Thinking Anew – Silencing the questioner is no answer
Statue of Martin Luther in Dresden. Photograph: Robert Mandel/iStock
Five hundred years ago, on October 31st, 1517, a young man known to be “a faithful monk and priest”, a professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, began a debate that would have consequences far beyond anything he might have expected. Fr Martin Luther’s concerns, set out in his famous theses, posted, it is said, on a church door in Wittenberg, called for a “disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light”.
Luther was not a troublemaker: the issue for him was one of conscience; he strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be bought, a practice promoted in the church at that time. The Oxford Dictionary of the Church explains: “The later Middle Ages saw the growth of considerable abuses such as the unrestricted sale of indulgences by professional pardoners . . . whose activities were finally prohibited by Pius V in 1567”.
The consequences for Luther were serious. He did not leave the church: he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X when he refused to renounce his writings. The scene was set for what became the Reformation, the effects of which are with us to this day, not only in a divided church but in almost every aspect of life,
The consequences for the church – the church of our spiritual ancestors – were disastrous. The divisions that followed led to oppression, persecution, unspeakable acts of brutality and wars, done by all sides, in the name of God, of course.
In tomorrow’s Epistle, written around 52 AD, St Paul reminds us that there have been differences of opinion in the church from the beginning. There is trouble in the church in Corinth and Paul intervenes: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?”
We see this in debates about women’s ordination, the status of gay relationships and clerical celibacy. There is an ecumenism of ideas whereby people with different denominational allegiances, but shared concerns, come together to support each other.
Those in authority find it difficult to cope with the restlessness that is present at every level of church life today, but silencing the prophet is never a way forward. We can stop people talking but we cannot stop people thinking or sadly leaving. Pope John XXIII left this advice for church leaders: “Authority which is based mainly or only on threats and fear of punishment, or on the promise or expectation of reward, is not an effective means of making human beings work for the common good.”
It’s tempting at times to be discouraged by the church and its many sins and failings. This is especially true for those who feel they are not being heard or listened to. William Barclay in The Letters to the Corinthians wrote: “Life makes many an attempt to take away our faith; life has its problems to which there seems no solution and its questions to which there seems no answers; life has its dark places where there seems to be nothing to do but hold on. Faith is always a victory, the victory of the soul which tenaciously maintains its clutch on God.”