Archbishop of Canterbury considers the Reformation ‘damage done five centuries ago’


I get it when the Catholics say it, I really do. I mean, obviously I don’t agree with them. Nonetheless, I can see how you might interpret a break from your communion to be a damaging schism, especially when it is on the stated grounds that you condemn people to Hell with self-serving theology and your church had become so corrupt it literally sold false hope to the poor to build some fancy buildings. I do get that position. Of course, given both the Great Schism and Western Schism, Catholics don’t have any right to throw stones in that particular glass house, but at least there is a consistency in condemning a break, which was deemed heretical at the time, as schismatic and unnecessary now. Not least when it is a break from your own deeply-rooted, convinced theological position.

What I do not understand is the sort of foot-shooting exercise currently underway by the Church of England. For one, has nobody explained to the Archbishops that their very position would not exist but for the ‘lasting damage’ that took place 500 years ago? Moreover, if the Reformation really were as damaging and troubling as they claim, why are they not wholesale Oxford Movement advocates?  Have they also not considered that the Reformers, on whose shoulders they now stand, were quite clear that this was not a matter of schism between believers but of belief in two contrary and irreconcilable gospels? Is it the Reformers’ approach to the gospel, then, to which they object (in which case why on earth are they in a church which at least claims to hold to the XXXIX?) or is it their view that the Reformers simply misjudged the gospel advocated by the Catholic Church? It surely can’t be that they perceive some substantial change among the ones who hold to the doctrine of semper eadem?

Interestingly, Welby and Sentamu go on to state the following:

Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord. A legacy of mistrust and competition would then accompany the astonishing global spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed.

This would be terrific if they were discussing the approach of the Church of England to their Free Church brethren over the last five centuries. For centuries, those in the Free Churches were locked out of high office and education. People in agreement theologically, who shared the same essential gospel, were indeed treated poorly. Such an acknowledgement, whilst not exactly necessary or ‘required for healing’ or whatever nonsense we want to label it, would at least be true. But if the Reformation was a damaging schism that pitted Christian against Christian, I would be interested to hear where the Archbishops draw the line in terms of gospel-centred unity.

Where, for the Archbishops, does the line of gospel unity end and the rejection of false religion begin? Why is it damaging separation for the Reformers to break with the Catholics but not the Unitarians from mainline Protestantism, for example? Why are the Reformers separatists who caused a break in fellowship yet the Catholic Church not theologically errant, unbending and unwilling to work for unity? Why are the Reformers schismatic for leaving what they considered to be an errant fellowship yet the Eastern Church not for breaking fellowship over a much less central gospel issue? It is so hard to follow the rules when the dividing line is not the gospel itself, isn’t it?

It is interesting that Welby and Sentamu note:

many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed. Amongst much else these would include clear proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible to all in their own language and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the church.

If the Reformation directly contributed to ‘clear proclamation of the gospel of grace’, it would seem odd to then seek to revive relations with the very organisation their precursors left over that very issue. One would love to presume such moves were based on a change in Catholic doctrine on the issue. Sadly, not only has that church not altered its doctrinal stance on any matter of gospel substance, Welby and Sentamu were clear that it was the Reformation itself, 500 years ago, that was ‘in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love’.

Now, clearly the statement is a carefully worded thing. It never mentions Catholicism by name and uses loose enough terms that we are able to interpret things according to our own disposition. It leaves room for those who want to see this as a cosy statement of ecumenicism to view it as such and the beginnings of ever-closer union between the Anglican and Catholic communions. For those inclined to believe that a proposal of a revived Oxford Movement from the upper echelons of Anglicanism will take heart in references to ‘the truth of the gospel of Christ’ and read phrases such as ‘reaching out to other churches’ as a reference to true churches who share the same gospel.

To quote the Archbishops: ‘All this leaves us much to ponder’.

You can read the full text of their statement here