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Daily Prayer

Dear Friends

Contrary to popular belief, Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, did not, we are told, nail up up his '95 Theses' to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in October 1517 (the notional start of the Reformation). Less dramatically, but still tellingly, he had them published in Latin in a pamphlet. Why Latin, especially since this was the language of the Roman Church and the Vatican? Well, his target audience at that stage was not the ordinary people but fellow clergy. Even so, his actions did not go down well with Church authorities, since the Theses attacked what Luther perceived as the abuses of the Church, particularly in relation to the indefensible sale of indulgences, or pardons, which purported to let the purchaser off years in purgatory thereby shortening their journey, or that of their deceased loved ones, to heaven in the after-life. The Roman Church at that period was using the funds raised by the sale of indulgences to build the new St Peter's in Rome. Great chests were transported around Europe, and believers were encouraged to put money in so that the souls of the departed could be released from Purgatory: 'As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, so the soul from purgatory springs', as a common tag - attributed, in its Latin form, to Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences - put it at the time.

Luther found common cause with many in the German states and farther afield who were discontented with the Latin Church which, since the advent of the Avignon Popes, appeared to have lost its way and its sense of self-belief - these days we might say that it had 'gone to seed'. Luther started his well-meaning corrective process and this, as it gathered pace, became a seismic revolution which proved unstoppable. The Church in Rome, fearing that Luther's actions would open the flood-gates (which, indeed, turned out to be the case) became ever more intransigent and vindictive against him. A similar process could have taken place during the 13th century when Francis of Assisi introduced his radical approach to Christian living, but he and the pope of that day reached a sensible accommodation, and Francis' espousal of simplicity of life helped to reform, rather than divide, the Church. By the 16th century, however, the atmosphere had changed and, once the split between the Reformers and the Church had begun,· it was followed by yet further splits. Theologians now had the freedom to express their views, especially following the Diet (or meeting) of Worms in 1520-1521. After Luther, the Swiss theologians Zwingli and Calvin came along, with further divergent approaches, especially in relation to the Eucharist - the genie was by that time well and truly out of the bottle.

The Reformation soon spread, even to religiously conservative England, where Henry VIII, for a mixture of motives, dissolved the once very powerful monastic foundations in England and severed decisively the connections with the Pope and the Roman Church. The Church of England today is often described as 'both Catholic and Reformed' and it could be said, therefore, that we are still living out the consequences of the Reformation today.

Stephen