Wishful Theology and Romanticized History

We all know the dangers of the pot calling the kettle black. Professor Gillis Harp’s review of The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism is an illustration of this truism. He charges that the theology of several of its essays (mine and Barbara Gauthier’s) is “wishful” because they evince a “romantic sacramentalism” derived from “outdated” histories of Anglicanism. Our presentations are instances of “whimsical history” because they are not rooted in more recent scholarship. Thus we miss the facts that Richard Hooker was thoroughly Reformed and the 1662 BCP is “incurably Protestant.”

Apparently Harp has missed the more recent scholarship of Nigel Voak, whose Richard Hooker and Reformed Theology (Oxford University Press, 2003) argues that while Hooker was “in part a Reformed theologian,” in his Lawes and late works “many other beliefs can be identified with him that distance him from the Reformed tradition” (319).

Did Hooker really stray from what Harp calls “the broad mainstream of Reformed tradition”? Consider the following. According to Voak, others have rightly observed that Hooker’s “doctrine of predestination lies notionally between Calvin and Arminius,” his “metaphysical libertarianism, at the root of much of his theology, was a radical break with sixteenth-century Reformed theology,” and Hooker held to forensic justification by faith through Christ but taught that it can both be lost by mortal sin and then regained (318-20)—the last notion strikingly at odds with the broad mainstream of Reformed tradition.

There is more. Voak shows that Hooker opposed Calvin’s teaching of Scripture as self-authenticating by the Holy Spirit apart from reason, considering it “nothing other than a turn towards irrationalism” (226). Furthermore, in Hooker’s Lawes he “evinces a marked hostility to the Reformed (and more generally Protestant) concept of sola scriptura” (320). In his Dublin Fragments Hooker “demonstrates his rhetorical skill by giving a fairly Reformed appearance to his decidedly un-Reformed interpretations of some of the Thirty-Nine Articles” (322).

Voak agrees with Peter Lake (another recent scholar) that Hooker was a proto-Arminian and proto-Laudian (322). Hooker taught a “strong sacramentalism” and his Lawes emphasize “the positive religious role of ritual, liturgy, and ceremony, and the beauty of holiness, and the growth of the mystical body of Christ through the consumption of Christ’s body and blood” (323). In Hooker’s writing, “prayer is magnified at the expense of preaching” (323).

Voak concludes that “it is unhelpful and misleading to describe the mature Hooker as a Reformed theologian” (320). Other recent historians sound a similar note. Peter McCullough affirms Diarmaid MacCulloch’s observation that “Hooker deliberately and at some length reemphasized the role of the sacraments and liturgical prayer at the expense of preaching.”[1] Most Reformation historians would say that this change in emphasis ran counter to trends in the Reformed tradition. Harp’s critical mentions of sacraments and liturgy as “romanticized Medievalism” suggest a similar Reformed emphasis in the opposite direction from Hooker’s.

Professor Harp writes about the 1662 BCP (“incurably Protestant”) and this volume’s supposed inattention to its Reformed character as if he has not attended to what we actually wrote in the chapters he finds so offensive. My chapter details the “substantially more Protestant” character of its predecessor (the 1552 PB)[2] and mentions both that the 1662 BCP is “still Cranmerian in its spiritual profundity and literary artistry” and that “its sacramental theology is sharply non-Roman” (210, 214). Archbishop Eliud Wabakala, Dr Gauthier, and I describe an Anglican synthesis that is both “reformed” and “catholic” without being Roman Catholic. Thus the term “reformed catholic” that all three of us use. Professor Harp suggests that the idea of the presence of catholic elements in the 1662 BCP is “romantic” and “whimsical.”

If that is so, why does the recent scholarship of Brian Cummings note that the 1662 revision of the Black Rubric was both “more conservative” and a “crucial compromise”? And that at the Savoy Conference that precipitated the 1662 PB, the twelve bishops “conceded just seventeen points out of ninety-six” to the presbyterian (Protestant) divines?[3] If the 1662 BCP was incurably or solely Protestant, why does the recent scholarship of Bryan Spinks call its change in the Black Rubric a “significant verbal alteration” suggesting “sacramental presence”?[4] Why does Spinks take note of its veiling of consecrated elements, and the blessing of the water prior to its baptismal prayers with the following: “sanctifie this Water to the mysticall washing away of sin”? Spinks also notes its addition of manual acts during the words of institution so that the fraction takes place during the prayer.[5] He observes that “this was not what the ‘godly’ [presbyterian divines] had asked for”; they had wanted “a quite distinct fraction and libation of the wine.” Furthermore, the Ordinal now made clear that bishops “constituted a separate ordering and were not merely priests ‘consecrated’ or appointed to that office.” All in all, says Spinks, “[F]ewer concessions were made to the [presbyterian] ‘godly’ than to [Laudian and therefore more catholic] Durham House ideals.”[6]

According to this more recent scholarship, while the 1662 might have leaned in a Protestant direction overall, it was not without its distinctly catholic (albeit not Roman Catholic) features. It was not purely or “incurably” Protestant.

Professor Harp writes of the Thirty-Nine Articles in similar fashion, as if they too are incurably or solely Protestant. Like the 1662 BCP, they were clearly written to distinguish the Church of England from Roman Catholicism. Harp falsely insinuates that our book follows Newman’s Tract 90 in its argument that the Articles say little different from Trent’s canons. We say nothing of the kind.

But while some of our book’s contributors declare that the Articles are indeed sola Protestant, others would agree with Peter Marshall’s discussion of the debates over the real presence in the gradual development of the Articles that “there was more than enough [in the final version of the Articles] for later Anglican theologians to construe various plausible versions of what the eucharistic doctrine of the Church of England actually was.”[7] As we have detailed in these chapters, there is clearly Protestant language as well as clearly catholic [as opposed to Roman] language, for example, in Art. XXVII. “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner,” but it is also “the Bread which . . . is a partaking of the Body of Christ.”

Of course there are other catholic features in the Articles that were not followed in most Reformed churches on the Continent—episcopacy, use of the Apocypha, and the doctrine of Christ’s descent to hell.

Harp complains that our “reformed catholic” chapters present “a romanticized portrait of the early and Medieval church.” He doesn’t explain this assertion, except to connect my description of growing interest in Anglicanism’s “mystery, sacraments, and liturgy” to a “romanticized Medievalism.”

Most dictionaries define “romanticized” as presenting an idealistic and inaccurate version of something. It is odd to hear this word used for statements about the early and medieval churches, or the attraction to these things among Anglicans today. Both are commonplaces among church historians and students of Anglicanism’s appeal today. Does Harp deny that these three things were at the heart of worship in the early and medieval churches? Or that they don’t draw many to Anglicanism today?

Perhaps Harp makes these odd remarks because of another odd claim: “[T]he authors’ personal history with revivalist Protestantism colors their approach and leads them to adopt a problematic ‘three streams’ theological model of ‘convergence’ . . . the Catholic, the Protestant, and the Pentecostal.” I call this odd for two reasons. First, neither Dr Gauthier nor I ever mention personal experience with revivalism. Second, Dr Gauthier speaks not of three independent traditions, and certainly not the three Prof. Harp names, but the undivided Church of the first millennium in which Scripture, sacraments, and the Holy Spirit were three elements of one tradition.

Would “neither Cranmer, nor Jewell nor Hooker” have found our term “reformed catholic” Anglicanism “intelligible”? They might pause at first to ask what we mean. If they had been told that this means that Anglicanism takes from the liturgy and sacraments of the historic catholic tradition (while rejecting Roman innovations and distortions) and incorporates new insights from the Reformation movements (such as their rejection of full and semi-Pelagianism and their new emphasis on the written and preached Word), they would nod. All three would talk about the need for the Reformation reform of soteriology. Then Cranmer would point to the title of his first treatise on the Eucharist: Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Jewell would remind his interlocutors of his “Apology of the Church of England” in which he argued that the new English church was returning to “the Apostles and the old Catholic fathers.”[8] Hooker would reply that it is plain to an attentive reader of his Lawes that he argues against the purely Protestant Presbyterians on his left and against the abuses of Rome on his right but holds to the “mystical participation,” among many other things, which “the Fathers . . . plainly hold.”[9] “Reformed catholic? Of course.”

What are we to make of the claims that Hooker was right in the center of Reformed theology, that the 1662 Prayer Book was incurably or purely Protestant, and the notion of catholic substance in historic Anglicism is mythical? I think the best we can say is that these claims evince a romanticized view of Anglicanism, which results in a wishful theology.

In this wishful theology, mystery, liturgy, and sacraments (that are more than mere signs) are downplayed to such an extent that they appear to be disposable. What is left, except a Presbyterianism in which sacraments are occasional and merely signatory?[10] Mystery is dismissed or ridiculed. Liturgy is little more than preparation for the sermon, and minimal at that.

Which begs the question, Why be Anglican? Why not just close up shop and call yourself evangelical or Presbyterian?

Gerald McDermott recently retired from the Anglican Chair at Beeson Divinity School. His most recent book is Race and Covenant: Retrieving the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation (Acton Books, Nov. 1, 2020).

  1. Peter McCullough, “Avant-Garde Conformity in the 1590s,” Oxford History of Anglicanism, vol. 1, ed. Anthony Milton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 381-82.
  2. Prof. Harp charges me with neglecting the 1552 BCP. Yet I spend as much space on it as on the 1662 in my chapter.
  3. Brian Cummings, ed., Introduction, The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), xliv-xlv.
  4. Bryan D. Spinks, The Rise and Fall of the Incomparable Liturgy: The Book of Common Prayer, 1559-1906 (London: SPCK, 2017), 87.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Peter Marshall, “Settlement Patterns: The Church of England, 1553-1603,” Oxford History of Anglicanism, vol 1, 51.
  8. John Jewell, “The Apology of the Church of England,” Part I, http://anglicanhistory.org/jewel/apology/01.html my emphasis.
  9. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: A Critical Edition with Modern Spelling (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Bk V, chap lxvii, sect. 11.
  10. For Calvin, the sacraments were more than mere signs. For Zwingli, that is precisely what they were. While Prof. Harp might stand closer to Calvin on the effectiveness of the sacraments, his rhetoric in this review suggests Zwingli.


Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott recently retired from the Chair of Anglican Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. The author or editor of 23 books, he teaches courses in Anglicanism, history and doctrine, theology of world religions, and Jonathan Edwards. His edited The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism appeared in February 2020.

'Wishful Theology and Romanticized History' has 1 comment

  1. November 10, 2020 @ 7:48 am Editor

    Editor’s Note: Dr. Harp has asked that we add this response below.

    Many thanks to Dr. McDermott for his thoughtful (and lengthy) response to my review. As I noted originally, I think his project is a valuable one and I hope this sort of exchange can be both fruitful and friendly.

    A few minor clarifications first and then some further thoughts about Hooker and his recent interpreters.

    First, while I found some of the book’s chapters misguided, certainly none struck me as “offensive.”

    Second, most historians would agree that Anglo-Catholicism was influenced by (among other things) the nineteenth-century Romantic movement.

    Third, I should have noted that my description of the 1662 BCP as “incurably Protestant” came originally from Arthur Couritan, the distinguished Anglo-Catholic member of the English Liturgical Commission and one of the chief architects of the Series Two services.
    Fourth, the failure of the revisions proposed at the Savoy Conference (1661) doesn’t mean that the 1662 prayerbook was somehow un-Protestant.

    Finally, Hooker was obviously a complex thinker. Yes, Voak interprets him as less clearly Reformed. Yet, in this respect, Voak actually lies outside of the mainstream of Hooker’s interpreters of the last thirty years. Indeed, one might term his a minority report in this regard. On the other side, one could list scholars such as Brown Patterson, Torrance Kirby, Dan Eppley, Paul Dominiak, Nigel Atkinson, and Brad Littlejohn. At the same time, precisely by arguing that Hooker was innovative and controversial in his context, Voak’s work does indirectly confirm that the Church of England’s position during, say, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and James I was incontestably Reformed. My point is that some Anglicans have been unable to shake off an Anglo-Catholic misreading of Hooker that fails to locate his thought historically.
    In sum, historic Anglicanism owes more to the Reformation than many North American Anglicans have often been inclined to admit. By any historical measurement, adhering to a more Reformed theological position actually makes one more Anglican, not less.

    Gillis Harp


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