Harold Wilson once said ‘a week is a long time in politics’. On this basis it seems like the Reformation happened almost an eternity ago, yet we live daily in its wake.
While the Reformation began in the cloisters and the Church its spirit quickly spread into the political and indeed every sphere of life. It has influenced work, the modern state, democracy, free speech, capitalism, liberalism, and the Enlightenment. Almost every area of life has been revolutionised by the Reformation.
We see our very selves differently today because of the public actions of a Monk from Saxony. The Reformation recovery of the role of individual conscience before scripture is central to Protestant thinking. This re-formed how people saw their relationship with their church and their political rulers. At its extremes however and when manifested outside of the context of right relationships, it has been de-formed into a radical autonomy, or self-rule which shares more with original sin than the recovery of truth through the reformation.
Karl Marx, a very different political thinker, commenting on Martin Luther, said;
‘He shattered faith in authority because he restored the authority of faith. He turned priests into laymen because he turned laymen into priests. He freed man from outer religiosity because he made religiosity the inner man.’
All this unfolded in an age when it was difficult to distinguish where the Church ended and the state began. Paradoxically the Reformation opened up space the between the Church and state and yet narrowed the space between authorities and the individual.
It is in these spaces between us, as individuals, communities and within the nation state, where I hope and pray for reformation in the Northern Irish Church today.
My prayer for the space between the Church and state mirrors this reformation paradox. I pray that the Church, as a scattered priest-hood body of believers, would be like salt, peppered across Government, political parties and civil society. I pray Christians would be deeply rooted in the governance and stewardship of this place, reforming what is fallen with other-world values.
At the same time as these Josephs, Daniels and Esthers faithfully serve; I pray that the Church would become more dissident and create more dissonance between itself and the state. A creative minority community, which boldly challenges the saviour complex of empire-thinking by declaring that Jesus is Lord. I pray that followers of Jesus would warm this space as they carry something of the very presence of Christ into the public square.
My reformation prayer for the space between the churches is that it would shrink. The Counter Reformation and many other reforms including Vatican II means that the Catholic Church today is not the same as it was five hundred years ago – however legitimate and important theological differences remain.
Many Protestant churches today have emerged more recently out of Luther’s legacy of schism and genuine theological conviction being pursued on conscience. The greatest strength of the Protestant Church is often its greatest weakness. My prayer is that reformation today would be considered alongside conformation to the image of Jesus and to the reunification of his bride, the Church. My prayer across the Church is that eyes would be opened increasingly to deeper theological truths in the same measure as hearts are opened to Jesus’ prayer for unity as recorded in John 17. May the many prodigal siblings who have fled from each other and the Father return home.
My prayer for the spaces that remain between us and our neighbours in Northern Ireland is that they would be reconciled. I pray that the thresholds of each other’s heart and home would become familiar and well trodden ground. May the practical theology of talking at each other’s table lead us to humility through hospitality. I pray that enemy territory would become safe and shared. I pray that cultural differences would be viewed with less suspicion and more invitation.
My prayer is that the space that has opened up within ourselves would be resolved. Technology and post-modernism, the loss of a shared coherent truth has led to a new Gnosticism. When personal autonomy is crowned king, the ruling of ourselves becomes the highest Good. A wedge develops between our bodies and our minds as we search for the ‘real us’ and rebel against external norms and authorities. My prayer is that we may be re-embodied, becoming whole again, finding our true selves in conformity to the image of Christ.
A week is indeed a long time in politics, but I’m often struck by how in the gospels a brief encounter with Jesus changed the entire course of a life. My final reformation prayer for the Church in Northern Ireland is that the truth and love of the gospel may compels us to share the good news of Jesus liberally; that many may encounter him and find in Him their personal re-formation.
David Smyth is Public Policy Officer at the Evangelical Alliance Northern 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.