I was recently asked to return to thoughts shared at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. I am far from an expert on the Reformation but I have tried to consider its considerable benefit to the church in Scotland. It seems apt to share this on Reformation day.
For example, one great benefit was the insistence of returning to the original texts of Scripture as the ultimate authority in Christian faith. Linked to this, secondly, was the emphasis on reading Scripture in our own language, with the associated requirement for literacy and education. A third benefit was the call to relate directly to God without relying on the mediation of the church or the clergy. Of course one might argue the extent to which these ideals were adhered to.
However in reflecting on the benefits of the Reformation, I also found myself reflecting on the areas of church life where, in the long term, it may have made smaller changes than are sometimes acknowledged.
Not for the first time, my mind returned to something Professor David Wright said, ‘the Reformation could have gone further with regard to Ecclesiology’. For example, it might be argued that in the apparent shift from sacramentalism to preaching the Word, we essentially made the latter a new sacrament. Any Christian can read the Bible, but the voice of God has remained mediated predominantly through the ordained, educated elite of pulpit and Academy (I’ve just read something very similar in Liam Jerrold Fraser’s Mission in Contemporary Scotland).
Similarly, despite Reforming the Mass, the Church of Scotland still seriously restricts who can conduct communion. In fact the role of Eucharistic Ministers in the Roman Catholic Church may indicate greater current flexibility than the Kirk.
And in combining Reformed ecclesiology with modern bureaucracy the Kirk could essentially be considered to have replaced Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals with a functional hierarchy of Clerks, Convenor and Senior Administrators. Still today ‘career progression’ for Kirk ministers is generally limited to promotion to an administrative role.
But what about areas where the Reformation may appear to have been rolled back?
I wouldn’t be the first to note that in some respects denomination is growing less significant. Today, strands of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians may, on some theological or moral issues, align more closely with each other rather than with their respective church.
It also amuses me that no self-respecting Kirk is today without a screen; projection rather than rood. The missing statues, Icons and images have now been replaced by youtube and for the classier churches, Vimeo! Across the nation we worship with text scrolling over mountain ranges, sunsets and migrating wildebeests.
I belong to part of the the Kirk where mentioning the lectionary may bring out hives. And I remain only a casual user. But today I am an avid fan of apps like Lectio 365, Prayermate and the Canadian version of Daily Prayer. It turns out that many of us need help with the habit of regular prayer and biblical meditation. And the rise amongst protestants of ‘Celtic’ and Ignatian approaches to prayer and reflection suggest that I am not alone in a renewed appreciation of liturgy.
A final example of a significant roll back of the Reformation is the contemporary monastic movement. Admittedly, this is often monasticism lite. But on being handed a copy of ‘Punk Monk’ I was introduced to a more integrated approach to Christian life. And in contemporary Scotland, theologically conservative protestants now appear less concerned about a creeping social Gospel or the risk of falling into good works. In the Kirk it is generally recognised that orthodoxy extends beyond personal piety and world evangelisation, to include meeting the material, psychological and social needs on our doorsteps. And this is unashamedly seen as consistent and integrated with sharing the good news about Jesus.