Do the intellectual, social and cultural challenges faced by the Church during the Reformation have relevance to our Church today as it struggles with new forms of discipleship, ministry and mission
This essay considers the causes and outcomes of the Reformation and whether lessons can be learned both by the process and fruits of that ‘reformation’ in today’s church as it battles with declining congregations and marginalisation in 21st Century.
If the Church were an animal it would be a Chameleon - a creature that readily changes its colour to harmonise with its environment. I will attempt to demonstrate the way in which the 16th Century Roman Catholic Church both changed its colour and then ‘reproduced’ in response to the corrective trauma of the Reformation. The Reformation not only cured the Church of the worst of its theological and organisational ills but gave birth the Protestant tradition that was to contain the vastly varied community of Churches associated with that movement today. This new Church Chameleon was ultimately to allow its members the freedom of how, when and where to worship – as those free-thinking times increasingly required. Therefore, in large part, the ‘solution’ to the leviathan of the medieval Catholic Church was the multiplicity and inclusivity of the Protestant communion. I suggest that while our own Anglican Church during the 20th Century was not corrupt it had evolved into a similar leviathan sharing some of the exclusiveness and inflexibility of the medieval Catholic tradition. Equally I suggest that we are living through a not dissimilar corrective process of multiplication, diversification and re-inclusion today - but on a church by church basis. In effect the Anglican Church has become the mother of a vast family of mini chameleons expressing the new forms, discipleship, ministry and mission necessary to express God’s Mission in the complex, free-thinking, materialistically successful of the world today.
The intellectual, social, and cultural challenges the 16th Century Church faced came from within the Catholic Church itself. The Reformation was triggered when a Catholic monk named Martin Luther became so incensed by the sale of Indulgences at his monastery that he bravely proposed having an academic discussion based around 95 theses. (Luther:1517) This notice he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany 31st October 1517.
What were Indulgencies? Where did the come from? Why were they so objectional? Medieval Indulgences were a highly profitable tradable, spiritual currency created by the Catholic Church by which people could purchase a shortened time in purgatory. Much of the wealth of the medieval Catholic Church was created by them. When Pope Leo X needed funds to complete the building of the new St Peter’s Basilica, he instituted a Europe-wide campaign of sale of these Indulgences. Martin Luther disputed both their theological basis and their spiritual efficacy. The intellectual seeds of this revolution can be traced back to the theology of Pelagian / Augustinian controversy of 4th Century. Pelagius was a British born theologian who challenged his contemporary, Augustine of Hippo who had just resolved a major ecclesiastical issue of the day raised by the heretical Donatist sect. The Donatists had questioned the spiritual authority of corrupt or ineffective clergy to perform their priestly duties such as the administration of sacraments. Augustine offered a theological solution based around the concept of Original Sin quenchable only through faith and God’s Grace and also suggested that priestly authority was derived from their ordination not from the quality of their spiritual lives. However, Pelagius, to his cost, disagreed. For Pelagius, Grace was the gift of freewill, Mosaic Law and New Testament teaching; these three, together with prayer, fasting, and asceticism opened salvation to us all. To quote St Paul “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14). Although Augustine reacted strongly to Pelagius’s ideas the two seeds were sown. They were the need for quantifiable spiritual effort versus the development of all-consuming personal faith resulting from God’s Grace
If we then wind the clock forward to the end of 12 Century, we find the eminent theologian Jacques Le Geoff redefining the Roman Neoplatonist Plotinus’s concept of purgatory as a place of a purgatorial fire, which "is expiatory and purifying not punitive like hell fire" (Jacques Le Geoff : The Birth of Purgatory). Revelations also suggests the existence of an ‘expiatory place from where those ‘robed in white’ emerge after the great ordeal (Rev 7:13-17). Happily, spiritual effort could shorten the time the soul spent in purgatory – and crucially the Church could help. Over time the Church incrementally evolved a system of indulgences into by which repentant individuals could mitigate their sins, so reducing their time in purgatory. By the 16th Century these could simply be bought so subcontracting the time-consuming business of praying and acquiring virtue to priests – until Martin Luther’s 95 theses challenged the concept. After the Reformation the issue of third-party indulgences was quietly side-lined although not immediately banned. Martin Luther made his famous (rumoured) declaration ‘Here I stand I can do no other, so help me God’ at the Diet of Worms before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in 1521. However, the sale of indulgences was not outlawed until 1567. However personal Indulgences continue to this day as a motivation for Catholics to lead a more spiritually useful lives through charitable donations combined with specific devotional practices allow people earn indulgences. Interestingly, although Martin Luther’s primary premise against the trading of Indulgences was Augustinian in that personal faith alone opened the way to salvation the form today is still Pelagian! (Storms 2018)
Ways in which multiplicity and inclusion are halting declining Church membership within many Anglican churches as a result of developing new forms of Discipleship, Ministry, and Mission
It was the popularity of the Protestant Church’s multiplicity and inclusiveness which forced the Catholic Church not only to purge itself of its worst pre-Reformation excesses but also to provide millions of people with new and exciting ways to worship God. Surely there are lessons for us in the 21st Century as we in the Anglican Church confront and evolve to deal with the apparently relentless decline in traditional churches and attempt to explain why resurgent groups within our Church have not only reversed its apparent decline but suggest a bright future for new forms of discipleship, ministry, and mission.
The mission of the Church has always been God’s mission. Building discipleship and ministry was the essence of Jesus’s ministry. The New Testament is entirely focused on building His Church though preaching, inspiring disciples not already included in his teaching. Surely the solution to Anglican Churches suffering stagnating or declining congregations is through inclusion which must imply multiplicity - as we are all so different and need to worship God in different ways. The strength of the Anglican Church chameleon and its Common Worship is that this is not only possible but encouraged.
Our Lord’s teaching was universally inclusive. It was for men and women, rich and poor, sinners and saved, able or disabled, believers and unbelievers, literate or illiterate, slaves or free, gentiles and non-gentiles. Wherever the Church reforms itself it includes additional grouping which it had previously excluded, either unconsciously or consciously, it grows. For instance, before the Reformation Church services we usually in Latin which only the priests could understand - and so excluded the congregation. It was largely for this reason Martin Luther composed hymns in German which the whole congregation could understand and so included the congregation. The appeal of these hymns was one of the prime attractions of early Protestantism.
Let us start with the decline in ordained ministry. Traditionally the Church excluded women from ministry. There is no biblical reference that our Lord excluded women from any role within the Church. When the Church of England started to ordain women 1995 it was not only to solve the ordination crisis but to embrace all the gifts women bring the church life. In 2017 the Church Times reported that there were a record number of 5,690 full time women priests within in the Anglican Church (Williams:2017). This contrasts with the Roman Catholic Church which still excludes women from ordination and still has a shortage of ordained ministers.
Up until the Reformation married people were excluded from the clergy. The Protestant Church has never excluded married people from its clergy. Martin Luther set the trend by marrying Katharina von Bora in 1525. She became a leading member of the developing Protestant tradition. Similarly, Charles Wesley’s wife, Sarah Wesley had a key role within the development of Methodism. The marriage of George Fox to Margaret Fell in 1660 was as productive in that she created the Quaker movement. By including married clergy in the Protestant Church, it expanded, deepened and became a global mission.
Jesus both loved and included children (Mat 19.14), Messy Church events always seem wonderfully popular with both parents and children. Children, instead of being rather excluded or just kept as quiet are centre stage in these services. What a wonderful way to build discipleship, ministry and the mission of the Church. Churches with Messy Church are generally expanding because they whole encouraging families into church including those who have never been before.
Historically drums, exuberance, modern hymns or spontaneity are excluded from the traditional Anglican Church. Their relatively austere liturgy tended to exclude the younger generation and so congregations operating on this model are generally declining. In 2015 the huge city church of St Matthias in Plymouth had a average Sunday congregation of just twenty six. Following a Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) Church plant mission in 2016 it has risen to around 600! Tim Hughs who leads the Gas Street Church planted Church in Birmingham said “All have strong links with HTB, all are led by husband-and-wife teams and all are aimed principally at students and young families. We want to connect with the 18-30s group” said Tim Hughes” (Observer:2016). By including this generation, the church is expanding it’s discipleship and mission
Is flamboyance and music the answer to the inclusion of the under 30s? Not necessarily. The ecumenical Christian monastic fraternity of Taizé in France was founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schütz, a Reformed Protestant. Over 100,000 young people make the pilgrimage to Taizé every year in order to participate in their simple services of distinctive contemplative chants, prayer and bible readings. Furthermore, they bring Taizé services back home to their Anglican churches, many of which now celebrate regular Taizé liturgy. Interestingly these services appeal not only to their young people but to the more reflective members of their congregations.
When interviewed by the Independent newspaper, Nicky Gumbel responded “I personally feel very optimistic about the church, about the new Pope, about the new Archbishop. We are in a new season. There is so much interest. I've never experienced so many young people pouring into church." (Matthew Bell : 31 March 2013.)
If we were to stand on a high peak and look down on the pleather of both traditional and emerging church forms within the Anglican communion it would take our breath away. Anglicanism represents a uniquely inclusive religious umbrella. It includes everything from high almost Catholic liturgy to that of the charismatic of churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), New Wine, Fresh Expression, Filling Stations, Elim etc. Other models include Missional Church, Deep Church, Cafe Church, Liquid Church, Simple Church and the Purpose Driven Church. At the other end of the spectrum we have The Centreing Prayer and contemplative traditions personified by the work of the Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohe. A whole essay could be written about the different inclusive liturgical forms of India (Griffiths 1986) and of African Anglican Churches like The Church of the Twelve Apostles. ‘All that matters is that they are rooted in Christian spirituality and as Stuart Murry says they are ‘Churches that cultivate earthed spirituality where people encounter God’ (Murray:64)
Within my own geographical benefice, we have six churches plus a Filling Station. Every church has its own culture relating to its own community. Their liturgy ranges from a recently established evangelical Filling Station which in three years has built its congregation from nothing to over a hundred, to ones that prefer BCP Matins – and all points between. Crucially, one church threatened with closure was down to a BCP Sunday congregation of three and was turned into a full church by simply a consultation process with the community. When the village was told that the church was threatened with closure and asked what would persuade people back to church, they responded by saying Common Worship, Evensong and heating. These changes were implemented and within 12 months the congregation was back up to twenty-five. All thoughts of closure have now been forgotten. Importantly, they would not have responded to either more BCP Martins or a Filling station. Sadly, another BCP church also with a congregation of three could not adjust and so has had to close. I would argue that wherever our communion is ‘including’ it is expanding and whenever it does not it is dying or has already died.
As important to any church discipleship and mission congregation is appealing to young people - especially those not already going to church. The Alpha programme is designed to appeal to all ages especially the under 30s. It was started in the late seventies by Rev.Charles Marnham, of Holy Trinity Brompton. It was adopted in 1991 by Nikki Gimble and grew rapidly to a peak reached in 1998, when 10,500 courses were completed. Currently the Alpha course is running in over 100 countries and is available in over 100 languages. 24 million people have taken the course. Courses include other denominations having been run by Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. One graduate of Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course is The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. In his presidential address to General Synod (2019) he said: “The Church of England is not only alive and well but is showing signs of growth, renewal and reform …….. Numbers of ordinands continue to grow. Parishes and chaplaincies work even harder than ever, at the front line of spiritual, emotional and physical needs in our country. Dioceses are showing immense effort and imagination in developing new models of church. Church planting goes ahead with over 2,500 planned before 2030.”
The God Mission is beautifully captured by the Anglican Missionary Deo Mission statement: "Mission is God’s mission and it is a mission that goes beyond the church. It embraces everything that God is doing in the world through people and nations to establish His Kingdom here on earth. God's work is not limited to the endeavours of the church but the church does have a special role, sent by God to continue in His mission” (Robinson:1).
It could be argued that the Anglican Church in 20th Century was not a little unlike the leviathan of the Pre-Reformation Catholic Church. It looks as though the solution to their declining congregations within the communion could be similar to those wrought on the Catholic Church during the Reformation. Firstly, we must accept the necessity of accommodating the multiplicity of religious expression within the faithful. Secondly, we must continue to include all the genders and cultural elements of our congregations. In 1948, in the House of Commons Winston Churchill paraphrased George Santayana’s observation that “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Our own Archdeacon Deacon, Venerable Nick Shutt concluded in his 2019 Visitation address promoting change to the Tavistock Deanery with brutal simplicity ‘Change or Die’. He was right. In my own benefice some of our church chameleons are changing colour and thriving - some are not and are dying. Let us learn the lessons of the Reformation and focus on the living and thriving as we try to further God’s discipleship, ministry, and mission.
Bell Matthew (2013) Inside the Alpha Course, Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/inside-the-alpha-course-british-christianitys-biggest-success-story-8555160.html Retrieved 27/5/2019
Griffiths (1986), Christ in India, Asian Trading Corporation, Bangalore
Luther, Martin (1517) https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html
MacCulloch, Diarmaid (2009) The History of Christianity (p306-p308 and 716-755), Penguin Random House: UK
Murry, Stuart (2008) Church After Christendom, Paternoster Press, Milton Keynes
Pope Paul VI (1967) Revision of Sacred Indulgences, INDULGENTIARUM DOCTRINA , Vatican tps://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-vi_apc_01011967_indulgentiarum-doctrina.html (Retrieved 21st May 2019)
Robinson, Alan (2017) www.faithindevelopment.org Tearfund or (OCMS) Oxford 28th April.2017 10 Things You Should Know about Pelagius and Pelagianism
Storms, Storms (2018) 10 things you should know about Pelagius and Pelagianism Crossway https://www.crossway.org/articles/10-things-you-should-know-about-pelagius-and-pelagianism/ (retrieved 22.5.2019)
Welby, Justin (2019) Archbishop of Canterbury's presidential address to General Synod https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/speaking-and-writing/speeches/archbishop-canterburys-presidential-address-general-synod (Retrieved 21.5.2019)
Williams, Hattie (2017) More Women Than Men Enter Clergy Training, Church Times 27th Sept. 2017