Heaviness, weeping and joy

Title page from Miles Coverdale’s Bible (1535)

Today’s appointed psalm in the lectionary was Psalm 30. This is one of my favourite psalms, especially the celebrated lines:

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

Lines that will be familiar to P.G. Wodehouse fans, for starters.

We were at the Savoy Chapel this morning (our middle son sings in the choir), where they sang the Prayer Book version, in which these lines are rendered by Miles Coverdale as follows:

Sing praises unto the Lord, O ye saints of his :
and give thanks unto him for a remembrance of his holiness.
For his wrath endureth but the twinkling of an eye, and in his pleasure is life :
heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

That word “heaviness” also appears later in the psalm, where the words translated in the NRSV (following the Authorised Version) as “you have turned my mourning into dancing” become:

Thou hast turned my heaviness into joy :
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.

What I love about this word “heaviness”, as an alternative to “mourning” or “weeping”, is how specific it is in rendering a feeling we surely all know from time to time: that heaviness in the limbs that gives physical form to our sad, weary, despairing emotional state.

Above all, this precision of language creates a strong sense of connection with the translator: a translator who uses the word “heaviness” here is someone who is intimately familiar with this state of mind and body. And this should come as no surprise, given Miles Coverdale’s years in exile, and his proximity to early Reformation martyrs such as Robert Barnes and William Tyndale: enough to give anyone an abundance of “heaviness”; though Coverdale also clearly knew what it was to be “girded with gladness” by the grace and promise of God.


Bringing up the Body: Martin Luther vs Thomas Cromwell

GenericsLike my master the king, I am a faithful son of the holy Catholic church. Only just now we are not in communion with the Pope. – Thomas Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel)

Before I would have mere wine with the fanatics, I would rather drink sheer blood with the Pope. – Martin Luther

In his book Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (see previous post), Heiko A. Oberman contrasts Luther with other Reformation figures such as Andreas Carlstadt and Ulrich Zwingli. Luther famously disagreed with Carlstadt and Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper, insisting on the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the consecrated bread and wine, and rejecting the “fanatics'” symbolical interpretation of the Words of Institution.

Oberman argues that this theological disagreement reflects a sociological disagreement over the nature of the Reformation. As we saw in my previous post, Luther didn’t see what he was doing as “reformation” or himself as a “reformer”: he was a prophet and an evangelist, proclaiming the Gospel while the Devil and his Antichrist raged and the End Times drew near. Other Reformation leaders – Zwingli, Carlstadt, Bucer and so on – were indeed reformers, intent on forging a new model of urban, bourgeois Christian citizenship, freed from the mediaeval past. As Oberman observes:

The contrast between the community-oriented urban reformers and Luther, minister to a godless world, is sharp. Luther focuses on the individual Christian, not because the “individual soul” is more important “before God” than a responsible forging of political life, but because service to the world demands a stout heart. For it is not a question of honour and dignity, but—whether in city or country, townhouse or farmhouse—of resistance to the destructive power of the Devil. Political affairs make enormous demands on Christians, and that is why they must be fortified in their faith. (p.235)

The urban reformers were rejecting a “sacramental, sacerdotal Church” in favour of a “spiritually unified, true community of faith.” This was then inextricably linked with their rejection of the real presence:

The presentation of one’s position on the Eucharist showed where one stood: on the side of the privileged clerics and ruling elite, or in the ranks of the citizens united in true faith.

This shift from a a “sacramental, sacerdotal Church” to a “spiritually unified, true community of faith” has been acted out for us in recent weeks in the superb BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

An underlying theme of both the novels and the TV adaptation is Thomas Cromwell’s covert links with English Protestants. Some of these Protestants are outspoken in their rejection of the real presence, even when it means their death. As John Frith says when Cromwell visits him in the Tower to urge him to take the opportunity to escape martyrdom (Wolf Hall, p.435):

I will say before any tribunal what I will say before my last judge – the Eucharist is but bread, of penance we have no need, Purgatory is an invention ungrounded in scripture –

Cromwell would never be so incautious. However, the “citizens united in true faith”, the “privileged clerics” and the “ruling elite” all suspect him of Protestant sympathies – partly, no doubt, because he is the epitome of the upwardly-mobile, reform-minded bourgeoisie who were turning most eagerly to the new teachings. Cromwell’s great skill is to navigate the treacherous waters between the old mediaeval elites and the emerging modern world – as seen in his heavily ironical rejection of the suggestion that Tyndale is his “co-religionist”, quoted at the start of this post.

Cromwell’s views on the Eucharist, as perhaps befits such a chameleon, are harder to discern. When accused directly of being a Lutheran, he denies it (“No, sir, I am a banker. Luther condemns to Hell those who lend at interest.”). In conversation with the King, though, he expresses a very Lutheran-sounding position:

Christ taught us how to remember him. He left us bread and wine, body and blood. What more do we need? (Wolf Hall, p.533)

In the end, though, Mantel’s Cromwell is probably closer to Philip of Hesse, as described by Oberman: a sincere Evangelical but a political realist, frustrated by the divisions within the Reformation resulting from Luther and Zwingli’s disagreement. For Luther, however, political unity in the name of a bourgeois reform programme was never the aim.

It was 495 years ago today…

…that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg his Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, better known as the Ninety-Five Theses.

These were not quite the Protestant thunderblast that they have come to be portrayed as on both sides of the Reformation divide. Rather, Luther’s Disputation is a complex and richly ironic document, arguing from within late medieval Catholicism rather than breaking out of it. Take, for example, thesis 81:

81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.

“Shrewd questionings” that Luther goes on to quote in full over the following eight theses – all the better for “rescuing the reverence due to the pope”, no doubt.

Or a little earlier:

73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.

74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.

Quite so.

But for an example of how far Luther’s theses are from a prototype for today’s chirpy, self-confident evangelicalism (and indeed much of Actually Existing Lutheranism), here is Luther’s conclusion:

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!

93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!

94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

When’s the last time you heard a Lutheran pastor or evangelical preacher devote their Reformation Day sermon to exhorting their congregation to “be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace”?

Finally, Luther’s forty-third thesis is one which we all need to hear over and over again (substituting for “buying pardons” whichever spiritually improving activity is most appropriate for us – theoblogging, say):

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons.

Luther and Vatican II: were you there? Can you help?

Thirsty Gargoyle posted a link to this Catholic Herald article from 2005 on the Second Vatican Council. It’s a discussion between various Roman Catholics on the effects of Vatican II, which had ended forty years previously, and it contains one intriguing exchange concerning the relationship of Vatican II to the Reformation:

At one point, concert pianist Stephen Hough says:

It strikes me, in a way, that the council was the continuation of the Reformation. It was the real Counter-Reformation. Not just a reaction to Luther, but an acknowledgement that a lot of what Luther was saying was true. The Council took so much of what was true about what the Reformers were saying. The Church was eventually able to say it in a way that was acceptable to Catholics.

Historian Desmond Seward replies:

I agree with that entirely. I’m a great admirer of Luther, who very nearly got it right. If the Dominicans had been given a free hand he probably would have.

Like Thirsty Gargoyle, I am fascinated by these tantalisingly brief comments, especially that final reference to “if the Dominicans had been given a free hand”. My understanding had been that the Dominicans were, if anything, Luther’s most implacable opponents, especially during the crucial period from 1517 to 1519, rather than being thwarted bridge-builders.

Anyone have any idea what Desmond Seward was referring to here?

From Catholic confession to Protestant institution

Like my master the king, I am a faithful son of the holy Catholic church. Only just now we are not in communion with the Pope.

– Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, p.101.

I’m currently reading Eric W. Gritsch’s book A History of Lutheranism, and in one chapter he describes how Lutheran “confessional identity” developed between the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 (which established an uneasy modus vivendi between Lutheran and Roman Catholic states within the Holy Roman Empire) and 1580 (when the Lutheran confessions of faith took their final form in the Book of Concord).

Gritsch emphasises that, throughout this period, the Lutherans were seeking to retain their self-identification as reformers within Catholicism, rather than a new church or denomination. Hence the Lutheran emphasis on retaining, so far as possible, the inherited traditions of the church, such as the liturgy of the Mass, private confession and (in Sweden at least) the historic episcopate – albeit with the removal of “abuses” in each case. “Lutherans agreed with the ancient wisdom that abuse should not eliminate proper use,” Gritsch writes, summarising the position as follows:

Lutherans wanted to be reformed Catholics who lived in harmony with Scripture and tradition as faithful witnesses of Christ in the world. Although the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 prescribed a territorial settlement of religious issues (“whoever rules the region determines its religion”), Lutherans tried to make the best of it by remaining committed to Christian unity, even though it seemed to become an increasingly elusive goal. For the Book of Concord understood Lutheranism as a reform movement within the church catholic, indeed within sixteenth-century Catholicism. At stake was the retrieval of the ancient Christian convictions for all of Christendom, and Lutheranism became the inevitable historical constellation for such a retrieval, even though it became an organized church when medieval Christendom refused reform.

The Lutheran confessions – especially the Augsburg confession – are expressed as a voice within the Catholic Church. To put it another way, Lutheranism as a confession is, at heart, a Catholic movement. However, given Rome’s rejection of the Lutheran confessors’ agenda for reform, and the polarising effects of the century of division and war following the Reformation, it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up where we are now: where to be in the church that holds to the Lutheran confessions is to be in a Protestant denomination.

Which explains the tension that I can often find myself in (and my periodic susceptibility to bouts of “Roman fever”): because to be a Lutheran now, particularly in a country where Lutheranism’s presence within the wider “church catholic” is so miniscule, is to be in a situation which our own confessors would not have chosen, and which is fundamentally unnatural within the terms of our own confessions.