In this 500th anniversary year of an obscure monk called Martin Luther banging his 95 Theses onto the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, the event which history marks as the beginning of the Reformation, the archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued a joint statement which coincides with the 2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Acknowledging that the Reformation “was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe”, they note that many Christians “will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed. Amongst much else these would include clear proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible to all in their own language and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the church.”
They might have mentioned justification by faith, since that sola was (and remains) fairly central to Protestant theology and its understanding of salvation, but we’ll assume it’s parked in “amongst much else”. Rather than rejoice in the light from old times, Justin Welby and John Sentamu seek to highlight a different righteousness:
Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord…
Remembering the Reformation should also lead us to repent of our part in perpetuating divisions…
We can quibble over the propitiatory efficacy of vicarious apologies for the sins and crimes of our forefathers. Some people are gladdened by the contrition expressed by today’s leaders for centuries-old grievances; others think it absurd to apologise, or even presume to apologise, for the thoughts, attitudes and actions of those for which we are by no means responsible, and quite possibly can’t even begin to understand. Can a 21st-century archbishop really exhort his postmodern flock to repent of the sins of his episcopal predecessors and their modern and medieval herds and legions? Is there any worth in the RSPCA apologising to animal rights activists for the domestication of the horse? Can Welby and Sentamu pass judgment on the conscience of Cranmer? Their gesture may have political purpose and the benefits of compassion, but can it ever be soteriological? Can we really repent of the divisions and schisms initiated and caused by others in their own complex and convoluted times and situations?
We can park that question there, because the archbishops aren’t quite doing that. Or are they? Are they blaming Luther for the lasting damage he caused to Church unity, and asking his Protestant progeny to repent of being Lutheran and Protestant? Are they rebuking him for defying the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love? Are they saying that it was a all just a sad and tragic mistake?
It isn’t entirely clear, except that the archbishops apportion no blame at all to the corruption and evil in the medieval Church against which Luther was driven to protest. Might not Protestants protest that the Church that called itself Catholic had ceased to be in any sense holy, catholic, compassionate or salvific? And so, in accordance with Scripture, coming out of her was necessary for the welfare of the body and the salvation of the soul: “..the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith” (Article XIX, to which the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York subscribe).
It was not for nothing that the Reformers hurled ‘Antichrist’ at the Pope. Yes, there were fractious European nationalisms and feudal competitions, not to mention contemporaneous economic pressures, urgent scholarly enquiries and restless social movements. The Reformation was a melting pot of convergent murky forces and contiguous muddled minds. But (and it’s quite an important ‘But’) the religious element of the Reformation was its essence, and it became one of the greatest movements of the Spirit of God since the Apostles walked the earth. If the schism was not of God, it was certainly greatly used by God and much good came of it.
Much bad, too, of course. Even our righteous deeds are filthy rags.
But times have changed: bad popes and corrupt princes have come and gone, and all those Protestant lenses tinged with the patina of bias or bigotry continue to blur our vision only if we refuse to see face to face. For Archbishop Justin and Archbishop John, in the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, it is clearly time to move away from rigid distinctives and to focus on what unites us:
Remembering the Reformation should bring us back to what the Reformers wanted to put at the centre of every person’s life, which is a simple trust in Jesus Christ. This year is a time to renew our faith in Christ and in Him alone.
That’s an interesting sola, and one from which no child of the Reformation would demur. But what ecumenical rapprochment, let alone unity, can or should there be with those who insist it is Christ and..? At what point does Christ and become a false gospel? At what point to does Christ and become ‘another Jesus‘ (2Cor 11:4)?
That isn’t to say there is no common ground and there are no common causes by which and for which Christian denominations may not gather for fellowship or unite to oppose. The doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily Resurrection and the literal Second Coming are all sufficient to determine the truth of faith. There really is no controversialist urge to maintain an ecclesial party line just to buttress history and tradition. Where we are concerned with the gospel and salvation, we are concerned with loving Christ.
The Queen loves Christ. It is not possible to listen to her Christmas Day broadcasts and not be left with an overwhelming sense of her humility, adoration and devotion to the Son of God; almost a yearning to unburden her shoulders and lay down her crown at the feet of the King of Kings, and place her government upon his shoulder. It is plain also that she loves the nation state of which she is Head, and the church of which she is Supreme Governor. The United Kingdom and the Church of England are separate and distinct: the United Kingdom is separate from the Continent of Europe; the Church of England distinct from the Church of Rome. In her very offices of church and state, the Queen embodies political and historic division, and she perpetuates ecclesial and theological schism. Why should she repent of this, as her archbishops exhort, when it is her sovereign duty and divine vocation to lead, uphold and sustain both? Consider her Coronation Oath:
Archbishop: Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
Queen: All this I promise to do.
Are Dr Welby and Dr Sentamu asking the Queen to repent of her sacred oath? They appear to be, for their statement is concerned not merely with the unholy burnings, hangings, drawings and quarterings of the past, but with those who perpetuate division into the present, which the Queen is sworn to do. And she is sworn to do this because the Reformation in England was an act of the State of which she is now Head; a parliamentary transaction sustained by the consent of the people over whom she reigns. How can the Queen repent of her part in perpetuating division without handing over her church to the Bishop of Rome (who, constitutionally, hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England [Art. XXXVII])?
The word the archbishops chose was ‘repent’, which is rather distinct from political apology, personal sorrow or corporate contrition. It is a concept which has its origins in the Old Testament, where the creature first turned his back on the Creator. It is the recognition of the true state of affairs, sorrow for it and a turning back to God with a resolve to do His will. To repent is to turn away from disobedience; to engage in the rebellion no more. If one is to repent sincerely of the sin of adultery, one must not only be sorry for the sin, but promise also to cease living in the adulterous relationship. How may one repent of a thing and yet carry on doing it wilfully and purposely?
The only way, surely, is to be persuaded either that it is not such a bad thing, or to believe that the punishment will not be so austere as to justify cessation of the indulgence. And so.. cursory confession.. trivial penance.. no real repentance.
Is schism a sin when the justification and motive is the maintenance of holiness? Ecumenism may be the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit in renewing the life of the corporate councils of the Church, but are individual Christians really called to repent of their part in sustaining their churches as vehicles of truth, morality and the salvific vision? Is communion with God and man dependent on a simplistic view of good and right, such that all division becomes grave sin which must be repented of?
Surely the Queen’s personal faith trusts in the promises of God by which she is united to Christ. Surely her witness to this living faith moves beyond historical knowledge and ecclesial structures: she believes Christ was born for her personally, and has accomplished for her the work of salvation. She is sure and certain of this: her trust is in Christ, not some assent to an abstract set of doctrines. She needs nothing and no-one else. In her humility and truth she walks, talks and eats with Christians of all denominations, radiating grace, life and salvation. She infuses the Church of England and inspires the Church in England. Pray, what does she have to repent of?