All Hallows’ Eve 1517 – the day when a young Augustinian friar, Dr Martin Luther, posted a notice in the church door at Wittenberg, questioning the way the Church made use of “The Treasury of Merit”. Such a treasury is the image for the inexhaustible and ever accumulating virtue of Christ, and - by the grace of God – of His Saints. It can be drawn on, so as to compensate for the sins and shortcomings of the rest of us who seek forgiveness and to be close to God in this life and the next. Rather some bank account to debit or lending credit, however, it is an unceasingly abundant well.
That evening in Fra Martin’s community church, First Vespers of All Saints would have called upon the intercession of the saints in glory. The following day, Mass would have been offered in their honour, and for our good in their name. The day after that, Luther would have said his three masses for the repose of the holy souls and the early completion of their sojourn in the purifying heat-lightening of purgatory. Luther began his religious and theological journey without argument against the teaching of the Catholic faith, but against the way the official Church seemed to be playing upon the misunderstanding of that faith in the part of the people. Instead of a bottomless treasury of God’s grace - a loving gift for repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and renewed faith and trust in Christ – there was connivance at people’s impression that it was commercial treasury: you paid in, you drew out; if you got into debt, you made up for it. The appearance that indulgences for remitting sin in return for lay people’s payments - to reduce their own future time and punishment in purgatory or that of the dead – was not challenged, at least not sufficiently. Nor, so Luther thought, was the true Catholic explanation taught.
Indulgences, like the recent Holy Year of Mercy, are meant to be assurances of God’s free bestowal of blessing and mercy, a response in love to those who, from their hearts, piously and penitently practice their faith and frequent the sacraments. This can include an act of pure charity, like helping the work of the Church and its proclamation of God’s Kingdom. In 1517, the largest practical work of the Church was the vast capital cost, requiring international support, of the replacement of the collapsing St Peter’s Basilica in Rome over the resting place of the Apostle Peter. It seemed fitting that the successor of Peter, to whom had been entrusted the power of the keys to bind and loose the guilt and consequence of sin, could assure God’s mercy and freedom to those who were generous: heart speaking to heart, grace upon grace. However much this was explained, to the sixteenth century mind however, especially in the prosperous trading north, this looked like a straight-forward transaction: “Tell me how much you want, and I will pay it, if it gets me off purgatory - and my loved ones too”. Realistically, the Church needs assets and resources to fulfil its mission, and the Lord provides. But people can tend to imagine that “the water without price” in the Kingdom can also come free of cost in this. Was Luther objecting to nothing more demanding than the sixteenth century equivalent of the Planned Giving or Stewardship Campaign? Or was a more fundamental principle at stake?
Dr Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, in an interview with Sarah Montague on the 500th anniversary of the Wittenberg event, gave a characteristically fascinating account of both the consequences that we still live with (not just a divided Church, but also a disastrous theological justification of anti-Semitism) - and the missed opportunities. Why did both sides see it as a zero-sum game, he asked? How is it that Christians, of all people, massacred each other in the aftermath? Why were those who tried for a solution other than the schism unsuccessful? What if Luther had not placed his beliefs and his resentment of the “Catholic establishment of his day” above the visible and organic unity of the Church? What if the Pope, instead of seeing Luther as a dangerous force to be shut down, had distinguished between some fair comment and the erroneous ideas advanced in an academic disputation: what if he had said, “This man has a point. There are real abuses and we need to sort them out.” Sarah Montague asked the great question: “If that had happened, would there have been a need for your Church to exist at all – would you be a Catholic?” Dr Williams said that he would be a Catholic indeed, but that the Catholic Church would also have developed differently had there been no schism, and today’s Catholic Church would be different from what it became.
He did not elaborate on this and it rather invited speculation as to where he thought the 16th century’s abuses have led it still to be wrong to this day. Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Dr Williams’ predecessor but three, taught that the Anglican Church is not an end in itself; it is provisional on the way to the re-integration of the unity of the whole Church. Thus, while we are in the times of disunity, its tradition is providential, so that it may witness, he believed, to what was essential to the Universal Church but was not yet manifested in all the other Churches. By the same token, Ramsey believed, there were aspects of the fullness of the Church not present in Anglicanism that impelled it to seek unity.
Heart speaks to heart: Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism says that, for as long as the baptised remain separate from one another, the Catholic Church fails to manifest her full catholicity in all her bearings. So, even the Catholic Church, which is provides all that is necessary for the fullness of Catholic life, faith and unity, is lacking in some way. St John Paul II, picking up a luminous element of the work of Paul Couturier to animate the Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians (in which the founders of the League were involved), developed this by identifying the need for the true spiritual ecumenism. This does not stop at getting to grips with the hard questions of theological dialogue, but burrows deep into the hardness of hearts and religious mentalities. Nor does it rest at respecting and valuing the riches in the traditions from which we are separate. It also demands that we exchange them among us. We can make them our own, with integrity and fidelity to our own tradition and the one binding truth of Christ. Thus they are enrichments, when they express - as they do for others from whom we are separate for the moment – our own faith and witness to His work of salvation.
The Price of Reformation
The irony of observing the genesis of the German Protestant movement in England is that it was rejected by the Reformers in England. King Henry VIII famously denounced Lutheran sacramental theology, and English Protestants shaping the formularies, doctrine and polity of the reformed Established Anglican Church looked to Strasbourg in France and Zurich in Switzerland more than to Luther’s approach in Germany and Calvin’s in Geneva. Or at least they were careful to take from each what was suited to their English conditions from a range of available examples, rather than allow one theory to dominate. The term “Elizabethan Settlement” is famous for the relative harmony struck among English Christians in that long reign, which tolerated many shades of Reformed belief – from crypto-Catholics to Calvinists, Episcopalians to Zwinglians - on condition of outward conformity. The price was, of course, the religious and civil exclusion of Catholics faithful to the Church’s unity with Rome, and particularly the doctrine of the priestly sacrifice of the mass.
Another uniting factor was the need for reformers to follow through on their teaching about the religiously legitimate power of the earthly ruler to govern the Church on his territory (i.e. to the exclusion of the Pope). So, when Henry VIII needed a different wife to provide a male heir, Thomas Cranmer obligingly broke up a sacramental marriage with a spouse still living (Catherine of Aragon), and Philip I of Hesse’s bigamous marriage was accepted by Luther (who had benefited from his protection), Melanchthon at Wittenburg and Bucer in Strasbourg. The indissolubility of Christian sacramental marriage remains to this day a defining belief of Catholics, on which the Church’s Catholicity stands or falls.
How necessary was the Reformation – where was the good?
In such lights as these, the observances of the 500th Anniversary have scrupulously avoided the word “celebration”, out of concern for Catholic sensitivities and a genuine acceptance that the Reformation led to half a millennium’s division among western Christians that shows no sign of healing, despite our ecumenical efforts and a newly discovered mutual, appreciative friendship between Churches. There has also been extensive expression of repentance for the suffering and damage caused in the history common to us all. But there persists an assumption that is false: that the Reformation was necessary, and that it was a necessary good to correct abuse. It may have been a consequence of abuses that were not addressed, it may have been the unstoppable result of persons’ behaviour and theoretical attitudes put into practice. But necessary?
Archbishop Rowan stressed how indispensable repentance on all sides is, as we approach our histories and our futures. We have to face the violence that tore Christians - supposedly the paragons of love - apart, as well as embrace the determination not to veer for any reason from the painstaking steps to the unity which Christ commanded, “so that the world may believe”. He also said that the shock of the Reformation divide directly led to the Catholic Church’s own comprehensive programme of purification, self-correction and reform emanating from the Council of Trent beginning from 1545. He saw the Counter-Reformation as a good result of the Protestant Reformation, even if it failed to achieve the repair of the separation. Except, of course, that England under Mary I (1553-58), instead of turning the clock back to the Medieval Church, served as the laboratory for the Catholic reforms of Trent. They won positive acceptance and also a measure of reconciliation in the Church and the country. This was because the Counter-Reformation was not the product of a “necessary” Protestant Reformation, but because both were fruits of the movements of spiritual renewal that had gathered pace for centuries.
Consider the trajectory of the Devotio Moderna from the 14th century onward: the rediscovery of lay people’s desire for the practice of simplicity and purity in personal life, as well as that of the Church and clergy, leading to hopes of reform in the Church and to a new sense of people’s interior spirituality. We know this from The Imitation of Christ (not so much “What would Jesus do? What would I do if I were in Christ’s place?” as “What would Christ do if He were in my place?”).We also trace it in the Beguine movement in the Low Countries, the outlook of Erasmus as well as St Thomas More, and its effect not just on the instinct of key reforming figures like Luther, Bucer, Melancthon and Zwingli, but also in the Carmelite reforms associated with St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, and the remarkable force unleashed in the Catholic Church’s renewal thanks to St Ignatius Loyola. It is worth bearing in mind here that, when Henry VIII began the arrests and executions of those who were faithful to Catholic unity and belief in Christian marriage, it was not those blamed for abuses that he targeted, but those who were at the forefront of England’s Catholic spiritual renewal. He went for the Carthusians (and in time their disciple, St Thomas More) and the Observant Franciscans, because their renewing influence threatened the system he inherited and needed to control.
In other words, at the time of the first breach in Catholic unity in England, reform was already a movement bearing fruit, all aided by the printing press, in the devotional life of the people, the pastoral work of the priests, the life of the monasteries (which were closed for their spiritual depth as much as for their assets), and the deepen internalisation of the Catholic faith in the life of regular individuals. As Sara Montague perceptively asked, “If reform within the Church had happened, would there have been a need for your separate Church to exist at all – would you be a Catholic?” Well it was happening and so the answer of the Catholic League has always been, “No necessity for separate Churches. Vital necessity of “endeavouring to keep the unity in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4.3), and where there is no unity, to rebuild it.
The first good that we can extract from the history of the Reformation, then, is our desire for those whom we miss in other Churches and without whom the Catholic Church in which we believe is no not complete. The second is the impulse toward the true and truthful ecumenism of which Paul Couturier, the fathers of Vatican II and St John Paul spoke: the enriching and purifying exchange of God’s gifts of Himself in the Church for the benefit of all humanity, so that all are bound to and nothing may separate us from unity in Christ.
In everything I have written about ecumenical matters as a Catholic, I trust that what shines through is my deep love and gratitude for the Church of England and all that its history and patrimony have offered to wider Christianity, and for the witness to Christ’s truth that, as Michael Ramsey (who was such a friend to me), said, it has “providentially” stood for. God has likewise bestowed on the Protestant and Reformed Churches, from above our human wranglings and our inability to be at one, gifts and insights that He truly destined for us all. But no new idea, no personal principle, nothing - despite what the Reformers said - stands above the imperative for the disciples to be one, to be faithful to the Truth of Christ that binds us, and to be obedient to the Spirit who leads us not off on our own but into that which Christ calls “All Truth”. This “All Truth”, which impels toward unity of faith in the Universal Church of Christ, subsists in fullness in the Catholic Church.
In a sense, even though the event of 1517 has shaped our history, it is irrelevant to speak of what might have happened if Martin Luther had been less intransigent towards a Pope who might have been more willing to address his concerns; it is also irrelevant to ask whether the Reform within the Catholic Church, rather than splitting it, could have won all hearts, such that the shape of European Christianity would have been very different. For what matters now, as we approach the 111th Week of Prayer for Christian Unity together, is what we do with the situation we have received. Christ in the Garden prayed we would be one. On his Cross he gave to Mary His Mother and St John the concrete pattern of how it must always be from that moment on: One House. Not a collection of varied opinions, but “all the believers of one heart and mind” (Acts 4.32).