It’s 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg and kickstarted the Protestant Reformation. Michael Reeves explains why it...
Sorry to intrude on the Reformation celebrations, but Nick Page has some not-so-great-news to share
It’s the anniversary! Woohoo! Five hundred years since Luther published his ninetyfive theses and lit the touchpaper to launch the Protestant Reformation. There are books and TV programmes and celebratory articles. There will be cards and parties and bunting!
There will be cakes in the shape of Zwingli (with a low-fat, sugar-free, extra-roughage version in the shape of Calvin). Even Playmobil have joined the party and released a figure of Luther (over 34,000 of them were sold in three days, making it the fastest selling figure in the company’s history).
The anniversary of the Reformation is clearly a cause for celebration. But it’s worth remembering that for all its undoubted benefits, the Reformation wasn’t good news for everyone. Its heroes were not entirely without flaws, nor its villains entirely without merit.
Sometimes this comes as a shock to people. Many biographies of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli et al simply repeat the myths (such as Luther throwing ink at the devil, or even, dare I say it, the famous story about Luther nailing the theses to the Wittenberg door). The darker sides of these characters are carefully Photoshopped. Luther was famously abusive to his enemies and was responsible for some vile anti-Semitic writings. Zwingli had his theological opponents drowned in the river. Leaving aside his role in the arrest and execution of the Unitarian Michael Servetus, Calvin was so unpopular within Geneva that people tried to empty their chamber pots on him as he walked beneath their windows.
All three of these Premier League reformers – and many others in the lower divisions – had a propensity to banish anyone who spoke out against them. Now, I know all the arguments: they were not alone in this behaviour, it was the culture of the time, the Catholics were just as bad, etc, but if we want to truly remember the Reformation then the best way is not merely to get all excited about the theology, but also to be honest about the dodgy goings-on. Here are five key ideas which were lost from the Church.
We lost unity
The Reformation destroyed the idea of a single, unified Church. True, this was already a bit of an illusion, given that the Western and Eastern churches had undergone the ‘Great Schism’ in 1054. And there had been that unfortunate business when there were two Popes. Then three Popes for a bit. But, nevertheless, in Western Europe there was the idea of one catholic or ‘whole’ Church to which everyone could claim some sort of allegiance. But the Reformation shattered any semblance of unity. And it didn’t just split Western Christendom into ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’, but into ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestants’ – the latter encompassing many different flavours of evangelical and reformed belief.
The Reformation began an endless, fractal splintering of the Church. Because, as anyone who has ever tried to do the splits can tell you, once you start it’s very difficult to stop, and if there’s one thing we know about theology, it’s that other people always get it wrong. Even among the reformers themselves there was disunity. Luther and Zwingli hated each other.
One of the great ideas of the Reformation was that everyone should be able to read the Bible for themselves. The problem is – what happens when everyone interprets the scriptures differently? Answer: Thousands of different denominations. Breaking away and storming off in a self-righteous huff remains one of the most characteristic activities of the Protestant Church.
We lost the monasteries
A lot of the anger of the Reformation was focused on the religious houses – the monasteries, abbeys and convents. To the reformers – many of whom were ex-monks – the monasteries represented everything which was wrong with the faith. The immense wealth of the bigger foundations bred corruption and scandal. Pope Leo X became an abbot at the age of 8, and took over the great Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino aged just 11. Beats a paper round, I suppose.
At their best, the monasteries offered places of prayer, learning and support for the surrounding communities. And a lot of the stories were exaggerated or even fabricated. When Henry VIII voted to cut England adrift from Catholic Europe (not Brexit, but Hexit!), he used a very dodgy dossier of abuses compiled by his vicar-general, Cromwell as an excuse to ‘dissolve’ the monasteries. When it comes to greed and wealth, Henry was a man who could show all those corrupt abbots a thing or two. The great abbeys were torn down, their treasures sold off.
Huge numbers of ancient manuscripts were taken from the great monastic libraries and either torn apart for their precious bindings, or simply burned. Thousands of nuns and monks were made homeless. Those who protested were arrested or worse. The abbots of Glastonbury, Reading and Colchester were brutally executed.
But more important, even, than the loss of all those buildings, all that culture and history, was the loss of a way of life. The destruction of the monastic houses was an attack on a kind of approach to Christianity which was contemplative, ordered and quiet.
Women were hit particularly hard. Medieval Catholic Christendom was hardly a feminist wonderland, but the abbeys were one of the few places which offered women a kind of agency over their own spiritual lives. Becoming a nun and joining a convent offered the opportunity for a woman to be educated and to engage in theological reflection. Some abbesses were highly respected and consulted by bishops and priests. The Reformation ended all that. Although some of the more radical reformers offered opportunities for women to exercise key roles, for the most part an evangelical woman’s place was in the home.
We lost the silence
Many women – nuns and laity alike – engaged their imaginations in their relationship with God. They had ‘mystical’, contemplative experiences. But without the monasteries, there was no structured, safe place for mysticism to flourish – either for men or women. The ecstatic visionary prophecies of radicals like the Zwickau prophets, and especially the apocalyptic madness of Münster only reinforced the idea that this was dangerous. When the Lutheran shoemaker Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) had a series of visionary experiences he was ostracised by his fellow Lutherans. Leave such things to the radical Protestant sects. Or even those new-fangled Jesuits.
Other kinds of prayer were also suspicious. Contemplation and meditation were staples of the monastic life. The tradition of lectio divina – a contemplative reading of scripture – was lost to the Protestant Church, which preferred other ways of reading the scriptures. And while later, radical groups like the Quakers embraced silence and the promptings of the Spirit, most of the others got a lot of verbiage. And, as time went on, even more hymns and songs. In the words of Diarmaid MacCulloch, “noise was the characteristic of the mainstream Protestant Reformation”.
We lost the idea of 'doing stuff'
The destruction of the monasteries went hand in hand with the destruction of shrines and relics. No one can doubt that the cult of relics was historically dubious to say the least. There were at least three skulls of John the Baptist knocking around and enough splinters of the true cross to build an ark. Luther’s patron and protector, Frederick, was really keen on relics: the Wittenberg church had more than 19,000 of them, displayed along the nine aisles, including vials of milk from the virgin Mary, straw from Jesus’ manger, bread from the last supper, a branch of the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses (thankfully no longer alight) and a strand of Jesus’ beard.
But leaving the daftness aside for one moment, what the relics inspired was pilgrimage – and pilgrimage was an act of personal piety open to everyone. Pilgrimage offered a way in which spirituality and devotion could be embodied. It was an intensely physical act. Most people walked to these places, begging their sustenance on the way. But with the Reformation’s emphasis on faith, rather than works, physical expressions fell out of favour. Physical ‘helps’ like making the sign of the cross or using the rosary were banned. Long-standing Christian spiritual disciplines like fasting were exiled to the ‘works’ file. And because an individual Christian no longer needed a priest to mediate for them, the confessional boxes were dismantled. Confession became more communal – something that Christians did together in church.
All of this is based, of course, in ideas of justification by faith, of the priesthood of all believers, of direct access to God’s forgiveness and mercy. But for all their dangers, these practices did offer clear, evident, physical support for spiritual realities. We are physical, embodied beings. And sometimes it is helpful for spiritual truth to be physically embodied or expressed: to go on a journey, to make a sign, to kneel, to hear that you are forgiven.
We lost colour and beauty
Before the Reformation, churches were vibrant and alive with colour. Entering a church was an assault on the senses. But the Reformation largely whitewashed all that. Literally. Luther was a big fan of pictures (whisper it, but he had a picture of Mary in his study) and used them for propaganda purposes, but reformers like Calvin and especially Zwingli were having none of it.
Zwingli banned church music (when I hear a lot of modern worship songs I have a lot of sympathy with this). But he and other reformers seemed to fear beauty. The logic was God is invisible, intangible, so he must be worshipped in an invisible kind of way. So down came the statues. The ecclesiastical furniture was destroyed, the rood screens torn down, the wall paintings whitewashed. Protestant churches were painted the 16th
century equivalent of a Dulux can of magnolia. The ‘approved’ art style was propagandistic woodcuts which tended to focus on idealised portraits of reformers, scurrilous satiric depictions of Catholics or a lot of heroic martyrs being killed in a variety of gruesome ways.
The loss of all that beauty and craftsmanship is incalculable. And the fact was that the visual arts were largely exiled from the spiritual life of the evangelical churches. Even today in most evangelical churches, ‘art’ has been reduced to the banner or the bumper sticker.
Rediscovering it all over again
The pendulum swings. It is in the nature of human society that we don’t just react, we overreact. And in the reaction to the abuses of the medieval Catholic Church, many other things got thrown out as well.
Since that time, of course, there have been many major movements within post-Reformation Church history which consciously or unconsciously have sought to redress the balance. Today, for example, there are renewed attempts to find some kind of ecumenical unity, some common ground. Schism is a luxury; it’s something that you can indulge in as long as you are rich and powerful, when you have enough numbers to make the split worthwhile. With Christianity under attack we don’t have that luxury anymore. And many Christians aren’t that bothered, actually. They are looking for life, more than strict orthodoxy. In the UK at least, there’s a sense in which people choose their church less on its dogma and doctrine and more on the very real issue of whether or not it has a pulse.
Evangelicals have rediscovered other things as well. From Wesley’s ‘holiness’ movement to the charismatic rediscovery of visionary mysticism; from the rise in the number of personal retreats, to churches with prayer stations and labyrinths, we could see the last few hundred years of Church history as an attempt to recover some of what was lost. Heavens, even ‘monasticism’ has become a buzzword within the evangelical world. Now the monasteries have no real power, we are freer to recognise something important in the idea of a Christian community and its rule of life. Pilgrimage is more popular than ever. We haven’t quite rediscovered the confessional. But then, everyone confesses to others these days. We call it therapy. Or reality TV.
Crucially, these practices are being exercised within a Protestant world view. The people I meet on retreat or during conferences are not jettisoning the lessons of the Reformation. They are rediscovering practices and disciplines which Christians have been engaging in since the very beginning. And the Church – the one, catholic Church – will be all the richer for it.