than 60 years after Hooker's death, and clearly a work of moral exhortation — a model for admiration and inspiration rather than anything resembling modern biography, with its obsession with "the facts", Walton's Life has not until now been superseded. His unchallenged picture of Hooker as worthy, hard-working, devout, modest (even hen-pecked), judicious, and of his work as transcendent, has only lessened any ability or desire to make contact with this unbelievably pure man.

Taken together, these obstacles need expert dismantling, if a case is to be made for Hooker's interest and relevance at the end of the 20th century. Philip B Secor, in this scholarly and populist biography, has perhaps done a better job than one could have imagined.

Dr Secor's basic intention, it appears, is to transform Hooker from a book to a man. To this end, he avoids approaching his subject through the library; we do not have to watch him heave down a vast folio, blow the dust off, and begin to discourse on this or that bit of intricate logic or style. Rather, it is as if a lever is pulled and the library walls revolve to plunge us straight into 16thcentury Exeter, where Hooker grew up. Secor conjures the sensual characteristics of England's fifth largest city (8,000 inhabitants!) — the crowded, noisy, stinking cobbled streets — along with its trades and pastimes, its dangers, governance, and rapid growth. Here, Hooker's uncle is the first in a line of influential figures we are to meet advocating political stability as a solution to religious disruption.

With each change of scene, Secor brings to bear the likely external influences on his subject: his inadequate gram mar school education; his 15 years in an intellectually and politically volatile, plagueridden Oxford, both as undergraduate and don; the shocking vitality of London, where he achieved fame as Master of the Temple. Another of Secor's tactics is to define Hooker, for whom we have so few personal records, with regard to the people he met and worked with, about whom we know a deal more: the celebrated polemicist, Bishop John Jewel; his outspoken and brilliant Protestant tutor at Oxford, John Rainolds; Edwin Sandys, the powerful yet accommodating Archbishop of York; his cousin, the radical Calvinist Walter Travers, with whom he competed for the Temple job; his patron, the pragmatic John Whitgift.

Secor gives a full account of the antagonism between Hooker and Travers, until it does indeed seem, as he calls it, "one of the defining events in the story of emergent Anglicanism". Their violent disagreement forced Hooker to promote his tolerant views (his belief, especially, that cardinals and popes could be saved, after all) as an aggressive stance, a needful doctrine, thus laying the foundations for his magnum opus.

By the time Secor deals with the composition of the Laws, the image of the intellectual and introspective Hooker sitting down to bring order to turbulent thoughts and actions of his day seems not dull, but bold. Those qualities that keep the Laws a closed book today suddenly seem dramatic. Hooker's moderation is radical; his distanced view, dealing with the nature of knowledge in general before moving, organic al y, via natural law, to Church governance, shines brightly from within the dark conflicts of his age and immediate surroundings.

After taking us through the different purpose and reception of each of the Law's Books, again bringing vital context to our view of the whole work, Secor ends with a celebration of Book V as the original, most important, apologia for the spirit of what would become Anglicanism (although his emphasis on Hooker's defence of common prayer surely takes us back to Thomas Cramer).

It is certainly to Dr Secor's credit that he manages to bring Hooker so vividly before us. The irony is that while it portrays its subject as prophetic, it is itself somewhat elegiac (or at it feels so); a lament, almost, for a once reasonable and coherent Anglicanism that seems to have fragmented.

That which Hooker pulled together has, to some minds, rent itself apart. Just as Secor has brought context, detail, movement and passion to what was regarded as objective, transcendent and calm, so the Anglicanism which mirrored itself in Hooker's supposed image has had its stability and tranquility disturbed.

SECOR RESURRECTS the prophet. In so doing, in making a plea for the current importance of Hooker's tolerance and reason in this chaotic age, does he also herald the imminent disappearance of that which was prophesied? After Secor, the long-lived myth of Hooker can no longer be sustained. Surely it is only a matter of time before scholars feel similarly obliged to blow away the "long-lived myth" of Anglicanism, and place that, too, in a "proper" historical context.

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