Thursday, 25 May 2017

'The Once and Future Reformation'

Philip Harvey’s words of welcome at the Carmelite Centre Symposium 'The Once and Future Reformation' on Thursday morning, the 25th of May 2017

It is 500 years this coming October that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of Wittenberg.

Actually at least two things in the sentence I just read are still under dispute. It may have been November, not October. It was in October that Luther posted his theses to the Archbishop of Mainz and it is this action, rather than nailing them to a door, that is regarded as the start of the European Reformation.  Luther is taking his cause to a higher authority.

Also, he probably did not nail the theses so much as affix them: nailed sounds so much more dramatic to posterity. It looks good in a movie. The reason he is affixing them to the door is to invite people to a symposium at the university, where the various propositions can be openly debated. If Luther were alive today he would probably use blue-tack to fix his theses to the door, and would circulate them via his online e-list. 

And it is in this spirit of invitation that we are here today to conduct our own symposium on reform, in the church and in the world, and possibly even in ourselves. 

Ponder the fact that there were 95 theses. When Luther invites discussion about reforms in the church, he is talking about repentance, which he views as personal and guided by the Gospel, and he is being thorough. He challenges assumptions that drive something that is international, huge and socially powerful, the Western Church of the 16th century. Suddenly many other issues were at stake: the language of the liturgy, obedience to a primatial bishop, how we read the Bible and even should we read the Bible, marriage, religious vows, the power of the state. 

Indeed, in raising discussion today in our own symposium, there has been the problem of being able to include many, but not by any means all, of the issues facing us in the modern world. I am sure issues will be raised in the next three days that have not been directly addressed in the program and it is necessary to acknowledge these omissions, which are not deliberate on our part, from the start. Given the thankless task of identifying everything that seems mistaken or wrong and in need of reform today, I’m sure some of us here could come up with our own set of 95 theses fairly rapidly. We trust though we don't end up being sent to our own personal Diet of Worms. I stand here, I can do no other.

As we know, the thesis or complaint of Luther’s that really shook up the church authorities was his questioning of indulgences, the racket whereby the church raised revenue from the faithful by receiving money for the remission of sins, especially of the faithful departed. This commercialisation of the practice of repentance and forgiveness helped finance the vast operations of Rome. It should not be surprising that money has not gone away, that it continues to be root cause of many of the modern world’s problems, and that the churches are as compromised as everyone else by the use and misuse of money. We may well hear more about economics in the next two days.   
Luther was an insider, an Augustinian monk. He was also a professor at the university, so someone who garnered respect for his authority. His call to reformation was not coming from outside but inside the church.

Furthermore, Luther’s behaviour was not new. The call to reformation within the church, the need to acknowledge and correct errors and abuses, had a history within the Western Church going back centuries, some would say back to the very start of the Christian churches themselves. We think of Saint Francis of Assisi and others, many of them also saints in fact, who initiated reforms. We think of the Apostle Paul, who is already telling the far flung churches of the Roman Empire to get their act together. And we think of Jesus himself, as reported in the Gospels, getting his disciples to figure out that arguments about who gets the best seats in the house is, frankly, to have missed the point completely. Jesus calls people first to undergo complete personal reform: some task.

‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est’. This Latin tag is sometimes treated as a timeless truth coined by Saint Augustine or John Calvin. In fact it is as recent as the twentieth century, invented by the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. 'The church must always be reformed'. 'In the church there is always much to reform'. 'The church is always being reformed.' Translations vary to suit the argument. It was used by Hans Küng and others when trying to explain the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. It has meaning while pushing us to think anew, is a problem once it becomes the default setting.

The church lives with the constant challenge of Scripture and Tradition. Luther and the Protestants privileged Scripture while the Catholic reformers rethought and asserted Tradition. It will be worth listening to the speakers in our Symposium to recognise the rich sources of their thoughts.

We live in a different world to the Apostle Paul, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, and even Karl Barth. In the context of our searching, based in prayer and reflection, this Symposium is an opportunity to talk about the current need for renewal and reformation today, in the churches and in the world. Our Symposium will be diverse, ecumenical, and imaginative. Our emphasis is on spirituality, on the works of the spirit and what the spirit is telling each one of us. You are invited to listen to many different kinds of thoughtful voices, to join us for three days of lectures, reflections and discussion on ways of learning from the past, of living in the present and of looking to the future.

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