In 1517 Martin Luther is purported to have nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, an act that ignited the Reformation in Europe and divided the Church. (Of course, it divided much more than the Church and much blood flowed as a consquence. But, it is naive to draw a straight line between the Luther’s action and the bloodshed without recognising the inextricable interplay of culture, politics, economics and education.)
Well, here I am in Wittenberg, having happily and efficiently completed a substantial part of the Meissen Commission’s agenda and about to do a tour of the Lutherhaus. The sun is shining – unlike the first time I came here in February 2006. Then it was freezing cold, windy and inhospitable. It was then that I was struck by my own thesis that the Reformation could never have happened in southern Europe. It goes a bit like this:
- In the climate of northern Europe you have to associate indoors with people you choose to speak with. This means it is easy to argue, discuss and see the world in narrow terms.
- In southern Europe, where the climate is warmer and drier, people spend much more time outside and, therefore, bump into lots of other people. This shapes both conversations and views of the world. It also slows life down.
- No wonder, then, that northern Europe is Protestant and southern Europe Catholic.
- Stand in the snow and wind in Wittenberg and you realise why Luther was impatient and had a bad temper…
So far nobody has pursued this suggestion, let alone agreed with me that there is a question worth pursuing!
The story of Luther nailing his Theses to the church door is disputed. No matter, the Theses were disseminated quickly via the equivalent of the Internet of the day. Printing was not welcomed by many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the grounds that control is lost when any old pleb can get hold of, read and interpret stuff like the Bible for him- or herself. Luther not only saw the potential and importance of new media, but exploited them to great effect.
Now, I promised that while the Pope is in London I would post not 95 Theses on the church door, but 9.5 Theses on this blog. The intention is partly just to make me think about what might be spoken to ‘power’ today. But, now I am here I have hit on a problem: what or who today is the equivalent authority to the Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s day? In other words, to whom should my Theses be addressed?
There is a wonderful medaeival map in the British Library that places Jerusalem at the centre of the world. The geography represents status, authority and claims to universality in the things of the world. It just looks curious and amusing now. Britain is stuck at the bottom left of this map rather than in the middle of the northern hemisphere as in contemporary maps. Having been in the Vatican it is easy to see how the Curia can think itself to stand at the centre of the world today. But, this is a curious notion when seen from the outside.
The Roman Catholic Church is huge. But it cannot ignore the fact that there are more Christians outside it than inside. In real terms, it is one church among many. This might be an inconvenient and ecclesiologically suspect statement/perspective, but one only has to step back a bit from planet earth to see that the Christian Church is rather big and widespread and more differentiated than we would perhaps like. Simply maintaining that Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and Anglicans are ‘ecclesial communities’ (rather than ‘proper’ churches) looks increasingly limited.
This fact is unavoidable when we sit (as I am doing this week) with Christians of other histories, cultures, ecclesiologies and traditions and see our own in relation to them. I am praying for the meeting of the Pope with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the world is changing rapidly and common Christian cause should be seen to be more important than constant talk about who is in and who is out.
However, this still leaves me with a problem – here in the place where Papal Bulls were rejected nearly five hundred years ago. Would Luther have been arguing with the Roman Catholic Church today, or would there be a greater ‘authority’ (with greater claims over human life, destiny, values and potential) against whom he would have felt himself compelled to protest? If so, who or what might that authority be?
After all, Luther wasn’t simply obsessed by ‘theology’ (in a privatised, churchy or introspective sense), but by the invitation and demands of God in the whole of life. Power, whether political or ecclesiastical, was always limited: God was top of the pile. And human flourishing depended on (a) getting the theology right and (b) living it out.
So, to whom should I address my 9.5 Theses? And what should they be?
Suggestions welcome before I post tomorrow…