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What the Church needs is a new Reformation

30 September 2016

The anniversaries of rallying calls by Martin Luther and John Robinson suggested an unfinished agenda, argues John Saxbee

THIS year falls between two anni­versaries, which combine to chal­lenge the Church to rethink radic­ally its place in the 21st century. It is almost 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’, in Witten­­berg, in 1517, and just over 50 years since Bishop John Robinson publ­­ished A New Refor­ma­tion? as a sequel to Honest to God.

The Reformation, which is generally seen to have been kick-started by Luther’s protest, had at its heart a profound suspicion of inter­mediaries in God’s economy of revelation and salvation. The lead­ing Reformers varied in their degrees of acceptance or rejection of Cat­holic teaching and practices, but there was an underlying trend to­­­wards the removal of barriers be­­­tween lay people and their access to scriptures, sacraments, and salva­­­tion by faith.

This theme also permeates Rob­inson’s book, and, although he remained far from sanguine about the potential of the Church to reform itself (hence the question mark), he remained committed to freeing the whole people of God to fulfil their vocation as disciples, ministers, teachers, and theologians.


THE crises currently confronting Christendom, especially in the West, once again bring into focus the case for a new Reformation. While vernacular versions enabled literate lay people to access the scriptures for themselves, the inter­pretation of scripture since the 16th century has remained largely in the hands of a male hierarchy.

Again, while access to the sacra­­ments has been extended to all believers, the ordained minister typ­­ically remains the gatekeeper to sacramental grace. And, while lay people have obtained sign­ificant representation in the governance of reformed Churches, the power and in­­fluence of bis­hops and clergy remains largely undiminished.

Even more pressing are current political, socio-economic, and ethical issues that require the Churches to reconnect with a culture that is increasingly in need of prophetic wisdom, and increasingly looking elsewhere to find it. Robinson argued that there was “much from within the organ­ised Church, and still more for those observing it from without, to raise the question rather insistently: ‘Can it possibly be the carrier of the new life for the new age?’”

The half-century since those words were written has only rein­forced their urgency — and the half-millennium since Luther posted his theses has served only to demonstrate that his Reformation has left us with a good deal of unfinished business.


THE Reformation was an extra­­ordinary eruption of passionate intensity into a pre-modern world that was ill-served by an increas­ingly corrupt and complacent Church. For all that intensity, how­ever, it was still a pre-modern world, and this inevitably imposed con­straints on what a reformation could attempt and achieve.

For some, it seemed to take people too far away from what had been believed and practised always and everywhere; for others, it did not go far enough. And, for still others, the Anglican via media as Catholic and reformed struck just the right balance.

Since then, however, we have experienced modernity and post-mod­­­­ernity; secularism, and post-secularism; the Enlightenment; and a raft of revolutions that have trans­formed the world into a place that the 16th-century Reformers would barely recognise.

More conservative movements seek to recapture the insights and assumptions of pre-modernity to meet the challenges of this brave new world; other movements (such as the Modern Church network) seek to harness the extraordinary intellectual and scientific achieve­ments of recent times, so that the Church might be further reformed for effective mission and prophetic witness today.

This might well involve some internal reformation in order to enrich the place of the laity in the celebration of sacraments, the inter­pretation and application of scrip­ture, and the ordering of church governance and oversight.


MORE importantly, however, it will entail the reorientation of the Church towards a fast-moving, tech-­­­­savvy, digital world, marked by no less spiritual hunger than it has ever been, but likely to remain unsatisfied by traditional fare.

This could mean a Church that is prepared to entertain the spirit of the age as potentially the spirit of God, and to embrace uncertainty as a God-given gateway to ever more profound truths; a Church disposed to endorse those at the margins of respectable society, and to enrol them as citizens of heaven; a Church released from the trappings of reli­gion, and travelling light, so as not to obstruct the light of Christ.

It would be a Church whose treas­ure is truly the faith of those who would follow Jesus; so that, in meeting with them, others will meet with him.

Such a thoroughly reformed under­­­standing of the Church and its ministry as all God’s people, wit­ness­­ing to and learning from a world full of wonder and woe, offers real hope for the future. A Church still hierarchically ordered, politic­ally established, managerially minded, and dogmatically defined will struggle to be the carrier of new life for a new age. But a Church that is em­­brac­ing the unfinished busi­ness of Luther’s Reformation, and com­mitted to being a 21st-cen­­­tury movement for a 21st-century mission, might just cause Robinson to reconsider that ques­tion mark.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln. A day conference in Bath on 15 October is addressing some of these questions. For information, visit http://modernchurch.org.uk/mc-events/newreformation

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