Should anyone celebrate the Reformation?

In recent blogs, I have commented on other revolutions that happened, or almost happened, at this time of year: the Russian Revolution and the Gunpowder Plot. I have mentioned that the 31st October 2017 was the fifth centenary of the Reformation. OK it did not happen all on one day. But that is the day when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses (propositions, really) to the door of his parish church at Wittenburg in Saxony (now part of Germany). That set the ball rolling. It was the beginning of Protestantism and centuries of conflict between denominations. Surely, you have to take a one-sided view of history to celebrate that? Weren’t people better off when they were all members of the same church?

A preacher proclaiming the Reformation.
All Protestants should celebrate the Reformation

Not just extremists. Until the Reformation, you had to at least pretend to believe what the Church, i.e. the Pope, told you to. Yes, I know there were debates within the Church, but the papal authorities decided how far you could go before being burned as a heretic. They did not permit alternative approaches to any aspect of religion. None of our Protestant or non-denominational churches would have existed. The Church would have suppressed views within the Church that were not mainstream.

Humanists should celebrate the Reformation

I know Protestant governments, including the British, often oppressed dissident views. However, once the reformers broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly, they did not replace it with a Protestant monopoly. The idea of pluralism was there. If people could read the Bible for themselves, because it was in everyday English (or German or whatever) they could form their own views as to what it meant. This had implications beyond religion. It opened up the possibility of thinking for yourself generally.

Faith and doubt must coexist
Democrats should celebrate the Reformation

The mediaeval world was hierarchical. The structure of the Church was similar to that of Society: the Pope at the top, then the bishops, next the priests, lastly the laity. Just like the King at the top, then the nobility, next the gentry, lastly the peasants. Those in authority liked it that way. Breaking the power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy had implications for the secular hierarchy. In the short term it put more power into the hands of kings. Henry  VIII comes to mind. But in the long run it worked in the opposite direction. If church leaders were answerable to their congregations and not just to God, then kings had no divine right either. It is not a coincidence that puritans, parliamentarians, egalitarians and the middle classes were all on the same side in the English Civil War, against royalists, catholics and the aristocracy.

Roman Catholics should celebrate the Reformation!

This probably sounds a bit odd, but think about it. There were a lot of people in 1517 who wanted to see the Church reformed. They knew the World was changing and the Middle Ages couldn’t go on for ever. However, the system was just too slow and cumbersome to respond. Popes couldn’t get much done. Even the ones who wanted to. The Reformation changed that. It gave impetus to the Catholic Reformation, also called the Counter-Reformation. The process has continued. Thank God for the Second Vatican Council. And for Pope John Paul (I and II). It still continues.

Apply the counterfactual history approach to the Reformation

What? I mean, ask yourself what the World and the Church would be like if Luther had kept quiet.

  • Could we still be in the Middle Ages?
  • Would kings have clashed with the Church and imposed reform or just undermined it?
  • Would there have been more revolutions?

I think you will find lots of reasons to celebrate the Reformation, whoever you are.