500 years on – the Reformation is as relevant as ever

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the start of arguably the single most significant political and cultural development in the last thousand years of European history. On the 31st October 1517 a University Professor named Martin Luther, from the small town of Wittenberg in what is now East Germany, sent a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz detailing his critique of the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. In some accounts, Luther may also have nailed his paper, labelled the Ninety-Five Theses, to the door of his local church. Indulgences, certificates granting reduction in time spent in purgatory for the buyer of their loved one, had become a huge industry in medieval Europe and for the likes of Luther, symptomatic of all that was wrong with the Catholic Church. Luther’s Theses went far beyond indulgences and to the heart of questions around papal power and authority. Helped by the relatively new invention of the printing press, his word spread rapidly across Europe within a year, and combined with other reforming thinkers in these years led to the Reformation. Of course, as any student of English history could hardly avoid learning, groups such as the Lollards demonstrate the Reformation was long in gestation, but Luther is a powerful example of the individual’s ability to influence history.

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YouGov Poll

In the 21st Century it’s easy to dismiss the Reformation as an historical irrelevance, when less than 1 in 3 Britons subscribe to the existence of God, when the ultimately political divide between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland has subsided from national prominence, what matters the difference in Christian denominations? Many of the pre-reformation societal structures are back today, it is approaching 200 years since monastic life returned to England at Mount St Bernard in 1835. A Catholic is still barred from the throne but even that may change in our lifetimes as the disestablishment of the Church of England must seem a distinct possibility. Practicing Catholics may outnumber Protestants again in due course, last week I chanced on early evening weekday Mass at Westminster Cathedral, always an oasis of tranquillity in the mellay of Victoria, and I was struck by the range of ages and races – a mirror of modern London.

Catholic historical revisionism has been in vogue for some decades, undermining the long-established arguments for the Reformation and proclaiming the virtues of the pre-Reformation Church. No one who has read Eamon Duffy’s elegiac poem to the mystical medieval church of rural England, The Voices of Morebath, can fail to be moved at the desecration of the idyllic world described. The Anglo-Catholic elements of the Church of England have long sought to restore much of what was lost in the sixteenth century. Recent Popes have sought to heal divisions with the Anglican Church and the previously unthinkable sight of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Rome praying together has been seen on more than one occasion since John Paul II’s historic papal visit to the UK.

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An icon of the crucifixion outside the Anglo-Catholic Church of the Annunciation, Marble Arch

The arguments in favour of consigning the Reformation to the history books are many, but it can also be credibly claimed that the Reformation is more relevant today than it has been at any other point since the European wars of religion ended. 2016 has been a year where established powers in Europe have been challenged by social and political ferment, with religious divisions at least one part of the catalyst for the fuels of revolt. Likewise, Luther’s ideas unwittingly and, in his later life, to his extreme displeasure, led to populist revolt in the Holy Roman Empire. In England, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries led to the greatest rebellion of his reign, the Pilgrimage of Grace, which saw rebel forces far outnumber those the king could muster. Our very own monstrous Sun King, unparalleled in his dominance over the nobility of the land and centrally controlled Tudor state, never came closer to losing his throne. For some northern historians, skipping over the successes of the Industrial Revolution, the origins of the North-South divide, and the need for today’s much vaunted Northern powerhouse, can be traced back to (Thomas) Cromwell’s stripping of the riches of the great northern monasteries and the dissolution of northern society therein.

Putting aside interesting historical parallels it is clear that many of the issues at the heart of the Reformation remain unresolved in today’s Christianity, that the Reformation itself never ended, or at least religion by its very nature is a constantly evolving belief system. The Anglican Church continues to see dwindling attendance, but Pentecostal Churches are spreading rapidly, particularly in London where West End Theatres, even East End pubs and dance halls transform on Sundays to pop up places of worship where often thousands gather to participate in intensely personal forms of religious practice. If part of the appeal of Luther’s reformation was the personalisation of faith that has been carried much further in the 21st Century, far beyond what the man himself would ever have been comfortable with.

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The title page of Henry VIII’s Great Bible, the King sits on his throne over all.

Democratisation of access to God’s word, as the Catholic Church, and even Henry VIII, authoriser of the first official version of the Bible in English in 1539, feared, has led to a proliferation of ways of expressing belief in God. If Pentecostal Churches become the dominant form of Christianity in the UK in the coming decades where will that lead? Their often charismatic preachers and church leaders have greater influence over their congregations than most Priests have had for several hundred years. As we already see in Africa, will religious leaders become active political advocates on social issues in a much more overt fashion than Catholic leaders have in recent decades? What impact will that have on the absence of religion from the political sphere in Britain?

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church continues to grapple with many of the same problems that befell it in the time of Martin Luther and bedevil all great institutions, namely corruption and human fallibility. Much of the fanfare around Pope Francis’s election was focused on his South American nationality, but of far greater significance was his Jesuit background and the mission he was tasked with upon taking up office. As all reports at the time and since indicate, Francis was elected to clean up the Curia, the vast administrative centre of power in the Vatican, to end excess and a cover up culture. His simple living, away from the Papal apartments, was meant to set an example to the often lavish lifestyle of Curia members. Programmes of structural reforms of the Curia are promised, but have been painfully slow in delivery, financial reforms of the Vatican bank have made greater progress.

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The current Bishop of Rome

Francis seems to be constantly fighting institutional inertia, nowhere more so than in cleaning up the paedophile priest scandal. This year’s Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards was the fantastically engaging Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the institutionalised cover-up of sex abuse in the Boston diocese of the Catholic Church. Sadly, for all to many victims, not much appears to have changed 15 years on by way of openness and transparency about failings of the past and present. One of my undergraduate dissertations was on clerical marriage in the Reformation and I spent many hours leafing through moulding copies of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and other works filled with tales of sinful priests giving into carnal desires. It seems to me unlikely that whilst the Catholic Church continues to insist on clerical celibacy it will solve its inherent institutionalised problems caused by suppressing natural human inclinations. Francis is nearly 4 years into his Papacy, and as any political leader knows, unless you get the hard stuff done early, your big plans for reform will fail. His honeymoon within the Curia long over, it seems unlikely Francis will now achieve significant reforms in whatever remains of his tenure. The search for real and lasting change will shift to the next generation, although Francis’s admirable attempts to move the Church closer to people may prove a useful foundation to build on.

A Catholic Church still in need of reform, radical Protestantism threatening to upend social order, it could almost be 1517 again instead of 2017. The rise of secularism is the only clue we live in different times, admitted non-believers or even laodiceans were almost impossible to find in early modern Europe. Yet, even in today’s supposedly secular society the impact of the Reformation is still strong, I remember a third year history seminar in which the (Catholic) tutor had to highlight to us all that our general view that one man doing a favour and expecting nothing in return was better than the man doing a favour in expectation of reward was an inherently Protestant outlook on life. Unwittingly, we were all children of Luther. If the 20th century was dominated by wars of political ideology then the 21st looks probably on course to be seriously afflicted by wars of religious ideology. Another reformation, this time in Islam, is underway, and globalisation means it cannot help but affect our shores. If history repeats itself, much human misery will be inflicted, and that is before the response of radical Christianity to the turbulence within global Islam can be fully anticipated. The only way we can even begin to prepare ourselves for what lies ahead is to look at what is behind us. If politicians had spent their time reading history instead of improbably proclaiming the end of boom and bust and the natural economic cycle they might have been better prepared for the financial crash of 2008. Wilful ignorance of history leads to only one destination – disaster. So, 500 years on, it has never been more important to study and understand the Reformation, from both a Catholic and a Protestant point of view.

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