The Priory Church, Bolton Abbey

The Rector: Reforming and renewing

29 October 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Canon Simon Cowling
Leviticus 19. 1-2 & 15-18; Matthew 22. 34 – end

This sermon began with the organ playing Martin Luther’s hymn tune for his translation of Psalm 46: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God).A version may be accessed here:

On Tuesday of this week, when many of us in this country will be subjected to the rather tawdry rituals of Hallowe’en, many Germans will be celebrating a public holiday with far more serious significance: Reformation Day. The 31st October has a particular resonance this year as it will be the five hundredth anniversary of the date on which an intellectually brilliant but otherwise obscure thirty-four year old Friar, Martin Luther, reputedly posted ninety-five propositions, or theses, on the doors of the Schlosskirche, the Castle Church, in Wittenberg. It was Luther who composed the majestic tune you have just heard to accompany his translation of Psalm 46: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott – A mighty fortress is our God, sometimes called the Battle Hymn of the Reformation. Two years ago the German church even persuaded the makers of Playmobil to create a three inch tall Martin Luther holding a bible. Well over a million mini Luthers have been sold, making him the highest selling Playmobil figure in history.

In 1517 Luther was Professor of Moral Theology at Wittenberg University. He had been concerned for some time about a particular aspect of the Church’s teaching – the granting by the Church of what were known as indulgences for sins that Christians had committed. These indulgences, so the faithful were taught, gave them a guarantee of a reduction in the amount of time they would have to wait in Purgatory, a kind of celestial waiting room where the souls of the departed were cleansed of all sin before being admitted to heaven. Indulgences, of course, came at a price: the more you paid, the more time off in Purgatory you got. The Pope was even able to grant a plenary indulgence, a complete wiping clean of the slate of sin.

Things came to a head for Luther early in 1517. He was the town preacher in Wittenberg and was told by some of his parishioners that they no longer needed to repent and amend their lives because they had purchased indulgences that guaranteed their souls would be saved. Luther’s initial reaction was to preach a number of sermons emphasising that without true repentance on the part of a sinner an indulgence, even a papal indulgence, was worthless. Then, in October, came his ninety-five propositions. The first of these propositions was in many ways the key to those that come after. It reads as follows: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. In other words, for a Christian the good life was a matter of inner orientation, of constant struggle against the tendency to sinfulness. The good life was not something that could be bought by means of an indulgence.

The posting of propositions on church doors was a common way of starting an academic debate, and it is possible that this was all Luther intended five hundred years ago. He certainly did not view his actions as being incompatible with his calling as a priest who continued to be loyal to traditional catholic teaching as he understood it. But the hostile reaction of the church authorities to his ideas hardened his position against other aspects of the Church’s teaching and by May 1521 Luther had been declared a heretic: a papal edict allowed anyone to kill him with impunity. Thanks to some powerful protectors in his native Saxony, Luther avoided assassination and died of natural causes in 1546.

Luther’s ideas kick-started the Protestant Reformation and created massive turmoil for the Church in large parts of continental Europe, but it was a turmoil that initially left England, for the most part, untouched. Henry VIII, who had been king since 1509, was a devout Catholic and loathed Luther’s teachings. He was even given the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ by the Pope in 1521 for being staunchly loyal to Rome over Luther’s excommunication. It was only really after Henry’s break with the Pope, because he was refused an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, that some of those around Henry, including Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, began cautiously to advance the ideas of the continental religious reformers. Some of these ideas were far more radical than those of the relatively conservative Martin Luther, and Henry’s death in 1547 allowed the English religious reformers to give free rein to these ideas. In 1549 Cranmer published his first English Prayer Book, quickly followed in 1552 by a much more Protestant, reformed, version. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer largely follows this 1552 text, including the Communion service which we still use, in a modified form, at the Priory. The Church of England, though in many ways more Protestant and more reformed in its official teachings than Martin Luther ever was, could not have come into being without the ideas he brought to birth five hundred years ago in a small town in Saxony.

Luther’s legacy is in some ways a mixed one. His translation of the Bible was instrumental in laying the foundations for the standard modern German language which has been such a great gift to European culture. It also played a significant part in creating a specifically German cultural identity which, in turn, contributed to a rise of nationalism – an unintended consequence, of course, but one which has all too often led to the state demanding an almost idolatrous loyalty from its citizens. Not unconnected with this part of his legacy, Luther’s unpleasant writings against the Jews – especially in his later life – provided what one German historian has called the ‘passion, vocabulary, and rationale’ for a good deal of later German anti-Semitism. Even though the late medieval world into which Martin Luther was born was unimaginably different from our own, it is not unreasonable to judge with appropriate sternness the consequences of some of his ideas.

Yet Luther has left a much more positive legacy too, and in many ways the movement of religious reformation that he began was one which allowed human beings to cross the threshold from the medieval to the early modern age.  Luther’s understanding of human frailty, on the one hand, and God’s steadfast grace and forgiveness, on the other, released Christians from the straitjacket of the complex, constricting, and sometimes downright superstitious penitential system of the medieval church.  And Luther provides a robust counterweight to a feature of today’s culture, sometimes apparent in the church itself, of self-help manuals and the prioritising of our own need for self-fulfilment: a kind of twenty-first century equivalent of buying an indulgence to shore up our position. In contrast, Luther’s reading of scripture led him to believe fervently in the absolute sufficiency of the individual’s faith in God as a bulwark against the temptations and anxieties to which all human beings are prey; and to believe fervently in the absolute assurance of God’s grace and mercy for all who have fallen short of his glory. That is something for us all to reflect on, – preferably more than once every five hundred years.

After the sermon the congregation listened to Bach’s Chorale Prelude BWV 720, based on Luther’s hymn tune Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. A version may be accessed here: