Madeleine Davies

The radical history of Protestantism

In Uncategorized on February 7, 2018 at 1:35 pm

Five hundred years ago this week, a professor put a notice on a board proposing a debate. It sparked a revolution in political history.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Reformation made the Europe we have today. The anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses – said to have been nailed to the door of a Wittenberg church – has inspired numerous political op-eds. The claims about its impact included the somewhat questionable notion that he gave us both Brexit and Donald Trump. Others tried to discuss the theological origins of the Reformation.

The commemoration allows us to bring all these disparate religious and political threads together, to remind ourselves that religion was once inseparable from politics, culture, the whole of life, really – and that, whether or not we claim a religious identity today, we are the inheritors of this faith-infused world.

As professor Larry Siedentop wrote, in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism: “We no longer have a persuasive story to tell ourselves about our origins and development. For better or worse, things have just happened to us.” The Reformation is a fundamental part of that story.

To briefly summarise what took place in Wittenberg, Martin Luther – a monk and professor at the university – was concerned about the use of indulgences. These were certificates promising remittance for some of the punishment for sin after death in exchange for good works or money. He was horrified by the abuse of ordinary people, including the “false understanding” of sin and forgiveness to which the practice gave rise.

His exploration of the Bible led him to the revelation that, as the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, put it in his commemorative sermon at Westminster Abbey this week:

“We are saved entirely, confidently and unfailingly by grace alone, through faith, and not by our own works.”

Convinced of the truth of this insight, Luther refused to back down when challenged by the Church. His explanation – “Here I stand, I can do no other” – sits happily in modern discourse. It speaks to the autonomy of the individual, the assertion of freedom of conscience, and expression. In 1520, Luther burned the papal bull announcing his excommunication. He became the most famous man in Europe.

From his protest flowed intense upheaval and division. Peasants revolted, and popular acts of iconoclasm were undertaken. Images of saints were desecrated; art was ripped from church walls. Huge swathes of populations abandoned the Roman Catholic Church and wars of religion erupted within and between nations, as political leaders made calculations about where their religious loyalties should lie. It was “the first great era of ideological politics“.

As religious divisions hardened, authorities were able to exert control by demanding the confession of the ‘right’ religious doctrines. This week, half a millennia later, the Catholic Herald urged readers not to forget the “bloody horrors” of the period.

Despite the growing imposition of political authority, post-Reformation Europe provided countless examples of acts of defiance. Many paid the ultimate price for echoing Luther’s “here I stand”.

But the violence wasn’t just inflicted on people. It went both ways. Authorities faced rebellions from within, as doctrinal justifications for the deposing of ungodly rulers took hold. This was not limited to Protestants. Marshall argues that tyrannicide became “something of a Catholic speciality”.

Edicts, inquisitions, laws, and wars failed to extinguish people’s religious convictions, or insistence on articulating and sharing them. Luther did not die for his beliefs but thousands did in the two centuries after his proclamation.

Last week, commemorating William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake after translating the New Testament into English, the theologian Dr Jane Williams suggested that there are still “some things so constitutive of what we are and what we long for the world to be that if we foreswear them we forswear all that makes life worth living”.

Unable to unite people behind a single religious system, leaders had to accept plurality of belief and practice. “Modern Europe’s pluralistic and broadly tolerant society does not represent an inevitable triumph of progress, but the specific historical outcome of a contested religious past,” Marshall said.

While Luther might have agreed with Dr Williams’ defence of fervour, a persuasive case has been made that he would have been horrified by what transpired in the wake of his protest. Certainly, he opposed the popular revolts that took place against secular authorities. He advised princes, in a pamphlet published in 1525, to kill “robbing and murdering hordes of peasants”. He sought to reform the Church, not establish rivals. Nor was he advocating a “free for all”.

He had an authority: the Bible. “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, I cannot recant,” he told the church authorities in 1521, “for my conscience is held captive by the word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

What could not be pinned down though, given that all human mediators were held to be fallible, was the correct interpretation of it. As Dr Williams argued last week, the gift of scripture put into everyone’s hands was a glorious but dangerous gift. “It enables each person to interact and to begin to form their own faith.” Interpretations may be as numerous as individuals.

Brad Gregory, a biographer of Luther, argues that Luther inadvertently sparked a more pluralist society. If the only source of authority was the Bible and people could engage with it without mediators, multiple interpretations and rival views were possible.

The legacy of the Reformation, and how Luther would have felt about it, will remain contested. Perhaps he might have been most disappointed by the way his original revelation – “the generous love of a gracious God” – was somewhat lost along the way. Many popular representations of Christianity misread it as a life of endless striving to be “good enough” for God and earn a place in heaven.

But Luther’s discovery was different. It was that God’s grace was a gift, one that delivered him from acute anxiety. It was a doctrine he expected to bring freedom, if a different sort of freedom to the one which emerged. Like the experience of John Wesley, whose heart was “strangely warmed” by grace on Aldersgate (a plaque pleasingly marks the “probable” spot), it transformed one man, before his movement transformed the world.

This piece first appeared on on 3 November, 2017



Those who applaud the decline of the church will miss it once it’s gone

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2017 at 1:06 pm

Whenever studies on the decline of the Church are reported in the press, certain responses are guaranteed to materialise. There will be questions about the methodology, a hunt for the silver lining, and cheers from those who consider all religion to be antiquated, dangerous, or plain evil. There is also likely to be a fair amount of shrugging. No antipathy as such, just a fleeting acknowledgment and perhaps a half-hearted attempt at analysis.

This week, in the Guardian, Barbara Ellen suggested that claims that Christianity encourages a sense of community “seem a tad overplayed in modern times”, before arguing that “even the most isolated individual is likely to have access to the “community” of television, phone and internet – far from ideal, but, if you’re not religious, neither is sitting in a draughty hall with a Bible group and a digestive biscuit.”

I read this after getting back from the evening service at my church, where the trainee priest had shown a film about work with elderly people in the parish. For the past two years, the church has been running a project that enables some of the most isolated people in the community to meet up for company, conversation, and, most recently, access to Asda (hugely popular, apparently). For many, it is the only time during the week that they leave the house. These are women and men who have lost spouses, whose children live far away, and who might otherwise be among the one million older people who haven’t spoken to a friend, neighbour or family member for at least a month.

Songs of agony and ecstasy: a review of “Music on the Mind”

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2016 at 11:19 pm

Harvey Brough conducts Vox Holloway at the Premiere of Music on the Mind, 29 November 2015

It was the loss to suicide of four friends within two years that inspired Justin Butcher and Harvey Brough to create “Music on the Mind”. A new choral work, drawing on texts by “unquiet minds”, including those of Sylvia Plath and John Clare, it was performed for the first time at St Luke’s, Holloway, in November. I was in the pews and deeply moved.

I think it was the sight of members of the Maudsley Hospital’s Mind and Soul Choir shouting “KICK IT DOWN! KICK IT DOWN!” that thrilled me most. Comprised of staff and service users, their friends, family and carers, the choir was the beating heart of the performance. As they delivered with gusto this refrain (part of a choral adaptation of “An Unquiet Mind”, Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir of manic-depression) they were both deliberate – eyes firmly fixed on their conductor – and free, exhilarated.