The Reformation; nothing to celebrate

The Reformation took place 500 years ago. A milestone being ‘celebrated’ at present throughout the protestant world. But what is there to celebrate about a formal act of schism ? What precisely do we cheer regarding a breaking apart of the body of Christ? Not least when Jesus prayed that we ‘would be one.’ I don’t get it.

The reality is that the reformation divide dealt a blow to Christian authority and unity in the West. A problem still working itself out within the Catholic church and without. Where Christendom once spoke with a single voice now it can only now babble via conflicting opinions and competing theologies. Little wonder the Western world eventually abandoned faith altogether; secularism was the inevitable fruit of the chaos and confusion now presented to the world.

Doubtless the “celebrations” will bypass uncomfortable truth such as this. Ours is, after all, an ecclesial generation- across reformation divide- hungering for comfort more than honesty and sentiment more than reason.

And doubtless old protestant rhetoric will resurface to justify celebration. We shall hear how brave Fr. Luther liberated an oppressed people by handing them scriptures the nasty Catholics withheld. A fantasy with no credible historic basis given that most could not read and hand written books were beyond the budget of normative families, It was the invention of the printing press, coinciding with the reformation, which changed the method in which scriptures were imparted. Just one example of how truth can take a back seat when schism is being justified.

Not that Protestant outrage was unjustified. Vatican corruption at the time was ghastly. It warranted rebellion. It is only a shame reform was saught without not within. That in creating a competing body integrity was further lost not gained. Luther and Pope Alexander and Henry VIII should have had heads banged together that wiser voices might win out. So the Catholic church bears much responsibility for what transpired. Disunity and fracture occur when doctrine and praxis are compromised. But that doesn’t mean we can celebrate.

And what to make of Catholic bishops and priests accepting invitations to join these dubious celebrations? Why do some Catholic clergy delight in celebrating the reformation itself, smiling alongside Anglican counterparts, even as they refuse to support and/or encourage an actualised act of unity- the Ordinariate? It is bewildering and I can only some prefer the thought of unity to its reality? They talk the talk but draw the line at walking the walk. You tell me?

Alas it seems many Catholics today have subconsciously sold out to the protestant mindset. To acceptance of division as healthy and inevitable. A papal methodism emerges in which an ecumenism of gesture trumps meaningful unity of truth. Smile with your Anglican counterpart and hope the sandwich supper and watered down liturgy can heal reformation divide. Then retreat back to your separated body no different than before. Yes I know the ARCIC wheel goes round again, a new topic discussed, a statement issued; but nobody actually imagines an end game. Don’t panic. The unity expressed is theoretical not actual. Stay comfy- no change needed.

Meanwhile the Ordinariate- totally ignored amidst the celebrations- is centred on a different model. The brain child of Pope Benedict XVI; it is the bringing together of Anglican and Catholic into a new expression of unity. An actualised lived out ecumenism. Anglican patrimony preserved but one faith proclaimed. And since its inception is has both challenged and inspired. Not being as comfy as gesture ecumenism it inevitably enrages those who only want the smiley photograph. Yet it also gathers together those truly working for reconciliation within one body. Hence, in just a few years, it has achieved more unity than all ARCIC talks combined. Speaking of which- why isn’t our Ordinary on the ARCIC committee? What sense in that besides a refusal to engage with the new model of ecumenism the Ordinariate brings?

Lets not be too harsh here. Of course we must celebrate what old ecumenism achieved. Must applaud the friendship and warmth that has grown up since Vatican II when so many believed unity was just around the corner. And we must celebrate the gifts of protestant theologians and evangelists the world over. So lets cut the bishops some slack- doubtless that is why they attend. They are being polite and extending the hand of friendship and love. But not- please- via any celebration of the reformation divide itself! That event, on both sides of the Tiber, should only be met with sackcloth and ash, repentance and sorrow and a realisation of the damage caused when we go it alone as Christians and pledge to work apart.

So pray for unity. Pray for realised action over empty gesture. Pray that the new model of receptive ecumenism, launched by Pope Benedict, and lived out by those of us in the Ordinariate, with little support from certain quarters, might be better understood and embraced. For we really must unite as Christians not ludicrously celebrate the very schism that caused our deep divisions.

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14 thoughts on “The Reformation; nothing to celebrate

  1. Catholic and Anglo-Catholic ecumenism, exemplified by the Ordinariate, is scarcely a stretch. I came into Holy Church from a Pentecostal / Evangelical background, with no idea what liturgy was all about. I see no point in ecumenical activities with those groups; just conversion plain and simple. Your thoughts?

  2. May I respectfully enquire, Father, why you and other former Anglican priests chose to remain for so long within the Protestant tradition, formally abjuring as it did the Catholic faith ?

    As a cradle Catholic, I was raised to regard all Protestantism as lacking authority and as vacuous. I have been jolted into imaginative sympathy for the Reformation by the brilliant Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books (reviled by some Catholics, of course, though they are far more subtle than allowed) and by the Calvinist Marilynne Robinson’s essays under the title The Givenness of Things (rather turgid stylistically in comparison with her novels but challenging).

    Isn’t there a vast wealth of theology, liturgy, art and holiness both past and present which the Reformation brought forth? Does God work in straight lines and does he observe uncrossable boundaries? I wonder.

    As to which, the Pope has reinstated Cardinal Burke. There will be Machiavellian interpretations but I prefer to see grace and humility operating on all sides – as they did with the signatories to the Dubia and the Filial Correction. Francis with this move and with the reincorporation of the SSPX which I believe he will achieve, may yet prove to be a fine Pontiff, despite his sloppiness.

    This is all as it should be in the unconquerable Church.

    1. I was an Anglican curate for three and a half years. An incumbent for less than five. I have now been in Catholic orders almost as long as I was in Anglican orders. I came from a low church background and quickly became Catholic once I had got to a point where my conclusions chimed with Newmans. Many stay because they take time to form and ponder and come to see things from the Catholic perspective. Though reason and history will always lead there in the end.

    2. Hilary Mantel twists the historical evidence, vilifies St. Thomas More and almost canonises Cromwell. Like many others with unfortunate childhood experiences in catholic schools, she makes no distinction between individuals and the institution, thus the Church sadly becomes the target of their bitterness and resentment.

    3. I sometimes think in terms of repair to an ancient building. What do you do if the roof needs to come off and be repaired for reinstallation. You cannot just remove and replace. The stress levels involved could be dangerous. The problem is compounded if you are aware that some of the walls and other structural members are very weak and others may be compromised, even though the foundations may be sound and able to take the load. I would not want the job.

  3. An excellent post. I wish I could be a full member of the Ordinariate. I’m not being cheeky or smart, but if I as a Catholic became an Anglican, even briefly, and then returned to the Catholic church would I be a full Ordinariate member. I don’t want to appear cunning and I suspect that the answer is no, but just asking.

    1. No. But if you have an ex anglican spouse you can. Or havent received confirmation. And – as of now- you can become an associate member- a friend. A good thing to be.

      1. I can’t see any reason for restriction on which Catholic Community one would wish to become a member of. The same restrictions apply to the Byzantine Catholic and Coptic Rites. I’ve known of monastic priests ordianed for Eastern and Western Rite

  4. The reformation lead to the so called enlightenment which lead to the French revolution which has lead Western civilisation to the point of disintegration which is where we are today.

    God help us all,


  5. Matthew 5:23-24

    The first stage in reconciliation is acceptance of blame, usually to be found on both sides. The only way that can happen is in mutually respectful dialogue. It seems to me that a first stage mending of fences has been arrived at. Whereas, I understand and agree with Fr. Ed’s comment about nothing to celebrate we need to work on what has been reached. St Joan of Arc told the pope of the day that if he was not gentle he would split the church for 1000 years. He did not take the advice and the split is still with us and has expanded. We don’t want to extend the rifts we have now but must seek to heal them.

  6. Ecuminism is a matter of Christian churches of differing traditions working together. The erection of the Ordinariate by Pope Benedict provides a way of reception into the Catholic Church, for those Anglicans who have accepted all the Catholic Church teaches : it is not ‘pick and mix’.
    A Ordinariate Catholic may receive at any Catholic Mass, and a cradle Catholic may legitimately attend an Ordinariate Mass.
    The Ordinariate is thus ‘post-ecumenical’.

    1. Worth having a look at the orign and meaning of the Greek οἰκουμένη (the whole inhabited world) as it came to be applied to Christianity.

  7. Asking Catholics to celebrate the Reformation seems about as sensitive as inviting turkeys to celebrate Christmas. Five hundred years, however, seems like an inordinately long time to bear a grudge. Right or wrong, the Reformation is a done deal. Time to move on?

    1. I don’t think it’s a question of either side bearing a grudge but rather that all of us, Catholic and Protestant ought to regret the splintering of the Church in the west.
      In my view the ‘reformation’ is not something that anyone should be celebrating. Surely if ecumenism were to achieve its ends then the result of the so-called Reformation would be reversed. In other words if we really desire unity why are we celebrating the process which caused our disunity? Even a convinced extreme Protestant ought to see the reformation at best as a tragic necessity rather than something to rejoice over!

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