After 500 hundred years, what did the Reformation achieve?

site of first scottish protestant martyrdom

So, this week we mark the 500th anniversary of that famous, brave and necessary protest by a German monk and theologian called Martin Luther, when he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. Or did he? It seems there is doubt about the nailing up bit, as this might have been added to the story later. No matter though, as there is no doubt that what he wrote lit revolution across the Christian world.

Most from a Protestant persuasion and many from the Roman Catholic world too, would regard Luther as a hero (of course we do not use the word ‘Saint’ as this would be rather against type.)

But back to that word ‘revolution’. This is not exaggeration. Firstly, there was a theological revolution. The power of the Church to dictate and control salvation, orthodoxy and patronage was fractured. What we would regard now as heresies that had become common practice in the church of the time were directly challenged. It excited the highest passions and brutal opposition. People like Patrick Hamilton were burned at the stake unwilling to relinquish the new truth they had found in the protest against the religious powers of the day.

I used the word ‘necessary’ earlier. The Reformation started out as a protest against corruption, injustice and the rampant, systematic miss-use of religious power. It proclaimed that individual salvation was available to all, by faith, and was not mediated by church or state. It liberated the Bible from the priesthood and thanks to the invention of the printing press, weaponised it as an instrument of mass sedition.

In turn, the children of the revolution also turned to violence (Remember the Covenanters?) 500 years later, the splinter lines are still visible in our communities- particularly in Scotland and Ireland.

But this is not a history lesson- rather I reflect on the legacy of The Reformation in our country now. For 500 years, the Protestants have been scrabbling to reform again and again and again in pursuit of purer and more exclusive versions of the truth. However, I would contend that in doing so, we still stand in dire need of a new Reformation. A new break from the power of the Orthodoxy. A new break through into a new landscape of faith that engages with systematic abuse of religious power. Dare I say more?

Luther wrote 95 lines of protest in his Theses. I am no Luther, but I would start with 6…

Military flags, Lichfield Cathedral

I would suggest that the Reformation has now accumulated new heresies. These need to be named and nailed to the doors of our churches;

  1. The relationships between Church and State. Think about the relationship between muscular Evangelical Christianity and Imperialism. Greed and slavery justified on the basis of saving the Heathen. Think about Donald Trump quoting the Beatitudes in his inauguration speech. Think about how the new colonial power (the USA) conflates and confuses God, the flag and the State, as if God is a protestant white American.
  2. The promotion of the Bible above all other sources of religious truth. Stay with me on this. I don’t just mean the old fundamentalist/liberal dichotomy, rather I mean the way that we have come to revere the Bible as the fourth person of the trinity. How we forgot that it is a library of books of history, poetry, wild prophetic utterances, sectarian eye-witness opinion, ancient legend. But remember that until the revolution, for one and a half millennia, followers of Jesus did so without the Bible, or at least the Bible as we know it. I say this not to devalue the Bible, but to suggest that we take it out out of the glass case and actually read the thing. It was not dictated by God, it was inspired.
  3. The promotion of doctrine over the defining principle of love. Perhaps because of number 2 above, somehow the Church came to believe that our job as Christians was to define the saved from the unsaved. We used our own narrow readings of Scripture to define and police a binary world in which correct belief (doctrine) was more important than anything else. Sexual sin gets special attention. Other sins such as greed, avarice and religious bigotry (the things that Jesus got really angry about) hardly register by comparison.
  4. A distortion of the Great Commission. ‘Go ye therefore and make disciples’ were the last words Jesus is recoded as saying to his friends. The implication being that they, and we, are to seek to encourage people to be like him. But somewhere in the depths of the reformation this was reduced to saving people from hell when they die by getting them to say the sinners prayer.
  5. Moralistic therapeutic deism. Religion reduced to ‘feeling good’ and ‘doing good’. Faith that fits neatly into a lifestyle that values most the attainment of a life full of ‘me’ experiences, ‘me’ relationships, a great job and a great house in a great location. God is employed as a talisman, or a life coach for our attainment, our success and our consuming power.
  6. Wealth and excess became synonymous with the WASP world. We may eschew gold encrusted minarets, but the protestant world has fitted in neatly with an industrial revolution driven by forces of exploitation, division and wealth accumulation that is as far removed from the poverty of Jesus as it is possible to imagine. From the ‘Protestant Work Ethic‘ to the pervasive power of the prosperity gospel heresy, earthly success and accumulation has never really been seen as problematic, despite all evidence to the contrary from the words of Jesus in the Gospels. At a time of increasing inequality, denudation of resources and global warming, this is perhaps the greatest indictment of the legacy of The Reformation in our times.

There are signs that things are changing, that things have changed. But the world is very different now. The Church is a shadow of its former self- we no longer can claim to be the arbiter of morality in what is no longer (was it ever?) a Christian nation. Perhaps the final reformation has to be one of rediscovery of passion. A re-encounter with the way of Jesus, not the religion we tried to form around him.

Hmmm- I’m off to the local Church with a hammer and nail.

open door, rock chapel


What do Christians do when we no longer feel able to attend Church?


pilgrimage, cloister, gloucester cathedral

First of all, a disclaimer. This post is in no way suggesting that Church (note the big ‘C’) is over and that we should all just leave it behind to sail off on our own individualised spiritual journeys. I don’t believe that. Fantastic things still happen in Church. Peoples lives are turned around. They dedicate themselves to serving others. Not to mention (a variation on an old cliché) the fact that some of my best friends are Church goers. Some are Church leaders.

But I no longer attend Church. By which I mean that I no longer attend formal Sunday services in a building called ‘Church’ and no longer commit myself to the service and maintenance of an institution called ‘Church’. I am far from alone. I know this to be the case anecdotally, as I am met many others who are like me. There is also considerable research suggesting that there are many others like me too- we even have a name: the dechurched. It is not a new trend either- this term was coined back in the nineties.

What is more difficult to evidence however is the degree to which an active life of faith continues beyond Church. If this faith is to be meaningful, how is it ‘practiced’? What meaning do people find and what processes and exchanges help them to find it?

By illustration, many years ago someone told Michaela this story;

There was once a grand cruise liner that criss-crossed the ocean in grand style. It was a well run ship, with a crew who knew how to keep everything orderly and ship-shape. The liner ran to set schedules, calling in at ports according to the season’s demands. Entertainment was on hand in the evenings and fine food was prepared in the ship’s galleys. All the passengers needs were catered for.

Over time however, some of the passengers began to feel troubled. They watched the ship passage past exotic places and wondered why they could not go there. They began to long for a different adventure.

They started by speaking to the captain and the crew, looking for changes, but it can be hard to turn around a ship at sea. Some of the crew became angry and relationships soured. Eventually a few of the passengers decided that they were going to get off the ship.

So they climbed down the sides of the tall liner into a small boat and hoisted their sail, unsure of which way to go and where the winds would lead them. As they waved goodbye to their companions on the ship, a voice was heard shouting after them;

“But what about the children? Whatever will happen to the children?”

The question remains then, how do those of us who have left Church still church? Or have we all given up, just sold out to a consumer-driven, me-first, pick-and-mix spirituality that is all about self fulfilment? (It might be worth checking out these posts which debated this very issue. Part 2. Part 3.)

Well, my own imperfect, hopeless/hopeful journey through church beyond Church continues. I am part of a small group of families who meet regularly to share a table. I am increasingly grateful for friends at a distance whom I can meet with less frequently to share our spiritual lives. I continue to search for a life that means something and gives more than it grabs. I continue to consider myself a follower after Jesus.




I had a discussion recently with one of those ‘friends at a distance’ I mentioned earlier. We are both in our own small boats (to extend the analogy made earlier). Both of us have a background as Church ‘agitators’ and activists. Both of us now find ourselves outside. We reflected on how much it meant to both of us to meet and share lives and to start to dream again of new horizons.

We reflected on the fact that, here in Scotland at least, there was very little that could be regarded as supportive of those of us who were dechurched, or postChurched. Our small boats sometimes felt very small indeed.

We started to wonder whether there was some way that we could connect with others who were like us; to share experiences, suggestions of what we have found helpful; sharing what practices have allowed us to connect again with the spirit of God. Because we are dreamers, we wanted to dream again. We wanted to meet other dreamers and dream bigger dreams.

We also asked questions about the times we live in, the context we find ourselves in; deeply uncomfortable with the consumer capitalist economy that we seem to do little else but participate in, despite the fact that enslaves half the world in poverty and is destroying the world we live in. Surely, we thought, if a life of faith was to be relevant at all, it had to start by engaging with this reality? It has to challenge us towards a better way of living, collectively and individually?

Simon in contemplation

Perhaps these words resonate with you.

If so, perhaps you might be interested in continuing the debate.

We are seeking to connect up some of the small boats that sail in Scottish waters.

Not because we are wanting to build ships, but rather to share stories of places we have been…

…and what became of the children.

We are wondering whether we can find a small harbour to linger together for a while, because messages sent from distance are so much less satisfying that a shared landfall.

If you are interested, please get in touch…