Churches should fo­cus on their com­mon be­liefs

There is much we may all re­ceive thank­fully as gifts from the Re­for­ma­tion

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Richard Clarke Rite&Rea­son Arch­bishop Richard Clarke is Church of Ire­land Pri­mate of All Ire­land

Although Oc­to­ber 31st, 1517, is usu­ally re­garded as the start­ing point of the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion, with the nail­ing of the 95 the­ses to the door of the Cas­tle Church in Wit­ten­berg by Martin Luther, what we might call “re­for­ma­tion think­ing” within the western church had be­gun well be­fore that date.

In the 14th cen­tury, John Wy­cliffe – an English philoso­pher and priest – had dis­puted a num­ber of cen­tral Catholic doc­trines and was in­stru­men­tal in the pro­duc­tion of the first trans­la­tion of the Bi­ble into the ver­nac­u­lar of his time. He was posthu­mously con­demned as a heretic by the Coun­cil of Con­stance in the 15th cen­tury.

The rad­i­cal Czech re­former Jan Hus was burnt at the stake by de­cree of the same coun­cil.

What may, how­ever, be said of Luther’s protest – the 500th an­niver­sary of which is now be­ing cel­e­brated – is that this was the point at which the Re­for­ma­tion took on an un­stop­pable mo­men­tum. New tech­nolo­gies in print­ing al­lowed ideas and ide­olo­gies to travel fur­ther and more rapidly than ever be­fore.

The cul­ture of the Euro­pean Re­nais­sance meant that new modes of think­ing about the world and God were sud­denly en­er­gised.

Other re­for­ma­tions fol­lowed quickly on the heels of the Lutheran Re­for­ma­tion, among them the Zwinglian, Calvin­ist and Angli­can re­for­ma­tions, but it should also be re­mem­bered that the Coun­cil of Trent within the Ro­man Catholic Church was de­signed not sim­ply for con­sol­i­da­tion, but also for a re­for­ma­tion of the church.

As we look back, we can see not only the whole­some but also the far-from-whole­some fruits that sprang from the re­for­ma­tion move­ments of the 16th cen­tury.

Per­sonal faith

There was, of course, the won­der­ful and wel­come re­turn – across all the re­formed tra­di­tions – to an af­fir­ma­tion of the He­brew and Chris­tian scrip­tures as foun­da­tional for Chris­tian be­lief. Equally there was a re­newed em­pha­sis on per­sonal faith in Je­sus Christ as fun­da­men­tal to a life of com­mit­ted dis­ci­ple­ship.

Per­sonal faith may, how­ever, read­ily be­come in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic faith. It has also been ar­gued per­sua­sively (by the so­ci­ol­o­gist Max Weber and the his­to­rian RH Tawney) that mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism, with the in­di­vid­u­al­ism in­her­ent within it, has its ori­gins in 16th-cen­tury re­for­ma­tion thought.

We might add that the new norm of cuius re­gio, eius re­li­gio (mean­ing that the re­li­gion for the state and its pop­u­la­tion is the choice of its ruler) which quickly fol­lowed from the Re­for­ma­tion contributed to the ter­ri­ble “wars of re­li­gion” that plagued Europe for a cen­tury and more, but also had longer-term con­se­quences.

It re­sulted in many re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in dif­fer­ent coun­tries feel­ing im­mensely threat­ened, be­cause they were un­der sus­pi­cion (if not the ob­ject of di­rect per­se­cu­tion) as po­ten­tial sub­ver­sives.

Through to the present day, the cul­ture of a re­li­gious ma­jor­ity has tended to be­come the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of the state and, more dan­ger­ously, a par­tic­u­lar church tra­di­tion may take on the po­lit­i­cal com­plex­ion of the state in which it is set.

This has in­evitably re­sulted in an open com­pet­i­tive­ness be­tween re­li­gious tra­di­tions for dom­i­na­tion – re­li­gious, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal.

Con­vic­tion

Where then, may we take the Re­for­ma­tion from here? We should per­haps re­turn with more en­ergy and se­ri­ous­ness to what is called the Lund Prin­ci­ple. This was the prin­ci­ple enun­ci­ated by the World Coun­cil of Churches in 1948, which af­firmed that dif­fer­ent Chris­tian tra­di­tions should work to­gether in all mat­ters ex­cept in those where sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences of con­vic­tion com­pel them to act separately.

This prin­ci­ple pre­sumes, of course, that each tra­di­tion re­gards those of other Chris­tian tra­di­tions as be­ing fun­da­men­tally “on the same side”, the side of Christ, and we should ac­cept that this is not ax­iomatic for some Chris­tian be­liev­ers in this coun­try.

How­ever there is, I be­lieve, an in­creas­ing ac­cep­tance among many Chris­tian dis­ci­ples in Ire­land that although im­por­tant dif­fer­ences both in doc­tri­nal em­phases and in ec­cle­si­o­log­i­cal ba­sics may re­main, we can and should work to­gether, so far as we can, in a shared wit­ness to an in­creas­ingly un­be­liev­ing world.

There is also much that we may all re­ceive thank­fully as gift from the Re­for­ma­tion, pri­mar­ily that we must each take per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for our life in Christ, while also un­der­stand­ing this in­di­vid­ual life as be­ing within com­mu­nity – within the life of Christ’s Body, the church.

We should join with gen­uine en­thu­si­asm to share the Word of God – as at­tested to in the scrip­tures – with­out any diminu­tion in con­science or prin­ci­ple.

The One, Holy, Catholic and Apos­tolic Church, in which many of us ex­press con­fi­dent be­lief when­ever we pro­claim the Nicene Creed is not our pos­ses­sion, it is God’s. It re­mains our God-given task to work to­gether to­wards its fullest ex­pres­sion in the life of this world.

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The cul­ture of a re­li­gious ma­jor­ity has tended to be­come the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of the state

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