Formulary Friday: Undermining the Reformation
Posted by Lee Gatiss, 27 Nov 2015
Lee Gatiss considers some recent surprising threats to the Reformation heritage of the Church of England.
Is the Reformation over? Was it a mistake? These are questions we may ask ourselves a number of times over the next two years, as the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses approaches in October 2017. I found myself wondering about them after the recent fiasco surrounding the Lord’s Prayer “advert”, and after General Synod.
A Threat to Jesus?
The Church of England’s one-minute video rendition of the Lord’s Prayer was intended to be shown in cinemas before the new Star Wars film. Some thought it a bit cheesy — but unexceptional just before the widely-observed festival of Christmas in a country where nearly 60% of people self-identify as Christian, you might have thought. And no less cheesy than that John Lewis advert (which has been nicely parodied here).
It emerged, however, that despite having been initially offered a large discount for the advert, the marketing company which sells advertising at the Odeon, Cineworld, and Vue chains effectively banned it, saying that the Church of England film could be seen as “offensive.” They therefore invented a new “no religion” policy, to justify its exclusion. This would appear to rule out the Alpha Course adverts that have previously been screened quite happily, but also (which was perhaps the ultimate intention) adverts from radical Islamist groups.
In some ways, this is quite right. As Sam Allberry, a new evangelical member of General Synod, tweeted “The Lord’s Prayer, properly understood, is meant to be offensive. It’s like the national anthem being played in an enemy country.” We shouldn’t expect the world, the flesh, and the devil to love Jesus! And as Martin Luther put it, “If you intend to do any fighting, fight with prayers. After all, there is no other way by which we can more sharply assail Satan and cause him to totter than with our prayers.”
But as another friend commented on Facebook, someone should point out the rather obvious fact “that adverts promoting a hideous regime in the middle east are bad taste, and that adverts promoting a slightly floppy version of Christianity are not.”
On the other hand, I was also a little taken aback by what counts as suitable for a Certificate 12a screening when I took my 13 year old son to watch a film recently. Adverts for all kinds of inappropriate things, marketed in inappropriate ways. Even films with PG ratings which we might think of as innocuous, such as the recently celebrated Back to the Future, contain countless swear words and — most offensively of all, to my mind — the precious name of “Jesus” used as an expletive, over and over again. Why is that not banned in cinemas (and on TV too), when it is so very jarring to those who worship him?
However, the Lord Jesus also faces rivals from within the church itself. The Lord’s Prayer video is being promoted by the Church of England’s website JustPray.uk. On that website you can find other prayers: directly under two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, is the Hail Mary (addressed to the Blessed Virgin and asking her to pray for us), and further down is a prayer to Saint Christopher (“Dear Saint Christopher, protect me today in all my travels”). You can also find links to Roman Catholic prayer apps for your phone or tablet, and a Jesuit ministry tops the list of recommended podcasts.
The reforming Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, said both “invocation” and “praying to saints” was idolatry. The Council of Trent was still, however, encouraging masses to be said in honour of the saints, “imploring their favour that they may vouchsafe to intercede for us in heaven” (Session 22, chapter 3) several years after Cranmer’s death. At the same time as the final form of the Thirty-nine Articles was agreed upon, the Roman Catholic doctors of Trent decreed “that it is good and beneficial suppliantly to invoke the saints and to have recourse to their prayers, assistance, and support in order to obtain favours from God through his Son.” To deny this was impious, they said (Session 25).
I’m not the only one who has pointed out that if the “invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God” (as Article 22 puts it), then the Church of England ought not to be promoting these prayers. As Article 7 also clearly states, Christ is “the only mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man.” So, as the Scripture says, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). He has no rivals, and we need no other mediators or helpers.
A Papal Preacher at General Synod
At the last meeting of General Synod, a Roman Catholic priest was invited to preach in Westminster Abbey. He spoke so smoothly of “the great theological and spiritual enrichment that came from the Reformation”, that many thought it entirely unexceptionable that he had been invited to address this Anglican assembly. But he also brought with him a subtle sedition, which if followed would undermine the authority of King Jesus, and everything the Reformation stood for.
“Justification by faith, for example,” said Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, “ought to be preached by the whole Church—and with more vigour than ever.” This could sound amazingly good, if it was really an affirmation of justification by faith alone, the comfortable and wholesome Protestant doctrine of our Article 11. But the preacher continued, saying his understanding of justification by faith was “Not in opposition to good works.”
Our Article 11, however, is quite clear that “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.” It is disingenuous to suggest that this emphatic negation included in the Protestant doctrine was a mere “distortion due to the heated atmosphere of the time.” It remains as vital today as it ever was.
It seems that Fr. Cantalamessa, a preacher to the Papal Household, was not just attempting to reconcile Canterbury and Rome either, but to harmonise other incompatible truths as well. “We should never,” he says, “allow a moral issue like that of sexuality to divide us more than love for Jesus Christ unites us.”
Anglican Article 7 says “no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral”; but the Papal Preacher sets aside submission to the word of God in favour of a vague “love for Jesus.” This is vacuous and superficial ecumenism. It is classic liberal pie-in-the-sky. However much we might hope that all the divisions of Christendom might just melt away in our supposed common love for Jesus, the Lord himself said “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (John 14:23).
Are we not Catholic as well as Reformed?
I have been told, in response to some of these sorts of criticisms, that the Church of England is both Reformed and Catholic. This is not, however, the truth. The Church of England is Reformed Catholic — a very different thing! It is not an unholy alliance of two contradictory persuasions, much less a supposed via media between two extremes — as the Papal preacher put it “between Roman Catholicism and Reformed Christianity.” As Diarmaid MacCulloch puts it in his biography of Cranmer, the good Archbishop “would violently have rejected such a notion: how could one have a middle way between truth and Antichrist?”
Our Protestant Reformers insisted that they were not making up something new when they renewed the church in the sixteenth century, but properly building on its true Catholic foundations — in its basic structure as an ordered, liturgical, creedal Christianity. The Reformed understanding of sacraments and salvation and scripture (which we find in the official formularies of our Church) was the proper, legitimate development of that ancient tradition.
To be a Reformed church means to be a Reformed Catholic church, or a truly Catholic church. It most emphatically does not mean to mix together Reformed and Roman, as if the errors of Antichrist (as Cranmer termed them) could be married with some bits of Reformed theology.
To hallow the name of our Father in heaven and give all the glory to Jesus, we must hold fast to both the positives and the negatives of the Reformation, which gave us the Reformed Church of England.
Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society.
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