The Reformations – somewhere to start

Last Saturday I posted that I was about to begin a series of Saturday morning posts on the part of western Church history know as the Protestant Reformation. There are some who would note that their resulting denomination was not protesting anything, but simply reforming a church gone astray. It would be fair to say that it was a protest when the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the chapel in Wittenburg Castle. Later leaders of denominations would simply note that they were reforming the errors of the Catholic Church and Martin Luther.

Names of things are important, but rather than focus on that distinction, the moniker “Reformations” will do. I suggest the plural form because there was no single, coherent or cohesive movement that marked the end of a united Christianity in the West. Nor did it begin and take definitive shape with Luther, the Augustinian monk. The purpose, intention, and final shape of reformed denominations were as varied as the men and women within the movements, the country of origins, the milieu of political alliances and forces in play as the modern nation-states of Europe arose, as well as a myriad of other factors. The reform movement in Germany differed from those in Switzerland, France, England, and the Low Countries.

But where to begin? Perhaps church events and dynamics in the modern era can suggest a starting point – the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China (mainland and communist). At the start of Word War II, there were 20 archdioceses,  85 dioceses, 39 apostolic prefectures (a kind of pre-dioceses), 3,080 missionaries and 2,557 Chinese priests.

By 1949 the Catholic Church was required to submit to the supervision of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. All legal worship was to be conducted through state-approved churches belonging to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which did not accept the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. Parishes and diocese declaring the primacy of the Pope became what is known as the “Underground Church.” This is a story in itself, but at the center of dynamic was the question of who appointed the bishops. The CPA bishops declared theological primacy in the Pope, but the primacy of the government in most practical affairs, secular and religious. This is part of what is know as an investiture controversy – and it was not unique in Church history.

Perhaps no single narrative describes the manner in which the secular mixed into the religious as this power struggle between king and pope. While important issues are at hand, the wielding of power is always personal and potentially pernicious. The Investiture Controversy was the most significant conflict between Church and state in medieval Europe. In the 11th and 12th centuries, a series of Popes challenged the authority of European monarchies over control of appointments, or investitures, of church officials such as bishops and abbots.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, and prior to the Investiture Controversy, while theoretically a task of the Church, investiture was in practice performed by members of the religious nobility. As western Europe fell into the feudal age, the connection of the dioceses, monasteries, and abbeys, with the Church and Pope in Rome evaporated. Even the connection between kings and their nobility was weakened. Power and protection was local, under the eye of the feudal lord and the labyrinth of alliances and promises of the ruling nobility who held the land and, hence, the wealth.

Since a substantial amount of wealth and land was usually associated with the office of a bishop or abbot, the sale of these Church offices (a practice known as simony) was an important source of income for the church. For leaders among the nobility, who themselves owned the land and by charity allowed the building of churches, it was about consolidating power and control. Since bishops and abbots were themselves usually part of the ruling nobility, due to their literate administrative resources or due to a familial relationship, younger sons of the nobility would often be appointed bishops, as their older siblings inherited the titles. It was beneficial for a ruler or nobleman to appoint (or in turn sell the office to) someone who would be loyal, as priests who were outside the ruling nobility did not inherit, nor earn substantial wealth, may be swayed by greed and power – or more specifically greed and power not in the family interest.

Where to start?  Next week I will begin in the year1056 when Henry IV became German king and Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) at six years of age.

1 thought on “The Reformations – somewhere to start

  1. I’m looking forward to learning about this interesting part of Church history. Being brought up in what my experience seemed the norm at the time for non-parochial kids meant just what was in the good ole’ “Baltimore Catechism”. Granted I’ve been exposed to more since then but not much in Church history. So thank you for making the effort to facilitate this interesting area.

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