‘Churches’, says Phyllis Tickle, the American theologian of Emergent Church, ‘go through a rummage sale every five hundred years or so’. I love that image. So, five hundred years ago, in 1517, we saw the tipping point in the great rummage sale of the Reformation.
Of course, the danger for protestants is that we might say, ‘Been there, done that’, and forget the fact that the Reformation of the sixteenth century committed us to be a people who were always being reformed by the Word of God. The reality is that our particular protestant attic has now become full of stuff and a wee bit dusty, so we can’t always see the wood for the trees. But, in truth, we have become comfortable with things as they are.
We who rejoice in Luther and Calvin, Wycliffe and Tyndale, Cranmer and Knox, because they re-focussed the church of their day on the central truths of the Gospel, don’t always notice when the time comes for us and our ways to be reformed too!
However, it was always so. It will probably be the new Christian, the up-and-coming visionary leader, and the person who is hard to live with, who will all ask the awkward questions while the leaders, not least bishops like me, defend the ancient regime. So here goes a church leader trying to be a young whippersnapper!
Truth is this: none but the most esoteric are interested these days in the issues which have led to most of our denominational identities. When did you last hear a young person argue the pros and cons of church government? Yet we have whole denominations labelled by the answers once given: Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian. We have divided over it, as though the answer was ‘of the essence’ of the faith.
Or when did you last hear a heated discussion on predestination and free will between a Methodist and a Calvinist, or even on the amount of water used in baptism? I come from a denomination where most people used to be baptized as infants with a little water poured on their foreheads, where nowadays total immersion of adults is quite common!
If we are semper reformanda, we might just look for a fleeting moment at what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians, and wonder if all our beloved denominationalism is really God’s way:
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you…What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Cephas” or “I follow Christ”. Is Christ divided?”
Isn’t it amazing that the churches of the Reformation live comfortably with their divisions even though Christ prayed in his immaculately-timed high-priestly prayer, ‘That they may be completely one…that the world might believe’? But one of the reasons for the new reformation is that a new generation is not very much interested in these things. What is bringing a challenge is that they simply want to find communities of faith where God is palpably present, the scriptures are taught in a life-transforming way, and there is a level of real relationship and engagement with the needs of the community. Sadly, they often find that harder to come by in the institutional churches than we might think!
But I have been asked to speak of Northern Ireland – the most Christian region in these islands, which has sent out so many wonderful missionaries, raised up so many Church leaders, and yet finds it hard to emerge from deep-dyed and normalised ‘soft sectarianism’, with its roots somewhere in the Reformation divisions, but not so much in core Reformation theology.
We have settled into a kind of distant co-habitation with very little relationship and intentional peace-making. In truth churches, like politicians, can benefit from divided societies, because they create critical mass. If I were to look back over 20 years of being a bishop and say what has disappointed me most (even in myself), it would be the lack of real intentionality in churches with regard to peace-making and reconciliation.
A new reformation would lead to determined relationship-building, outrage at living in a divided society, the opening of our doors and hearts and minds showing the grace to others by which we have been transformed…free, plentiful, and offered gladly. It would lead to a ‘hard Gospel’ which learns forgiveness, because Jesus says that is the only way forward.
Learning forgiveness would bring so many of the famous ‘solas’ together: only by grace; only by faith; formed only by scripture (because human wisdom would say ‘Don’t go there!’); only through Christ who showed such forgiveness to us while still sinners; and because the goal of our lives is for the sole glory of God.
The question which remains to be answered in Northern Ireland is ‘Are the churches part of the problem in Ireland, or part of the solution?’ If we don’t become part of the solution very speedily, a new secular generation will rise up which will say ‘A curse on all your houses’.
These are just two areas in which a new reformation needs to happen. But reformations are costly, and we probably find it easier to look back to one 500 years ago, than to be part of one today. I hope not!
Harold Miller is Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Dromore in the Church of Ireland.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.