Ryan Danker reflects on the Reformation

In this year, and especially during the month of October, Protestant Christians around the world are marking the 500th anniversary of the launch of what we now call the Reformation era. Based on the date—31 October 1517—on which the Augustinian friar Martin Luther likely pounded his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, these celebrations or remembrances vary from country to country, but they also vary as to their reasons. Those in Lutheran countries have embraced the event wholeheartedly. Germans have been preparing for this half-millennium event for more than a decade. Many evangelicals are taking a new interest in Luther because of the anniversary. But what about Christians of a Catholic variety? And, particularly, how might Anglicans in the catholic tradition approach this historic milestone? After we’ve read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, how can we celebrate this disruption of the Christian faith and, in particular, its repercussions in the British Isles?

I teach church history to seminarians in Washington, DC. Most of them are Protestants, but I begin my lecture in the second half of a year-long church history survey sequence with the construction of the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. This chapel was a monument to the medieval Christian worldview. When it was built by Henry VII in the early years of the 16th century it was attached to a Benedictine monastery that for six centuries had been filled with the prayers of monks, the continuous masses of priests in side-chapels, the longing of pilgrims who flocked to the shrine of the saintly king, and the remains of monarchs, some pious and some otherwise. The chapel was filled with the colours, the smells, and the imagination of medieval Christianity. Within eight years of its completion, however, Luther had pounded his theses to the Wittenberg doors. Within just a quarter of a century of its completion, Henry VIII had disbanded the monasteries. The prayers that had filled the place were silenced. The world the chapel represents had been turned upside down. I ask my students: ‘Was it worth it?’

Given the complexity of the Reformation Era, this is not an easy question to answer. And I never give my students an answer in that course. I want them to answer it for themselves. The Reformation Era, even if we focus on the German reforms at which Luther found himself the center, varied radically from town to town, or region to region. Even in Britain, where the reforms were launched under the auspices of the governing authorities, the reforms were never uniform. Because of this complexity, I think our celebrations should also be complex, or at least nuanced.

But whether we believe that the reforms went too far, or not far enough, good came out of the Reformations. In England, for example, the reforms of Henry VIII launched the career of Thomas Cranmer, the great liturgical poet of English Christianity. The Book of Common Prayer stands as a monument to both English prose, but also the ability of vernacular prayer to embrace everyday people and the mysteries of the Faith.  

The reforms of Henry also began to address some of the excesses of medieval Christian culture. As beautiful as medieval Christian culture was, it was in need of reform. The reforms of Henry brought with them a new emphasis on the biblical text that would culminate in the Authorized Version of James I. Henry’s reforms would also address some of the superstitions that had arisen from an uninformed approach to Christian ritual. Abuses of sacramental elements, or even sacramentals, were connected more to superstition and the desire for protection and less to the Church’s teachings on sacramental grace.

It may be hard to imagine finding a silver lining to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the destruction of centres of prayer that had undergirded English Christianity for centuries, but even there the reforms produced some positive results. The first was economic. Given the control of mammoth swaths of land by monastic houses, economic growth in England was greatly hindered. The distribution of monastic lands to varying parties, it has been argued, made it possible later for the rise of the English middle class. This middle class became the backbone of Great Britain by the 18th century and made the Empire possible. Without this economic powerhouse, there would have never been an British Empire, or its accompanying missionary movements. The second good that came out of the Dissolution of the Monasteries was the Daily Office. Cranmer’s vision for Morning and Evening Prayer was a vision for an accessible service of prayer that marked the beginning and ending of the day for the entirety of the English people, not simply the Religious. It was a democratization of prayer that moved it to the center of the village, rather than the seclusion of cloisters.    

In almost every reform movement of the 16th century, whether Catholic or Protestant, the reformers were driven by the Renaissance principle of ad fontes. This ‘return to the sources’ was vital to a renewed interest in the Church Fathers, to interest in Greek and Hebrew to undergird biblical studies, and a passion to mirror the better practices of the early church. This renewed interest in the intellectual study of religion—arguably built on the medieval foundation of the university—would eventually produce advanced theological education for the clergy, a reform that was taken up by Protestant and Catholic alike.

We don’t have to embrace every aspect of the various reform movements, nor every one of their repercussions, in order to see the good in the Reformation era. Nor should any educated person give such a blank cheque to any conglomeration of movements in diverse areas of the world.

Take Ely Cathedral as an example. On a recent trip to Ely I went to the Cathedral and was struck by the beauty of the place. This foundation—one of the earliest in all of England—was founded by St Etheldreda in the 7th century and Christians have been praying to God in that place ever since. When one enters Ely Cathedral, one is often drawn to the 19th century ceiling, or to the famous octagon tower. But I was drawn to ground level. There, you can see the imprint of centuries of human contact on the building itself. In the nave, from ground level up to about six feet, the walls are darker. Centuries of worshippers have come into that place and they have left their mark. And in so many ways, one is reminded that this cathedral, like so many others, has, and continues to be, a place where the praise of God is enacted and God meets us. It’s a ‘thin place’ between heaven and earth. But in the midst of that beauty, as one enters the Lady Chapel, a different scene awaits. While still a stunning room, and the largest Lady Chapel in England, the walls have been defaced by iconoclasm. Every last saint, angel, or martyr on the walls of the Lady Chapel has lost its head. In that room, the excesses of reformist passions are plain to see. And it’s hard to say that we should celebrate the sort of extremism that drove men to deface this house of God.

In the end, Ely reminds me that while there is much to celebrate about the reforms of the 16th century, and that much good has come from it, yet there remain aspects of reformist history that cannot be celebrated. And so, as I pondered the question of whether or not we should ‘celebrate’ the Reformations, I came to believe that the word ‘celebrate’ simply doesn’t work. The term doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the historical narrative nor to the lives of men and women who lived at that time. In addition, one should never celebrate the division of the Body of Christ.

Thankfully, the international ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans has given us a gift. In their deliberations, they have argued that the Reformations should be ‘commemorated.’ Such an approach acknowledges the complexity of the historical narrative, the wrongs that arose from reform movements that simply cannot be celebrated, and the contributions that the various churches now bring to our common witness. Luther and his fellow reformers may not have always been right, but the movements they started have benefited us all.   

Dr Ryan Nicholas Danker is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity at Wesley Theological Seminary