Quo vadis?

I’ve mentioned the Incredible String Band (ISB) often enough. It was a psychedelic folk band which began life in the later ‘sixties. Frankly, I’d never heard of it until a few years ago. But I found a feature on it in the UK ‘Church Times’ which said that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was an ardent fan. So that did it. It’s all wonderful stuff. The music and lyrics are soul searching, and I can well understand why Williams, a deeply reflective man, who sadly but understandably didn’t practice, as Archbishop, what he preached intellectually before being elevated, showed such enthusiasm.

Last evening, returning from ballet, I heard the track ‘October Song’. There was one verse I thought particularly appropriate given that today is ‘Reformation Sunday’. “And rulers like to lay down laws/ and rebels like to break them/ And the poor priests like to walk in chains/And God likes to forsake them.” It’s rebels like Jesus who rock all the boats, and in his case turn them upside down. Thank God for wayward spirits. And it’s priests, chained and set in cement, who get left behind when ultimately irresistible change comes and ‘religion’ becomes meaningful again with God’s blessing. So: Quo vadis? Where are YOU going – in your heart of hearts? Do you want to rock boats or are you set in cement?

Well, October 31 was Halloween, All Saints’ Eve, when we remember the saints, the martyrs and all the faithful departed. It has pagan roots. But October 31 is also Reformation Day. It’s the day, in 1517, when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 ‘theses’ to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and thus began the ‘Reformation’. His immediate gripe was the sale of ‘indulgencies’ – buying your way out of purgatory, the halfway house between heaven and hell, absolved from punishments and assured of entry to heaven by giving to the Church. Oh dear. Where do we cook it up from? The immediate object was to enable the Pope to build St Peter’s Basilica on the backs of the poor, rather than from his own ample coffers. With the aid of the newly invented printing press, Luther’s views were rapidly disseminated throughout Europe, and what we know as ‘Protestantism’ was born.

Here’s my question. Do we have the vision to contemplate a new Reformation, and are we, in fact, witnessing one? Well, keep in mind the opening verses of the third Chapter of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season…A time to be born, and a time to die…a time to break down, and a time to build up…a time to get, and a time to lose…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with.” Have we seen it too? Well, IF we’re Pharisees, wedded to laws and the wholesale acceptance of biblical texts as divinely inerrant, and synonymous with “Godly order”, no we haven’t. We couldn’t. It’s got nothing to do with “time”. It’s simply not in us, though it may have something to do with cerebral geography. Bridgetown may just be a suburb of Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala, Krakow or Sydney.

When Luther, who was trained in the law, inveighed against indulgences he was branded a heretic and quizzed by the Inquisition. All forward thinkers must expect it, that the crowd will take over and shriek “crucify”. No matter. In fact, Luther was a serious theologian for whom justification by faith, in the Pauline sense, was the way to salvation rather than by works alone in the sense of the ‘Letter of James’. For Luther, the body of Christ was a priesthood of all believers, and scripture, in those parts where Christ was revealed, was truly the Word of God. In saying that, he was drawing a distinction between those parts of the Bible which were merely helpful and those which were essential.

He rejected, then, the idea that the whole Bible was the revealed divine Word. In other words, he distinguished, as others had done, between essential and non-essential matters, things which are critical to our faith and matters ‘in-different’ – adiaphora – like the veneration given to the saints.

As you know, in England the reformation movement led to the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of their vast wealth, the despoliation of churches and the abolition of Papal supremacy so that Henry VIII became the head of the Church in England and divorced poor Katherine of Aragon. With Archbishop Cranmer’s first Prayer Book, in 1549, the Anglican Church was born.

Whenever reformation is in the air, Luther’s emphasis upon the revelation of Christ is ever critical, surely, and at the heart of that is the Law of Love. Ignore that and you have no Christian faith. There’s no heart to it. You just have expectation and reward – self-interest. Archbishop Williams said as much: “The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ.” And that’s a loyalty rooted in devotion to his Sacred Heart. Nothing less will do.

Go safely, then – until the next time.

Heartfelt, from the boundary: “We have been chosen for love and this is our identity…If we do not believe this, then we do not understand the message of Christ” (Pope Francis).쇓

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