October 31 marked the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation – well, the 500th anniversary of Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Reformation that spread through Europe was a much longer and complex response to aspects of the Roman Catholic Church at the time, and the English Reformation, whilst connected, was a rather different response – and a few years later.
I commented to someone a few months ago that I hadn’t yet written anything on the Reformation for The Link and hadn’t really engaged with it. The problem with writing about history is you have to get it right – or as right as possible. I could have read pages just to write a few words for this magazine. But then our family visited the Tower of London...
But just a moment... Many very good things came out of the Reformation. People were able to have the Bible and worship in their own language. Luther went back to the Bible and rediscovered its teaching about being made right with God by faith through the grace of God, not by doing good deeds or things like papal indulgencies. I am so grateful for people like Bible translator William Tyndale and liturgist Thomas Cranmer who made that possible, but lost their lives for it.
But meanwhile, within the Roman Catholic Church there were people committed to reforming it and deepening its spiritual life. In 1534 the Jesuit movement was founded by Ignatius de Loyola, and in the second half of the 16th century both St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross were writing about interior conversion to Christ, the deepening of prayer and commitment to the will of God – writings which are now read the world over and still touch people very deeply. I am deeply grateful for them, too.
Both sides in the Reformation had a role to play in the renewal of the church and the deepening of faith. But there were also downsides. Both sides also treated their opponents with extreme cruelty, and the Protestant Reformation also set in motion one schism after another.
So where does the Tower come in? Over the centuries many people who fell foul of the monarch or the state were imprisoned there, including some for their religious convictions. In places you can see their graffiti in the stone very well preserved, and in some cases we know exactly who wrote it. I was very struck by the story of Philip Howard, the First Earl of Arundel, a deeply committed Roman Catholic who was imprisoned by Elizabeth I from 1585 until his death from dysentry 10 years later. Once imprisoned, he never saw his wife or family again. On the wall of his cell he carved (in Latin, but I’ll just quote the English): 'The more suffering for Christ in this world, the more glory with Christ in the next.’ That was my ‘Reformation moment’.
I’m so glad that 500 years later the church is so different – that in so many places Christians of all denominations meet together and worship together, and value each others’ unique part in the body of Christ. In recent years this has really escalated, most notably through prayer – just think of the Taizé Community in France or ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which have become totally ecumenical expressions of faith.
But the Christian church is still suffering in many parts of the world – and more than at any stage in its history. And November is a month when we particularly remember and pray for the suffering church. St Philip Howard’s words couldn’t be more appropriate today.
With every blessing