Vol I No. 7
Theology & Liturgy

Reformed and Catholic? Bradford Littlejohn on the quest for Identity in a Rootless Church

by William J. Martin

Reformed and Catholic?

Searching for Identity in a Rootless Church


Dr. Bradford Littlejohn

Director of the Davenant Institute

Introduction: Reformed or Catholic?

Ten years ago now, in 2009, the growing hodgepodge of congregations and bishops that protested against the spreading corruptions in the Episcopal Church formally banded together to form the Anglican Church in North America. Since that time, many other churches, like lifeboats from the sinking Episcopal Church, have gathered around the ACNA and clambered aboard—Truro Anglican Church among them. And although during this past decade, many conservative Anglicans have been breathing a sigh of relief that they at last have a church to call home, what they should call this home, how they should identify themselves, has been less clear. Are they “reformed” or “catholic”?

Now by this I do not mean primarily to draw attention to the long and continual war between so-called “Reformational Anglicans” and “Anglo-Catholics,” those wishing to identify Anglicanism’s close connection to the Reformed theological tradition vs. those wishing to narrow the gap between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. I certainly have plenty to say on this topic, as does Richard Hooker, and this lecture will shed some light on it—but it is not my principal concern here.

Rather, I want to highlight the more basic tension between the ACNA’s aspiration to have reformed itself from the corruptions of the Episcopal Church, and its aspiration to remain in continuity with the broader church—the “catholic” wholeness of the church of Christ. On the one hand, it seeks to emphasize that it is different from what it was before; on the other hand, it seeks to emphasize that it is unchanged. On the one hand, it seeks to be distinctive and set apart; on the other hand, it seeks to hold things in common with believers. On the one hand, it seeks to emphasize error to be condemned; on the other hand, it seeks to emphasize fellowship to be retained.

This situation is not unique to this historical moment; indeed, long after the rift with the Episcopal Church has receded far into the rear-view mirror, the same questions and tensions will arise within the ACNA, as indeed they arise in every church, and particularly in our modern American context. The church of Jesus Christ is called to be one, but it is also called to be holy. What is it to do when the demands of holiness seem to require separation? And what is it to do when the demands of unity seem to require compromise? How can we follow our calling to “Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) and to be imitators of God in “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18)?

“So We Are Still”: Richard Hooker on the Catholicity of the Church of England

More than four hundred years ago, contemplating the “reformed catholicism” of the Protestant Reformation, Richard Hooker wrestled with the same question: “We can certainly hope that those of us who reform ourselves where we have gone astray do not thereby cut ourselves off from the Church of prior ages. We were in the Church then and so we are still.”[1]

In this, he was answering a common charge that Roman Catholics lobbed at Protestants then and now:

This very same error makes others today ask us where our Church lurked and in what cave of the earth it slept for hundreds of years before the birth of Martin Luther, as if we thought that Luther started a completely new Church. The Church of Christ remains as it was from the beginning and will continue to the end, though not all parts in it have been equally sincere and sound.[2]

Theologically speaking, Hooker’s answer is a pretty straightforward one. The church is first and foremost a theological entity, not a sociological one, defined by the Lord who names it and the faith that claims Him as Lord. The full catholic church that transcends time and space has many members, some of them more and some of them less sound. To separate from corruptions—and if necessary from corrupt members—is not to separate from the one holy catholic church, but on the contrary, to reaffirm one’s commitment to and union with her. On the Protestant account, which Hooker cheerfully endorsed, it was really Rome that had become un-catholic on many points.

The only change our church has undergone is the change seen in Judah when, having once been idolatrous, they became afterwards more godly by renouncing idolatry and superstition….The Church of Rome’s unwillingness to reform herself and our desire for unity with them must not prevent us from doing our duty to God by reforming ourselves. Nevertheless, we have had and do have fellowship with them, as far as we lawfully can. For just as the apostle says of Israel that they are in one respect enemies, yet in another beloved of God (Rom. 11:28), in the same way we dare not participate in Rome’s many grievous abominations, yet to the extent that they continue upholding the main tenets of Christian truth, we gladly acknowledge that they are part of the family of Jesus Christ.[3]

Hooker, for all his reputation as a dovish reconciler of opposing positions, did not mince words when it came to Roman Catholic errors—indeed, this is one place where our modern translation fails to do justice to the original, which says “with Rome we dare not communicate concerning sundry her gross and grievous abominations.” Theological prose just ain’t what it used to be. But he also goes out of his way to emphasize that Rome is still a Christian church inasmuch as she still confesses basic Christian truths, and that any good English Protestant should yearn for reconciliation: “Our heartfelt prayer to Almighty God is that since we are still thus far joined with them, they may in due time (if it be His will) repent and reform themselves, so that there may be no separation and we may ‘with one accord [and] with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 15:6), whose Church we are.”[4]

Although in many ways the issues that divide the Episcopal Church and the ACNA are deeper than the rifts of the Reformation era, and it is harder to tell if many Episcopal bishops “continue upholding the main tenets of Christian truth,” Hooker’s attitude is one that we should try and emulate as much as possible in our own context—whether that be that of the ACNA or any other denomination seeking to remain faithful and reform according to Scripture when that requires painful rifts.

“Hurled into a Vacuum”: The Loss of Ecclesial Identity

Still, if this is all we said—“Hey look, we’re happy to get along on all the things we still agree about, and as for the rest, we’re actually being more faithful to the past—more catholic—and you guys are being the schismatic innovators”—it might ring rather hollow. Not because it is untrue, mind you. A great many of the practices which the Reformers rejected really weremuch less ancient than their Roman Catholic adversaries insisted. Nowadays many Roman Catholics will admit this, and appeal to Newman’s principle of doctrinal development, but back then, they really did try to claim that penance and indulgences and papal supremacy had been around since the beginning, and the Protestants—in England and elsewhere—schooled them handily in many of these arguments.

But true or not, such claims do not get to the existential heart of the matter. The fact is that even if the one, holy, catholic church transcends both time and space, the churches within which we are formed, within which our identities and our experience of the faith take shape, do not. When we experience a violent rupture within time and space that cuts us off from these social forms, or what Oliver O’Donovan calls “structures of communication within which we have learned to act,”[5]we feel dazed and disoriented. As O’Donovan puts it, “we can find ourselves hurled into a vacuum in which we do not know how to realize ourselves effectively.”[6]

This is what happened in the English Reformation, and this is what has happened again in many Anglican churches today. The socially-formed identity (for there is no other kind of identity, whatever late-modern individualism might try and tell us) of 16th-century Christians was shattered. As O’Donovan notes, social identity can be “disrupted and broken, not only by calamities but by new experiences, traumatic or otherwise, which put in doubt the significance of previous generations’ experience.”[7]In such situations, “Who are we?” becomes the most pressing question on everyone’s lips, and it is not a question that can be answered simply by reciting a creed of beliefs.

The danger of the Protestant Reformation, like many great reform movements, was that it was carried out disproportionately by academics. Academics are people who have “gone off to university,” leaving behind the communities and social contexts within which ordinary people were and are formed, and who have established new communities, and new identities, primarily in relation to texts, truths, and ideas—and friends who share allegiance to the same texts and truths. It was easy for many of the Protestant Reformers to imagine that all they had to do was light a fire with the printing press, re-articulate clear creeds and confessions, and a new community of reformed catholicism would take shape around these doctrines. But in reality, only a small fraction of 16th-century Europeans were going to go for that. For most early moderns, as for most moderns, the answer to “Who are we?” has to involve tangible lived experience, rooted in place, customs, and shared history. To quote Oliver O’Donovan again:

Communications are sustained by tradition, and tradition is a continuity of practices, learned, repeated, and developed. In specialist communities these practices revolve around skills and around the knowledge that supports skills. But what kind of practice forms the tradition of a whole society, the matrix within which many specialist communities cohere within a given place? Supremely, the practice of recounting. History sustains the identity of societies….The subject of histories are places. But because places are materially different from one another, so are their histories; and because histories are different, so are the societies which recount them. [8]

Now, there is much to say about how the re-narration of history played such a crucial role in the formation of new reformed yet catholic identities in early modern Europe and especially early modern England. It has been said that Foxe’s Book of Martyrsplayed as great a role as the Book of Common Prayer in helping to form a new English Protestant identity. But that would be another lecture, and one that would have somewhat less relevance to Hooker’s work. Richard Hooker knew it was not enough to demonstrate doctrinalcatholicity, he had to address practices that form tradition, and the threats to such practices that arise in times of reform. In this, he was following the lead of the original genius of the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer.

Common Objects of Hate

Thomas Cranmer, the great architect of the English Reformation, had the English good sense to realize that if he was going to help the English people navigate such a violent rupture to their self-understanding, it could not be done merely through doctrine—even if that doctrine could truthfully claim to be simultaneously reformed and catholic. He needed to use liturgy. Hence the central role of the Book of Common Prayer in forming Anglican identity then and for 450 years since. Still, his liturgical genius could only limit the trauma to the national psyche that the Reformation unleashed; it could not prevent it altogether. And in times of trauma, we are tempted to fall back on one of two easy but incomplete responses: to forge our identities wholly around “reformed” or around “catholic.” The latter strategy has perhaps proved the greater temptation for Anglicanism through much of its history, though it was less so at the outset: to take refuge in an indifferentism which insists on emphasizing all that we share in common and in minimizing points of friction, to focus on “getting along,” on being a happy “via media” between extremists on all sides, to stress continuity with the past and downplay the significance of any reforms—to the point where one can reasonably wonder, as John Henry Newman eventually did, why reformation should have been necessary at all. The latter strategy remains a powerful temptation for a body like the ACNA, which, formed out of so many disparate movements and agendas, can easily fall prey to thinking that the only way forward is through a managerial moderation or a nostalgic  antiquarianism.

In Hooker’s time, however, it was the former strategy that predominated, a strategy that he describes with his typical wry irony in the Preface to his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:

Every new Reformed church that came along aspired to remove itself even further from any hint of the Church of Rome than the churches before it. Thus they drifted further and further apart from one another in practice, and as a result there came to be much strife, jealousy, discord, and bad blood between them.[9]

As Augustine famously observed in the City of God, communities must be defined around a common object of love; without such, they are not communities at all, but merely a chaotic herd of individuals who have congregated together for safety. Often, however, a community can substitute a common object of fear or hatred for a common object of love. Such a community is defined less by what they all value and hope to accomplish (although they may indeed share positive values) and more by their fear of outsiders or desire to be as unlike them as possible. To be sure, in the sixteenth century, there were many good reasons for Protestants to be afraid of Catholics and want to distance themselves from them, but such fear could never be a sustainable basis for a vibrant church, much less a system of government, as the Presbyterians hoped to create. (The unsustainability of such an ethos of paranoia was quickly proved in the tumultuous years of the English Civil War, when the Puritans finally got their turn to try and govern.)

This social phenomenon has been highlighted anew by many recent sociologists and American political commentators, foremost among them Senator Ben Sasse in his new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal. Having suffered over the past several decades the fragmentation of the traditions and structures of communication that undergirded our social identities, our “tribes,” Sasse notes that Americans—instinctively fleeing from the naked individualism that the market calls us to—have taken refuge instead in “anti-tribes,” communities of identity forged in opposition to various evils, real or imagined. We do not know what we are for, but by golly, we sure do know what we are against.

Sadly, these anti-tribes offer only a poor substitute for the real thing. Because this new community is chosen rather than given, forged rather than received, it acquires a militant zeal, defensiveness, and paranoia, vigorously policing dissent, and often presenting itself as the only viable future. We see this today at both ends of the cultural spectrum. On the one hand, no sooner has the gay rights movement (a paradigmatic instance of “identity politics”) won its campaign for tolerance and respect than it has turned violently on all rival communities of value, demanding no tolerance at all for traditionalist views of marriage. On the other hand, conservative denominations of all stripes, or transdenominational “movements” defined by a celebrity pastor or guru, readily develop a mass psychology defined by “insiders” and “outsiders,” “orthodox” and “apostates,” and react fiercely to dissent, sustaining a delusional optimism about their own importance on the global religious scene. Movements that identify themselves solely with reference to “reform” rather than “catholicity” cease to be reform movements and become revolutionary movements.

When Reform Becomes Revolution

Hooker spends much of his Preface to the Laws (which in our edition we titled Radicalism: When Reform Becomes Revolution) offering a truly brilliant diagnosis and analysis of this social pathology in all its stages. One of its distinctive features, he notes, is a dangerous self-confidence and self-righteousness. Terrified by the chaos and uncertainty unleashed by the break from the past, the revolutionary demands a new source of certainty and wraps himself up in it, stopping his ears against any that would say, “Well hang on, it’s a bit more complicated than that.” As Hooker says:

But be they women or be they men, if once they have drunk the cup of this persuasion, let anyone who thinks differently open his mouth to persuade them and they will close up their ears and refuse to consider his reasons. They have their answer rehearsed: “We are of God; he that knoweth God heareth us” (1 Jn. 4:6), and as for the rest, “Ye are of the world and speak of the world’s pomp and vanity, and the world, whose ye are, hears you![10]

The danger here of course is not just that such reformers-turned-revolutionaries will abandon catholicity, needlessly cutting themselves off from others, but that they will in due course abandon reason altogether. Quoting Hooker again:

This is the very point for which I write: my purpose is to show that when the minds of men are once erroneously persuaded that it is the will of God for them to do those things they fancy, their opinions are as thorns in their sides, not allowing them to rest until they have put their speculations into practice. Their restless desire to remove anything in their way leads them by the hand into increasingly dangerous opinions, sometimes quite contrary to their original intentions. Whenever people hide their own errors under the cloak of divine authority, it is impossible for anyone to imagine what will come of it, until time has revealed the fruits.[11]

Although we have been talking here chiefly about theological controversies, my reference to Ben Sasse and a moment’s reflection reveal the much wider applicability of these remarks. Although only some segments of modern politics and culture war speak explicitly in terms of “the will of God” and “divine authority,” parties on all sides have adopted the righteous zeal, false certainty, and eschatological ultimacy that usually go with such appeals. Hooker’s observations might readily be extended to Trumpists and anti-Trumpists, to free-marketeers and social justice warriors.

Hooker’s Answer: Identity Rooted in History

So how do we avoid this pathology?

Hooker’s answer to such a militant sense of identity, forged in conflict with the other, the oppressor, the persecutor, is a sense of identity rooted in history. This appeal to history is how Hooker’s vision of the church acquires such capacious breadth without sacrificing depth. The depth comes not from the contemporary moment, which can only sustain the necessary depth of meaning by a ferocious stress on purity, but from the long legacy of custom and tradition. For Hooker, the common object of love that sustained his vision of an English church and civil community was the whole cultural inheritance that Elizabethan England had received, an inheritance that included not merely the triumphs of the Protestant Reformers, but the great edifice of medieval scholasticism, of the English legal tradition, of the early church, and the great classical heritage that had nourished the Fathers and the medievals—and above all the liturgical riches of the catholic past, transmitted in a distinctively English form through the Book of Common Prayer: “But in truth the ceremonies which we have taken from our predecessors are not things that belong to this or that sect; no, they are the ancient rites and customs of the Church of Christ, to which we can lay every bit as much claim as our forefathers from whom we received them.”[12]

Although the Puritan reformers chafed and protested against the merely “half-reformed” character of the Book of Common Prayer, lamenting that Cranmer had not made a clean break and gone back to the liturgical drawing-board, Hooker argued that it was precisely this great wisdom in the English Reformers that held their nation and church together while the rest of Europe was “aflame with conflict in all its leading nations at once.”[13]Recognizing, as O’Donovan put it, that “communications are sustained by tradition, and tradition is a continuity of practices, learned, repeated, and developed,” the early English Reformers, Hooker notes,

had to first consider that any change of laws is not something to undertake lightly, especially in matters of religion….[I]f it is a law which the custom and continual practice of many ages or years has confirmed in the minds of men, to change it will necessarily cause trouble and offense. When the people see things suddenly discarded, annulled, and rejected that long custom had made into matters of second nature, they are bewildered, and begin to doubt whether anything is in itself naturally good or evil, rather than being simply whatever men choose to call it at any given moment. How can we induce men to willingly obey and observe laws, if not by appealing to the weight of many men’s judgment who agreed to such laws after thoughtful deliberation, and the weight of that long experience which the world has had with these laws, consenting to and approving them? Thus, whenever we change any law, in the eyes of the people it cannot help but impair and weaken the force that makes all laws effectual.[14]

Of course, if this is all we said, we would be stuck in a never-upset-the-status-quo conservatism. But the vision of Hooker’s Lawsis marked far more by its flexibility than its rigidity. While asking us to defer as a general rule to longstanding customs and conventions, Hooker repeatedly insists on the importance of rewriting or discarding obsolete old laws. Laws are “instruments to rule by,”[15]and if that which they have to rule has changed, then so must the instrument. The identity which the past confers upon us does not weigh heavily on our shoulders, or confine us like a straitjacket, in Hooker’s philosophy of history; rather, it simply equips us with the tools to function effectively in new settings. And when existing customs and practices have given rise to “sundry gross and grievous abominations” it is clear that something must change. As Hooker continues:

With these guiding principles in mind as they reformed the English church, our reformers nevertheless concluded that change was necessary, because of the great harm caused by some of the former practices. Thus they removed from the church many things that had been in use. But since there are various ways of abrogating established laws and customs, they saw that it was best to immediately do away with things that might be abolished without harm, leaving others to disappear over time through gradual disuse. …Thus they resolved to remove only those kinds of things that the church could do well enough without, retaining the rest.[16]

This way of proceeding Hooker praise not merely as wise and prudent, but as right, proper, and respectful of the past to which we owe so much—in short, as catholic:

They judged that if they had abolished a practice which was not manifestly harming the church, then this would be to unnecessarily alter the ancient received custom of the whole Church, the universal practice of the people of God, and the very decrees of our fathers—customs not only set down by the agreement of ecumenical councils, but put in use and maintained from that time all the way down to the present.[17]

Hooker thus models for us how it might be possible to embrace a particular identity, an identity one did not even choose for oneself, without either feeling trapped in it, or using it as a weapon against every other community. In an age when our politics is descending into mutual incomprehension and siege warfare, and our churches are grappling with an increasingly post-denominational landscape in which many Protestants wonder if their divisions mean something was fundamentally wrong with the Reformation, Hooker’s voice is more needed than ever. He provides us a set of categories with which to discriminate between the issues that ought to divide us, and the issues that ought not, between the identities that ought to define us, and those that should not. The particular battles that we fight today may be different (though in some quarters of presbyterianism and Anglicanism, not much has changed in 400 years!), but the tools of wisdom, faith, and charity that we use to fight them have not.

If you are struggling to understand what it means to be a faithful yet peacemaking Christian in a compromising church and a contentious culture, I urge to tolle et lege—take up and read Richard Hooker.

(This lecture was recently given at Truro Church, Fairfax, Vienna)

[1]Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in Modern English, ed. Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, and Bradley Belschner (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Press, 2019), 158 [III.1.10].

[2]Laws in Modern English, 158 [III.1.10].

[3]Laws in Modern English, 159 [III.1.10].

[4]Laws in Modern English, 159 [III.1.10].

[5]Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 68.

[6]O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment,67.

[7]O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 71.

[8]O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 69-70.

[9]Laws in Modern English, 5 [Pref.2.2].

[10]Laws in Modern English, 17 [Pref.3.14].

[11]Laws in Modern English, 42 [Pref.8.12].

[12]Laws in Modern English, 245 [IV.9.1].

[13]Laws in Modern English, 280 [IV.14.6].

[14]Laws in Modern English, 276 [IV.14.1].

[15]Laws in Modern English, 195 [III.10.3].

[16]Laws in Modern English, 277 [IV.14.3].

[17]Laws in Modern English, 278 [IV.14.4].