Wednesday, 5 July 2017

REFORMATION 500

On an October day in 1517 an obscure 33 year-old friar in an obscure German town pinned up a public notice. The world hasn't been the same since. Martin Luther's famous 95 Theses were not a programme for violent revolution - simply an invitation to fellow academics to discuss some aspects of church practice that Luther questioned. How, then, did this end up rending the seamless robe of Western Christendom and plunging Europe into devastating wars of religion that lasted 130 years? The Reformation was a bubbling cauldron of political rivalries, social discontent and intellectual conflict. The eastern border was menaced by a resurgent Ottoman Empire, under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent. The houses of Habsburg and Valois were locked in a war for the control of Europe. Communities were devastated by sweating sickness and syphilis, diseases hitherto unknown. State rulers were rethinking their relationship with the pope and questioning the nature of his jurisdiction. The opening up of long distance sea routes to East and West brought exciting new commercial possibilities but it also gave rise to a sense of unquiet, as people realised that the world was not the place they had always supposed it to be. Academics were asking new questions, exchanging their hypothetical answers via the revolutionising medium of the printed word. Everywhere there was a miasma of anxiety, a suspicion that old certainties would no longer serve. Among the more popular books of the period were works of satire, scepticism and humorous jibes directed at the clergy who, it was widely believed, did not measure up to the ethical standards they promoted in their sermons (e.g. The Ship of Fools, The Decameron, In Praise of Folly, etc.). Change disturbed people to such an extent that they were ready to listen to the prophecies of apocalyptic doom-mongers. Yet, despite all this unease, few were bold enough to challenge the doctrinal basis of the Catholic church. This was the only thing that gave cohesion to sixteenth-century life and to discard it would be to throw away the only belief system which made society work. To support that system (and their own status) church leaders defended with mounting ferocity the ancient truths. They made bonfires of books and men. They extended, wherever possible, their political power. And, then, along came Martin Luther. What he did was aim an arrow at the theological heart whose beating kept alive the febrile body of Latin Christendom. He exposed what he believed to be the intellectual and spiritual inconsistencies of the system. And people all over the continent read his protest. It seemed as though there was a sharp intake of breath across Europe as people came to realise that they did not have to believe what they had always been told to believe; that there was another - and more ancient - kind of Christian truth and that, in embracing it, so many of their questions were answered and their anxieties stilled. This liberating truth empowered the individual. It inspired many to face hardship and even death. It profoundly changed societal relationships - not least those between men and women. It transformed, not only what people did when they went to church. It affected the whole of their lives. In the words of the historian Jacques Barzun
'It fostered new feelings of nationhood. It raised the status of vernacular languages. It changed attitudes towards work, art and human failings ... by emigration to the new world overseas, it brought an extraordinary enlargement of the meaning of the West and the power of its civilization.'
It prepared the ground for the cultivation of democracy. The Reformation sundered church and state. It made possible the evolution of secular society. Yet, paradoxically, its aims were the reverse of this. Far from de-Christianising society, it aimed to provide humanity with a clearer vision of God, one from which the mists of 'false' doctrine had been rolled away.

What that dynamic vision was will be the subject of a conference to be held from 16 to 20 October in the magnificent setting of Lee Abbey, on the North Devon coast. The relaxing yet also stimulating setting of this beautiful place will enable us, through talks and seminars to explore in depth the history of the world-changing events being widely celebrated in this centenary year - Reformation 500. For full details go to leeabbeydevon.org.uk .
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