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Reformation: Then & Now

(Photo: Sue Careless)

WE ARE THIS YEAR celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This marks, of course, that moment, commonly assigned as the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Door in 1517. Fair enough, I am never one to quibble, though many would suggest that that Reformation was already well underway with Wycliffe (1320-1384) and Tyndale (1494-1536) and reached its fullest manifestation with the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It is helpful to have a specific date to celebrate such an important movement in the life of the church. I do hope that you in your churches and in your families will mark this anniversary, perhaps by reading one of the many fine histories published in recent years. Or you might immerse yourselves in Reformation doctrine through reading the Homilies*, or Luther’s Commentary on Galatians

I think few of us would deny longing for a Reformation in our own day. We, too, find ourselves in church where the gospel has been obscured by the accretion of superstition, compromise and sloppy thinking. And too often those responsible for preserving the glorious news of salvation, life and light are the ones least likely to reform the church. And let’s be honest, even those of us who would identify as reformed or conservative Christians lack the will to cast aside social respectability and the comforts of modern life to cleanse the Temple in our day. Street preachers don’t have dental plans.

That being said, what lessons might we consider from the Reformation should we wish to work towards a Reformation in our day? Let me suggest three:

1. Reformations happen slowly. Again we mark this as the 500th anniversary, as if the church went from being unreformed one day to thoroughly reformed the next. But in reality, the Reformation was the fruit of centuries of faithful study of the Scriptures and the faithful proclamation of the same. It involved the long hard work of chipping away at errant teaching, setting aside superstitious practices and challenging the ecclesial powers of the day. Whilst this work was done in a variety of languages, churches and countries, its end was clearing the ground so we could once again see our spiritual state with clarity: that we are sinners in need of the salvation that Jesus uniquely has provided for us in his death and resurrection. It takes a long time because we have lived for so long with a diluted version of this truth. The purification of our hearts and minds, our churches and communities is a long,  slow work. So lesson #1 for would-be reformers is be prepared to dedicate your life to this work and, like masons building cathedrals of yore, it is unlikely that you will see the finished project.

2. Reformers make friends. One of the great and under-emphasised narratives of the Reformation is how ecumenical and trans-national the Reformation movement was. There are great stories of Reformers born in one country slipping the noose of their own sovereigns and living in exile in another nation. There is no end of great stories of reformers being shipped back and forth across the English Channel in steamer trunks to enjoy the hospitality of their counterparts. The letters of the Reformation reveal a remarkable interchange of ideas as reformers shared their learning while embracing their common project in their various jurisdictions. Each reformer was distinct, yes, but they stood together. Like a series of townhouses, the churches of the Reformation stood together and gave each other strength and support and friendship. Anglicans are not the only ones who see the rot in their church. So lesson #2 for would-be reformers is to seek out fellow Christians who long for a similar reformation in their own contexts. This does not mean shedding our respective traditions or teaching to the lowest common denominator, but rather learning from one another and then applying fresh eyes to our respective challenges.

3. Reformers make enemies. You simply cannot avoid the fact that proclaiming the truth of the gospel to a church that teaches lies is unpopular. There is such a great temptation for theological conservatives to think that somehow we can both confront our church with the gospel and be regarded favourably. But it just does not work like that. We must apply our Lord’s warning in the church as much as in the world. ‘Woe to you, when all men speak well of you! for so did their fathers to false prophets.’ If you are in a church or diocese that you know teaches heresy you must see popularity as a sign of ineffective or compromised witness. It should be as clear as a chemical reaction on a spiritual level. So lesson #3 for would-be reformers: get all ideas of preferment and being popular on the diocesan level out of your head. You cannot have both and pursuing popularity will unquestionably mean your witness will be compromised. I am not advocating obnoxiousness; the gospel is offensive enough to those who deny it.

I am skeptical of the idea that we will see, in our time, a movement such as the one that transformed Christianity in Europe five centuries ago. But if we carefully study the Scriptures and seek to purify our hearts and minds, if we start with fearlessly acknowledging our sin, and move to fearlessly proclaiming the sweet but hard truths of the gospel, we might, through grace, see micro-reformations in homes and churches and communities. And these, we know through faith, will have eternal effect.   TAP 

*   The Books of Homilies (1547, 1562, & 1571) are two books of thirty-three sermons written primarily by Bps Cranmer and Jewel developing the reformed doctrines of the Church of England in greater depth and detail than in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. 

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