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.

 

Table

 

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…

 

World Turned Upside Down event…

world turned upside down

I am really looking forward to this exhibition, which is a collection of art and poetry reflecting on the radical upside down subversive words of The Beatitudes. This will take place at St Edmunds Church, Roundhay, Leeds, from the 21st of October for four weeks.

I have been involved in developing a blog – here – which explores some of the background on the Beatitudes.

There is also a Facebook group, with lots of info, here.

I will also be hoping to meet with some of the Proost Poets to do a poetry reading on the evening of the 3rd of November, in the Church- it would be great to see you there…

powerful_1

Unexpected…

IMGP0341

Michaela and I have been married for 27 years and it feels like we are entering a new phase of our lives. William went away to university this week; to study at the Scottish Association for Marine Science. Emily has now moved into a flat with Paul in Paisley and is in the final year of her degree. Everything is changing.

Meanwhile I am drawing towards the end of my year of writing/making things. We have been so busy so decided to take a couple of days out and become tourists.

We went to the Scottish Sculpture Park, over the other side of the Peninsula- a place we have been meaning to visit for years.

This is what people do, it seems, when their kids have left home. They take flasks of tea and visit places.

Tomorrow we will be busy again. Yesterday, we were not.

Belief beyond reason…

gray areas

We like to think of ourselves as intelligent, rational beings, who are likely to make decisions mostly on common sense. Yes we might acknowledge a degree of bias arising from deeply held conviction, but this we would discount as a good thing, a thing that defines our distinctive superiority. After all, rational pursuit of absolute truth has rather gone out of fashion these days. We are more likely to value scepticism, incredulity, conspiracy even. The truth is never as simple as it might seem and frankly, it is boring. It is most likely fake news anyway.

Perhaps it has always been like this- after all, our prejudices are only absurd to those outside our narrow social-media driven doughnut. However, there seems to be a particular reason to wonder about fixed, inflexible belief at the moment. Fundamentalism is on the rise at the moment- and I don’t just mean the religious kind.

I have been thinking about IDEAS. I like ideas. I love immersing myself in them, particularly ones that coincide with my own deeply held correct beliefs prejudices. Check out Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcast– it is full of lovely ideas. But ideas do not start in a vacuum. They arise in a context. Ideas can be dangerous. Some ideas become the distorting goggles through which every other idea is viewed. Religious ideas are perhaps the most common example of this that will come to our minds, but there are many other quasi-religious ideas that might be seen the same way. Here is my far-from-complete list;

Neo-conservative economics

Fascism

Fundamentalist religion

Nationalism (including independence movements such as that in my own country)

The breeding of dogs

Communism

The playing and watching of the noble game of cricket

Feminism

Environmentalism

Atheism

Gardening

Music making

Economic growth

etc

 

Ideas can become bigger than anything; they can become bigger than compassion; than the rule of law; than family; than the need to save the world from extinction even.

There is the dilemma. We need ideas more than ever. But they might yet be the end of all of us. It is almost as if we need an idea to mitigate and protect against- ideas.

This week, we have had a few examples of this in the media.

The Christians who support Trump because despite his obvious lack of the practice of anything like the Christianity they espouse, he agrees with their ideas in relation to a narrow set of issues.

And then there are the Creationists who think that Trump’s refusal to believe in climate change is an opportunity to use their ‘science’ to prove that we should take Noah’s flood as a literal historical account.

Meanwhile, across the world, ISIS stumbles on from bloody battle to bloody battle. Each obscenity against humanity subjugated to their one great idea- an ‘Islamic’ State.

Closer to home, politicians are meeting in grand rooms to discuss how to progress the ‘will of the people’ known as Brexit. Brexit is required because a narrow majority of UK population were sold an idea of ‘Englishness’ (I use this word rather than ‘Britishness’ deliberately.) The idea of Englishness is nonsensical and amorphous, borrowing power from all sorts of sub-ideas, but ultimately it was more powerful than any idea that the remainers could describe.

flags, horse guards parade, buckingham palace

 

It is almost as if we humans have no ability to see the point at which an idea, or a belief, has gone too far. Our innate tribalism and preference for our own in-group requires ideas that force us to come together against the other. We are only really vitalised by ideas that are weaponised. We are interested only in the ideas that give us power, give us self belief, confidence; temporary control over the shifting sand on which all ideas have their foundation.

Am I right in this? Are their ideas that do not fit this category?

Are there ideas to which all other ideas should be subordinated?

If so, are we sure that there are not other ideas that are bigger, better, purer?

The irony of these questions is that they force us back to the beginning of the circle. The only way that we can measure any idea is by the application of another idea. The end of belief is itself, a belief. Religion can only be replaced by another religion. We are forced by to our own deeply held correct beliefs prejudices.

What occurred to me recently was that Jesus knew all this. He knew that people take ideas, distort them and use them as weapons, particularly religious ideas. In fact, he spent most of his time warning people against the way that religion has become bigger than people. He had this one idea that he said trumped all others (even Trump). He called it love.

I think he knew even then that most of us would never get it. Sure, we would get glimpses of it- we would feel it in the arms of our mothers, and thrill to it between the legs of lovers. Sometimes in old age perhaps, we would look out onto familiar city streets and feel strangely warmed by it. It will be mostly reserved for our children. Because there are so many other ideas that get in the way of it.

A lovely man once told me that he knew he was going to make mistakes with ideas, but when he did, he was going to try to make sure that he would err on the side of grace. He would try to choose love. He would subjugate all other ideas to this simple one.

People will say that to do this is not reasonable. It is not economically/politically practical. It can never work in the real world.

It is just an idea after all.

 

 

When the Racists come to town…

In the light of all that horrible business that is happening in Charlottesville, it might be of interest to consider a rather interesting parallel with something that happened in the UK back in 1977.

Perhaps there are two significant differences however- one, the fact that the army of white supremacists that gathered in Charlottesville were heavily armed with assault weapons. Two, they had been given political legitimacy and confidence by a President who had been happy to ride on the toxic populist wave of which their message was the most extreme.

Back in Lewisham in 1977, things did not go as well for the National Front. The interesting thing is that, by many accounts, the violence that erupted was in no small part caused by the violent response of the Police, aimed at the anti-racist protesters. In the end this supported a message very similar to that of Trump, with his ‘violence on all sides’ cant.

It seems to me that we can draw some important lessons from all of this; firstly, the importance of political leadership motivated by compassion and peace, secondly the need to stand against those who seek to incite hatred.

Here is the story in all its black and white chaos…

Poetry and pottery (of the sea)…

footprints on snady beach

Anyone fancy a day of poetry and clay next Sunday? We have places available- details and booking information here

We hope to weave together a day of quiet reflection and creativity. Exactly what we do will depend on the weather and the preferences of those of you who come along.

Go on… come and make some space for words to breathe.

beach

Sometimes when you stare at the sea
You hear a distant pulse of an engine
But see no ship
It is close
Like a fast heartbeat

And sometimes the hackle of the gulls
Masked as it is by the sigh of the sea
Can sound just like the cry
Of a child
In distress

The roll of a wake
Is a whales back
Which emigrants
Are riding
Back home