Chapter 6: A Changing Church in a Changing World

The Explorer’s Guide To Christianity
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 6: A Changing Church in a Changing World

The sixteenth century brought new life to the church in western Europe but also division and conflict. The Reformation and the Catholic (or Counter-) Reformation were related movements, which both sought to bring the church nearer to the Christian ideal, but which ended up by shattering the unity of the Western church.

The Reformations

The causes of the Reformation are complex. Indeed, scholars today speak of Reformations, because there were a variety of movements for change and protest. We might compare the Reformation to the ‘peace’ or ‘environment’ movements of recent years which have been a loose coalition of groups with very varied aims and ideologies. In part, the Reformation was a protest against abuse in the Catholic church, and the movements which come under this label all repudiated the authority of the papacy, asserting instead the supreme authority of scripture. They also rejected monasticism. Those belonging to the Catholic Reformation believed that change was possible within the existing structures.

There were also socio-political and economic causes of the Reformation. It is broadly true to say that those countries which had for many centuries been part of the Roman Empire and which had long before assimilated Latin culture - Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Austria - remained loyal to the Catholic church, whereas the countries of northern Europe broke away. The emergence of Protestantism has been seen as the reaction of Teutonic peoples against religious control from the Latin south. Another generalization is that Protestant movements tended to spring from lower social strata, whereas the Catholic Reformation was led by members of the aristocracy.

Late Medieval Movements for Reform

The Cathars

There were in the later Middle Ages a number of movements regarded as heretical. The Cathars or ‘the Pure’ in northern Italy and southern France, where they were often known as Albigenses, were a serious threat to the Catholic church in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They were dualists, believing that there were two eternal powers, the one good and the other evil. The inner circle of Cathars were ‘the perfects’, who followed a life of strict asceticism, living as celibates and eating only a vegan diet. Admission to this inner circle was by the rite of consolamentum, after an arduous probationary period. Those thus ‘consoled’ saw themselves as the only true Christians and denied the tide to Catholics. The decline of the movement was partly because of internal divisions and partly because of repression by the Inquisition.


In the fourteenth century John Wycliffe (c.1330-84), a Yorkshireman who became a don at Oxford, voiced views which challenged the official teachings of the Church. For example, he said that popes might err and that salvation did not depend on membership of the Church, but on election by God. He wished to make the faith more available to the people and had the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible translated into vernacular English. He also sent out traveling preachers, whose adherents became known as Lollards (from the old French word for ‘mumble’). As his thinking became more radical, Wycliffe, who was in the service of John of Gaunt and the Black Prince and therefore in part protected, lost support at Oxford and in 1382 many of his teachings were condemned by Archbishop Courtenay (1342-96), a great-grandson of King Edward I, whose name is remembered in the name of the village of Nuneham Courtenay, which is one of my parishes.


There are different views about whether Wycliffe and the Lollards had a lasting influence in England, where under Henry V (1413-22) severe measures were taken against Lollardry. Certainly, Wycliffe’s writing had a strong influence on John Hus (c.1373-1415), who studied at the newly founded and famous university of Prague. In 1402, Hus became rector and preacher in the chapel of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem in Prague and his preaching attracted a wide following from all classes. Besides preaching in Latin, he also used Czech, thereby encouraging the growing Czech patriotism. His reforming views provoked opposition and excommunication by the Archbishop of Prague. Hus appealed to the Pope, who reinforced his excommunication. In 1412 Hus left the city of Prague and started to preach in the open air. The church authorities continued to pursue him and on 6 July 1415, he was burned at the stake. His last audible words were, ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ The movement continued and the Hussites were to become the spiritual ancestors of the Moravians, who in turn influenced the Wesleys. John Hus has also remained a Czech hero, especially to those opposed to foreign domination of their country.

Mention of Wycliffe and Hus is a reminder that the Reformation should not be seen in isolation. At the popular level, religion had become ritualized and stylized. Many priests offered the mass in a mechanical way and only very occasionally gave the people Communion. Most priests had few books and gave little teaching. Devotion to the Virgin Mary was encouraged and prayers and masses were offered for the dead -- often for a fee, by which an indulgence could be purchased which was supposed to free a loved one from the punishments of purgatory. The preacher Johann Tetzel (c.1465-1519) was alleged to have claimed that:

So soon as tire coin in coffer rings,

tire soul from
Purgatory springs.

The popular religion has been described as ‘a cult of the living in the service of the dead’.

Humanist Learning

In the universities, the scholastic teachers struggled to reconcile Aristotle’s writings to the traditional teachings of the church. A new approach was adopted by the humanists, who concentrated on the study of classical languages, including Greek and Hebrew, and sought to get back to biblical sources of the faith.


The best-known of the humanists was Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), who was born in the Low Countries, probably at Rotterdam. He studied at Paris and traveled to Oxford, Louvain and Italy and he became the first Lady Margaret Professor of Greek and Theology at Cambridge. Erasmus spent most of his later years in Basle.

A very able linguistic scholar, Erasmus sought to base the faith on the biblical text. His crowning achievement was his edition of the Greek New Testament, which showed up certain inaccuracies in the Vulgate or official Latin version of the scriptures. Alongside the Greek text he placed his own elegant Latin version. He also appended some notes, some of which were biting comments on contemporary abuses. His prefatory essay was a fine plea for the study of the scriptures. He wrote:

I could wish that every woman might read the Gospel and the Epistles of St Paul. Would that these were translated into each and every language so that they might be read and understood not only by Scots and Irishmen, but also by Turks and Saracens . . . Would that the farmer might sing snatches of Scripture at his plough, that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler might lighten with stories from Scripture the weariness of his journey.1

Erasmus was a master of satire. In his Praise of Folly (1509) he showed up how remote ecclesiastical and scholarly debate was from pastoral concern. He mocked the abuses in some monasteries.

Although some of Erasmus’ critics complained that he was the real author of schism and worse than Martin Luther, Erasmus remained a Catholic. Reluctantly he was drawn into some public controversy with Luther. To Luther’s amazement, Erasmus when he was dying did not ask for the last sacrament, but his heir, who was with Erasmus at his death said, ‘As was his life, so was the death of this most upright of men. Most holy was his living, most holy his dying.’ His last words, which were in Dutch, his mother tongue, were ‘Lieve God’ or ‘Dear God.’2

Martin Luther

It was Martin Luther who was to take this new humanist approach of a return to the original sources (ad fontes) from the universities to the parishes. Luther is often remembered for his outspoken protests against the selling of indulgences in his Ninety-Five Theses (1517) but his main concern was with ‘justification by faith’, which he claimed was based on scripture, of which the interpretation in his view had been obscured by medieval scholasticism.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) understood justification in Paul’s letter to the Romans (3:21-6) as the instantaneous realization that sinners are forgiven and made righteous by the work of Christ crucified. Justification is the unmerited grace of God conveyed to sinners by the atoning work of Christ. He rejected the Augustinian view that justification was the gradual accumulation of righteousness. Human beings could not earn justification, but could only be put right with God by faith in Christ’s work of atonement.3

It was Luther’s attack on indulgences that caught public attention and brought him into trouble with the authorities. In the summer of 1518, the Pope summoned Luther to Rome to answer charges of heresy and contumacy, but the hearing was transferred to the next Imperial Diet or Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. Eventually, Luther appeared at the Diet of Worms. Called upon to recant, he replied, ‘Here stand I. I can do no other. God help me.’4 Already threatened with excommunication, the Edict of Worms (May 1521) outlawed him and placed him under a ban, but he was saved by his ruler, Friedrich, Elector of Ernestine Saxony (1486-1525), who smuggled him into exile to Wartburg.

Luther’s attacks on the Pope continued, but besides the public controversy, he also worked to make his teaching known to ‘common people’ and set about translating the New Testament into German, which was a brilliant piece of work and one which had a deep influence on the German language. Luther wrote numerous Bible commentaries, hymns and tracts against various opponents, including the Jews.


Luther had the protection of his prince. Ulrich Zwingli (1484- 1531), another leading reformer, had to win over the people of the Swiss city state of Zurich. Zwingli’s father was a village bailiff and his uncle a village priest. He was a bright student and was fluent in Latin and Greek, reading the church fathers in the original. Like Luther, he was impressed by Augustine and was also attracted by the Christian humanists, especially Erasmus. In 1519, Zwingli became people’s priest in the Great Minster at Zurich. Influenced by Luther’s writings, he stressed the authority of the Bible and questioned any doctrine or practice that did not have scriptural support. However, he broke with Luther over the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Luther defended belief in the ‘real presence’ of Christ at the Eucharist and insisted that when Jesus said of the bread ‘This is my body’, his words were to be taken literally. To Zwingli, Jesus’ words, ‘Do this in memory of me’ were the key. Although he believed Christ to be present and to be discerned by faith, he regarded the rite primarily as a memorial which bound worshippers together in loyalty to Jesus.


Another leading reformer, John Calvin (1509-64) also based himself in a Swiss city, Geneva. Although Calvin was of humble ancestry, he was reared in aristocratic society. He was born at Noyon, sixty miles north-east of Paris, and at fourteen went to the University of Paris. From boyhood he was deeply religious and critical of moral laxity. He was influenced by the new humanism and had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In 1534, he left Paris and settled in Basle, where, in the same year, the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion was published. Soon afterwards Calvin was persuaded by Guillaume Farel (1489- 1565), a fiery Reformation preacher, to join him in Geneva, but in 1538, the authorities turned against the reform party’ so Calvin moved to Strasbourg. But in 1541 the Magistracy of Geneva invited him back and for twenty-five years his influence was dominant in church and state. John Knox (c. 1513-72), the leader of the Reformation in Scotland, said of Geneva under Calvin that it was the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in earth since the days of the apostles. Calvin’s influence also spread throughout Europe from his College of Geneva, founded in 1559, which trained pastors to promote biblical theology throughout the continent. Calvin’s writings, especially his Institutes and his biblical commentaries were also widely influential.

Calvin’s writings are not particularly novel and he did not engage in much argument with Catholic or other Protestant thinkers. He claimed that he was reiterating what the church had always taught, although this message had been obscured by Roman Catholic innovations. His work won attention because of its clarity and systematic arrangement. He insisted that his teachings were all based on scripture.

The final edition of the Institutes had four books. The first dealt with God as creator, preserver and governor of the universe. The second outlined the redemption won by Jesus Christ The third dealt with the Holy Spirit, and the fourth with the church and its relation to civil governments.

Calvin held that although the essence of God transcends all human thought, some knowledge of God is possible from the beauty and orderliness of the universe. Because of sin, however, man was totally depraved and his only hope of salvation was the pardon offered to those who believed in Jesus Christ. By his sufferings and death Jesus satisfied the righteous judgment of God and took upon himself the punishment for sin that man deserved. Those who experienced this salvation were chosen or elected by God. The church, Calvin held, was not identical with any visible institution, but its true members are known only to God.

The Reformation in England

Henry VIII

The Reformation in England was initially political. Henry VIII (1491-1547; ruled 1509-47), who was six feet tall, powerfully built and, as a young man, a fine athlete, married Catherine of Aragon, who was the aunt of the Emperor Charles V. Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s brother, Arthur, who was fourteen at the time. Six months later Arthur died and the marriage had not been consummated. It was against church law for a man to marry the wife of his deceased brother, but a papal dispensation permitted Henry, who had just become king at the age of eighteen, to marry her. The marriage was primarily political in purpose and intended to gain for England a powerful ally.

By 1527, Henry and Catherine had been married for eighteen years. Catherine had borne him three sons and two daughters, but except for Mary, all had died as infants. Henry wanted a male heir. Also at this time he fell in love with Anne Boleyn, a lady of the court who had some ambitious relations. Henry wanted to persuade the papacy to annul the marriage, but the Pope was afraid of offending the Emperor Charles. Thomas Cramner (1489-1556), who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532, suggested that the legality of the marriage be put to the universities. As the Pope refused to give the required annulment, Henry eventually pushed the English Parliament into declaring that the English church was competent to decide its own cases, and in 1534 Parliament declared that the king ‘is and ought to be the supreme head of the English Church’. The authority of the papacy had been repudiated. The Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536 and 1539), some of which were in need of reform, was also primarily because the king wanted their wealth.

Henry VIII did not want any doctrinal or liturgical change. Indeed, for writing a book against Luther5 he had been given by the Pope the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ -- a tide still claimed by the British monarch. Archbishop Cramner, however, was a reformer at heart. Henry initially resisted attempts to translate the Bible into English and William Tyndale (c1494-1536) was executed for his efforts. None the less, the Great Bible, which was based on the work of Miles Coverdale (1488-1568) and Tyndale, was produced in 1538 and gradually found its way into the churches. Cramner also, before Henry’s death, produced a Litany in English.

Cramner and The Book of Common Prayer

It was during Edward VI’s short reign (1547-53) that Thomas Cramner produced the Prayer Book (1549, revised 1552), which is the lasting memorial to his learning and liturgical skill. Its use was required by the Act of Uniformity.

The Book of Common Prayer, written in unforgettable English and with melodious cadence has, until the last quarter of the twentieth century, been the hallmark of English Christianity and of the Anglican Communion. Its use was forbidden by Queen Mary in 1553 but, with slight modifications it was reinstated by Queen Elizabeth I. During the Civil War, Parliament abolished the Prayer Book in 1645, but after the restoration of the monarchy it was again reinstated with some changes in 1662 and is sometimes known as the ‘1662 Prayer Book’. An attempt to revise it in 1928 was rejected by Parliament, although some of the revised material came to be quite widely used. In 1980, the Church of England introduced the Alternative Service Book, often known as the ASB. Further revision is now in progress. Similar new Prayer Books have been produced by other churches of the Anglican Communion, although the 1662 Prayer Book, which is essentially Cramner’s work, is still used in a number of churches.

Cramner’s Book of Common Prayer contains services for Morning and Evening Prayer, an order for Holy Communion and services for rites of passage. The Baptism service was much simplified and in the funeral service all prayers for the dead were omitted. Ceremonies emphasizing the priestly functions of the clergy were omitted. The most significant change was in the Eucharist. The emphasis was moved from the concept of sacrifice and real presence to commemoration and communion. It is the offering of the worshipper’s ‘souls and bodies’ in obedience to God which is a ‘reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice’, not the self-offering of Christ. In the 1549 book, the priest says to the communicant, ‘The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee. . .’, whereas in 1552, the priest says, ‘Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee. . .’ Under Elizabeth, the two sentences of administration were joined together.


The move for reform in England was checked by Queen Mary (1516-58, ruled 1553-58) who married the Catholic King Philip of Spain and who tried to restore the old order. Leaders of the Reformation were tried and some, including Cramner, Latimer and Ridley, were put to death. Hugh Latimer (c1485 -- 1555), who for a short time was Bishop of Worcester, and Nicholas Ridley (c. 1500-55), who was Bishop of London from 1550, were burned to death in Oxford on 16 October 1555. In the midst of their agony, Latimer called out, ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.’6 Great pressure was put on Cramner to recant and he did repudiate some of the doctrines which he had taught, but in the end he died for his beliefs and as he faced martyrdom, he first put the hand which had signed his recantations into the flames, saying, ‘This hand hath offended.’7

Elizabeth I

During the long reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603, ruled 1558 -- 1603), the Reformation in England became more settled, especially after the defeat of the Armada in 1588 removed the Spanish peril.

Her first Parliament met in January 1559 and passed two acts of great importance. The ‘Art of Supremacy’ and the ‘Act of Uniformity’ together form what is known as the ‘Elizabethan Settlement’. Henry’s legislation against Rome was revived, although Elizabeth chose to be called ‘supreme governor’, unlike Henry who called himself ‘supreme head’ of the church in England. The 1552 Prayer Book was reintroduced, with only minor alterations.

In time, English people became used to the Prayer Book, to receiving the cup as well as the bread and to clergy who were married. There were some who maintained the Catholic faith and had to go into hiding. As time went by, there was increasing pressure for a more radical reformation and Elizabeth’s last years found her resisting Puritan demands for change. John Jewel (1522-71) and Richard Hooker (1553-1600), however, provided a theological justification for the via media or middle way of the Church of England.

James 1 and Charles 1

Pressure from the Puritans for further change continued under the early Stuart monarchs. During the reign of James 1(1566-1625, ruled 1603-25), the ‘Authorized’ or ‘King James’ English version of the Bible, with its incomparable English, was published in 1611. During the reign of his son Charles 1(1600-49, ruled 1625-49), who backed the introduction of greater ritual by Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645, archbishop 1633-45), religious differences became embroiled with the political differences. These culminated in the Civil War and the beheading of Charles I.

The Commonwealth and the Restoration

During the Commonwealth and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658, ‘Lord Protector’ 1653-8), the Puritans, although divided amongst themselves, were dominant. The use of the Prayer Book was made illegal and episcopacy was abolished. Under Cromwell, the Jews, who had been expelled in 1290, were allowed to return to Britain.

With the restoration of Charles II (1630-85, ruled 1660-85), the Church of England was re-established and the Prayer Book and episcopacy reintroduced. Within a few months some seven hundred Puritan clergy were ejected from their livings. They and others who could not accept the Act of Uniformity (1662), despite civil disabilities, preserved the Puritan inheritance in what became the ‘dissenting’ or ‘non-conformist’ chapels of the Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists.

John Bunyan

One of the best-known Puritans was John Bunyan (1628-88), whose Pilgrim’s Progress has become a spiritual classic. Bunyan was born into a poor home at Elstow in Bedfordshire. He served for a period in the Parliamentary army. In 1657 he became a preacher of the Bedford Independent church, but was partially silenced during the Restoration period and spent nearly twelve years in prison.

Pilgrim’s Progress tells of the dangers and distractions, such as Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle and Giant Despair, that Pilgrim had to overcome on his journey to the Celestial City. There are many memorable passages, not least the account of Mr. Valiant-for-Truth crossing the river of Death.

Then said he ‘I am going to my Father’s: and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me to be a witness for me, that I have fought his battles who will now be my rewarder.’ When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river side, into which as he went he said, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ And as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave, where is thy victory?’ So he passed over and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.8

James II and William and Mary

Charles II’s brother, James II (1633-1701, ruled 1685-8) became a Roman Catholic in about 1670 and his attempts, as king, to improve the position of his co-religionists led to his downfall.

He was succeeded by William and Mary, during whose reign the so-called ‘Toleration Act’ affirmed the position of the Church of England, but, without removing any of their civil disabilities, allowed Dissenters freedom of worship. Such toleration was not extended to Roman Catholics or Unitarians. Although from Elizabeth’s time there had been a continuing underground Roman Catholic church, it was not until the nineteenth century that the Roman Catholic church was readmitted into England and the civil disabilities of those who were not members of the Church of England were removed. Even today, the Church of England remains the established church and twenty bishops sit in the House of Lords.

The Catholic Reformation

In many other European countries, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw swings of power between Roman Catholics and Protestants, often as a result of fighting. The initial Catholic response to Luther and other reformers was to condemn their teaching. Soon the Catholic church itself engaged in major reform. This spontaneous movement to reform the religious life, to re-evangelize Protestant countries, and to convert the newly discovered peoples of America and the East, was associated particularly with the new religious Order of Jesuits under Ignatius of Loyola and the reform of existing orders. The attempts of the Council of Trent failed to heal the rifts in the Western church, but reached new definitions of justification and revised the liturgy. During this period, papal authority became more entrenched, the Inquisition was given a permanent status (1542) and the Index of prohibited books was set up (1557).


It was in Spain that the Catholic Reformation had its earliest development. Ignatius (of) Loyola (c1491-1556), who was born in one of the Basque provinces, was its most influential leader. Of a noble family, in 1521 he was severely wounded in battle. A cannon ball broke his leg, and during the long tedious convalescence he read a life of Christ and a book of the lives of the saints. On his recovery, he dedicated himself to become a soldier of Christ and imposed on himself the strictest of disciplines. He also, from his own spiritual experiences, developed a pattern of meditation, contemplation and prayer which he set out in his very influential Spiritual Exercises.

The Ignatian way of prayer moves religion from the head to the heart in absolute devotion to God. This is expressed in his prayer:

Take, Lord, and keep all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and all my will, whatever I have and possess You gave them to me, and I restore them to you . . .Owe me your love and your grace: that is enough for me.9

Another of his prayers also expresses this offering of his whole life to God:

Dearest Lord teach me to be generous;

Teach me to serve thee as thou deservest;

To give and not to count the cost,

To fight and not to heed the wounds

To toil and not to seek for rest,

To labour and not to seek reward,

Save that of knowing that I do thy will.10

Gradually, Ignatius gathered a small group of followers. Despite the suspicions of the Inquisition and others, in 1540, papal permission was given for the establishment of a new order, known as the Society of Jesus, which was like an army, whose members were soldiers of God. The Society’s growth was phenomenal. When Ignatius died, some sixteen years after its establishment, there were about one thousand members. The numbers continued to increase and Jesuits became active in many countries. St Francis Xavier (1506- 52), one of the earliest Jesuits, traveled to India and Japan to make the gospel known. Jesuits made a special appeal to young people.

Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross

Spain was also the setting for new growth of mysticism, associated especially with St Teresa (or Theresa) of Avila (1515-82) and St John of the Cross (1542-1605). For many years Teresa remained an obscure nun, often troubled by ill health, but in her forties she began to have ecstasies and visions of Christ. She also came to feel the need of a stricter discipline than that practiced at her nunnery. In 1562, she founded the convent of St Joseph at Avila, where the primitive rule was observed. There she wrote The Way of Perfection, having just completed her spiritual autobiography. Even in her lifetime she was revered as a saint and was canonized only forty years after her death.

John of the Cross, the son of an aristocrat, was deeply influenced by Teresa. She chose him to initiate men’s houses of her reform movement. He believed that to be filled with God the soul had to empty itself. He wrote of this in his Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul and the Living flame of Love. John of the Cross was canonized in 1726.

There was spiritual renewal in other Catholic countries. In Italy, fur example, the Oratory of Divine Love came into being as early as 1497. Gradually the papacy became affected by this renewal and in 1555 a member of the Oratory of Divine Love became Pope as Paul IV (1555-9), and his successor but one, Pius V (1566-72), was eventually canonized.

The Council of Trent

An earlier Pope. Paul III (1534-49), in a vain attempt to halt the divisions in the church, convened a council at Trent. There were three periods when the Council met. The first was from 1545-7, when the Nicene creed was reaffirmed and scripture and tradition were recognized as the source of religious truth. Only the church, the Council said, had authority to interpret scripture. The second period was from 1551-2, when the doctrine of Transubstantiation was reaffirmed and the teachings of the Lutherans, Calvinists and Zwinglians were condemned. The third period of the Council’s work, from 1562-3, sealed the divisions within Christendom. The denial of the chalice to the laity was upheld, as was the teaching about the sacrifice of the mass.

What Divided Catholics and Protestants?

In less than fifty years the unity of the Western church had been shattered. Although relations between different churches are now more friendly, the legacy of the divisions continues to this day. The Protestant world was and remains fragmented. Many factors contributed to the making of the Reformations. Even so, certain key issues stand out.

Perhaps most important is the question of authority. All Christians accept the authority of scripture, but which interpretation of scripture is authoritative? Catholics linked the tradition of the church with scripture and gave the final authority in interpretation to the church. Roman Catholics located the church’s authority in the papacy, which came to be regarded as ‘infallible’. ‘Infallibility’ is a negative term signifying preservation from error rather than inspiration. The term applies properly to people or institutions rather than to the statements which they make. The First Vatican Council in 1870 proclaimed that the pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra (i.e. from his throne) and defining a matter of faith or morals to be held by the universal church. The Second Vatican Council (1962-5) extended this claim to the body of bishops as a whole united with the pope, for example at an ecumenical council. It also said that the church as a whole is preserved from error by the Holy Spirit when there is universal agreement within it on its fundamental beliefs. It is sometimes said, at a more popular level, that if God wanted to make his purposes known, God would not only need to provide authoritative Scriptures, but also a way of knowing with certainty what they meant. For the Protestant, the ultimate authority for the interpretation of scripture is the individual’s reason and conscience. At the Diet of Worms, Luther insisted that he would not renounce his beliefs unless ‘convicted by scripture and plain reason’. ‘My conscience’, he continued ‘is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.’11 Cramner eventually reached a similar position, recognizing in his martyrdom, that conscience is superior to the authority of the monarch, even if the monarch holds authority from God.

The emphasis on the individual is, of course, a recipe, for division. People often differ about the plain meaning of scripture. In the sixteenth century and subsequently, there have been many divisions amongst Protestant churches. At one time there were at least four different Methodist churches. On the other hand, Protestantism affirms the ‘priesthood of all believers’. Salvation, or justification, is by faith, which is the faith of the individual. It is supposed that each believer is in personal relationship with God. Some modern theologians would say that Christian belief is primarily in the Word who is Christ and only secondarily in the Word of Scripture, which points beyond itself to Christ. At the heart of faith is a personal relationship between God and the believer of love, trust and obedience.

In their return to scripture, many reformers questioned practices of the church. If, for example, the believer has a direct relationship with God, priests are no longer required as mediators. The individual can confess his or her sins and know in his or her own heart the assurance of God’s forgiveness. Again, if the believer has been justified by faith and has the knowledge of God’s favor, he or she does not need to seek indulgences nor to offer masses nor beg for pardon. The Communion, instead of pleading the sacrifice of Christ, became a remembrance of God’s love shown in Christ’s willingness to die for the sake of sinners. The Eucharistic Prayer in Cramner’s Book of Common Prayer begins, ‘Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption . . .’ The service also expresses the depth of communion between Christ and believers, who pray ‘that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us’.12 The expression of such communion requires participation in the bread and cup. It was not sufficient just to attend mass at which only the priest communicated. It has to be said, however, that it is only in the twentieth century that many Protestant churches have taught the value of frequent Communion. For many, such loving communion was most real in prayer and the devotional reading of scripture. The Catholic Reformation, as we have seen, with its emphasis on the mystical, and later with growing devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus also emphasized the importance of personal relationship with God.

The differences between Protestants and Catholics in their understanding of the Communion service were reflected in arguments about the nature of Christ’s presence. Catholics held to the doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’, which said that at the consecration the substance, or underlying reality, changed into the body and blood of Christ, although the accidents, that is the physical appearance of bread and wine, was unchanged. The doctrine of transubstantiation, which is dependent on a particular philosophical view of reality, was recognized at the Lateran Council of 1215 and was formally defined at the Council of Trent. The Eastern church has virtually the same teaching, although it avoids the word ‘transubstantiation’. Amongst the reformers, Luther, although rejecting the idea of sacrifice, spoke of the ‘real flesh and real blood of Christ’ on the altar. His teaching is sometimes labeled ‘consubstantiation’, which means that the substances of both the body and blood of Christ and of bread and wine coexist on the altar. Zwingli, however, spoke of the communion service as an act of remembrance. Other reformers rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, but said that Christ was spiritually present at the Eucharist. Calvin attempted a compromise between Luther and Zwingli; and the sixteenth-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (c.1554-1600), wrote:

What these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish, why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, ‘O my God thou art true, O my Soul thou are happy.’13

A simpler way of putting this, sometimes attributed to Elizabeth I, is, ‘What thy word doth make it, that I believe, and take it.’

In this century, Catholic and Protestant theologians have come much closer together in their understanding of the Eucharist. They recognize that some past disagreements were conditioned by different philosophical approaches and they now see Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper in the context of the Jewish Passover, which makes present to every generation of the people of Israel the salvation experienced by their forefathers in the Exodus from Egypt.

Amongst the Protestant churches, there were considerable differences about church order. The Church of England and the Scandinavian Lutheran church retained bishops. Some Anglicans have made much of the importance of the ‘apostolic succession’. This is the claim that the bishops of today can trace their ordination back through successive ordinations to the apostles, who were commissioned by Christ, from whom they receive their authority. In Scotland, under John Knox’s (c. 1513-72) leadership, a Presbyterian model was adopted, where authority rests with representative synods of presbyters (ordained ministers) and elders. Other radical churches such as the Anabaptists were more democratic. They also took a very negative view of worldly society and some of them were prepared to countenance rebellion against unjust and ungodly princes. By contrast, some Anglican divines in the first part of the seventeenth century taught that kings ruled by divine right or authority.

For some people, the most obvious difference between Catholic and Protestant churches was in the ornamentation. Some Catholic churches, especially the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century baroque churches of southern Europe, were very elaborate, whereas many Protestant churches were simple, even austere.

From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, the rival Christian churches battled for supremacy in the different countries of Europe. Although the ostensible cause of hostilities was religion, political and economic factors were important. For example, many of the Protestant princes of northern Europe wanted to escape from the control of the emperor. It was also assumed that the cohesion of a state required religious unity and the principle that the country should accept its ruler’s religion -- cujus regio ejus religio -- came to be quite generally accepted.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, Spain’ Portugal, Italy, France, Belgium, Poland and much of the New World was obedient to the pope. In Ireland the people remained attached to Catholicism, despite the attempts of English monarchs to force Protestantism on to them. Northern Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, England, Wales and Scotland were Protestant, although some countries were predominantly Lutheran and others Calvinist. England, as we have seen, had its own distinctive traditions. In the latter part of the seventeenth century, several Protestant groups established themselves in New England. Further east, the Orthodox church was rather static, although there was considerable vitality in the Russian church, where Moscow was regarded as ‘the third Rome’ and the Metropolitans, like the Tsars, increased their authority.

The Age of Enlightenment

By the late seventeenth century, much of Europe was drained and exhausted by internal conflict. Weariness with religious strife was reflected by changes to the intellectual and spiritual climate. The eighteenth century is sometimes called the ‘Age of Reason’. The Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), whose views were repudiated by both Jews and Christians, set the tone. His approach to religion and the study of scripture was purely rational. He denied the miraculous. He foreshadowed the intellectual questioning of Christianity which has become increasingly strong in the West in the last three centuries.

With advances in the natural sciences and mathematics, the eighteenth century saw a new confidence in human reason and a rejection of what was considered superstitious. Deism, for example, based on J. Toland’s (1670-1722) Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), propounded what was called ‘natural religion’, which consisted of universal truths which could be discerned by people everywhere. It left little place for revelation.

A better-known exponent of this approach was Voltaire, the pseudonym of François Marie Arouet (1694-1778). He advocated religious tolerance and was critical of the oppressive character of the French church. The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) was a through-going skeptic. He believed the argument for God as the primal cause was invalid. He, therefore, challenged both Deism and Christianity. He also attacked belief in miracles, which was at the time one of the main arguments used to support Christian claims. Meanwhile, Edward Gibbon (1737-94), in his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire described that event as the triumph of barbarism and religion, by which he meant Christianity.

Instead of arguments between Christians, which continued, Christianity itself was now open to question, and especially the concept of revelation. In the nineteenth century, as we have seen, there were other attacks, especially on the literal accuracy of the Bible. David Strauss questioned the historical accuracy of the New Testament, whilst the findings of Charles Darwin seemed incompatible with the biblical description of the creation of the world in seven days. Feuerbach and Freud questioned the reality of God, seeing God as a human projection. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher, held that life is the will to power, as exercised by the great individual, the superman. The superman had to reject values derived from Christianity which encouraged humility and weakness. Karl Marx (1818- 83) too was critical of religion, which obscured the struggle for power of the working classes. He described religion, in a famous phrase, as ‘the opium of the people’.14 His deterministic view of history had no place for God as Lord of history.

Many of the intellectual challenges to Christianity have already been referred to in the earlier chapters on Christian belief. The church was also challenged by political and economic change. The French Revolution and the rule of Napoleon over large parts of continental Europe shattered the old order, known as the Ancien Régime. Although, in the nineteenth century, the monarchy was restored in France together with the aristocracy and the church, their previous authority, wealth and privilege could not be re-established. In Russia, Catherine II expropriated the monasteries’ vast holdings in land and serfs.

Economic and industrial change was also affecting church life. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution many people moved from the country to the cities. Conditions of life were different. People were required to work long hours and in many cities it was some time before the churches had the clergy and buildings to minister effectively to the new inhabitants.

The Evangelical Revival

Yet if the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a period of many challenges to Christianity, they were also times of significant growth. The nineteenth century was the great century of Christian mission and churches were established across the world. The work of Wesley and the Evangelical Revival brought personal faith to thousands and stirred up movements for reform, such as the abolition of slavery.

The Wesleys

The most famous leader of the Evangelical movement was John Wesley (1703-91), whom we have already met in chapter 1. He was ably assisted by his brother Charles (1707-88) and their friend George Whitefield (1714-70).

After their conversion, John and Charles started to preach widely about conscious acceptance of God’s pardon and daily growth in holiness. In 1739, their friend George Whitefield started preaching in the open air to miners and soon John also started to preach out of doors. To do this, he needed the consent of the local vicar. When one refused, John declared, ‘the world is my parish’. John traveled, mostly on horseback, hundreds of miles a year. Charles enriched the movement with his great gift of thousands of hymns, many of which are still widely used today.

Despite an enthusiastic response from many of those to whom they preached, the Wesleys also met heckling and abuse, as well as opposition from some clergy and church leaders. Methodist societies increased and at the time of John Wesley’s death their membership was said to be 71,668. In 1744, a conference of local preachers was held and this became an annual event. John wanted to remain a member of the Church of England, but many of his followers became increasingly independent and Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-91) registered the chapels which she built as ‘dissenting chapels’.

Starting from 1760, Methodism grew quite quickly in North America. To ensure leadership there, John Wesley ordained Dr Thomas Coke (1747-1814) as Superintendent or Bishop. According to Church of England practice, only a bishop could consecrate another bishop. Charles was shocked and wrote to his brother, ‘Before you have quite broken down the bridge, stop and consider.’ John, however, persisted and in 1785 ordained some men for work in Scotland and a little later ordained three people to work in England.

Gradually Methodists drifted away from the Church of England. Wesley’s influence, however, was felt in the Evangelical revival within the Church of England, led by Charles Simeon (1759-1836), for many years vicar of Holy Trinity church in Cambridge. In the early nineteenth century, a group of leading lay evangelicals, as we shall see,15 who belonged to what was known as the ‘Clapham sect’, led the campaign for the abolition of slavery, which was ended in the British dominions in 1833. They were also active supporters of foreign missions and of Sunday schools. A little later, Lord Shaftesbury (1801-85), another outstanding evangelical, concentrated on efforts to improve the conditions of industrial workers, as well as being for many years president of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Within the Methodist movement, by the end of the eighteenth century, there were divisions. Whitefield and the Wesleys drifted apart. George Whitefield believed in predestination, but the Wesleys followed the teaching of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) who held that Christ died for all people. There were other divisions in the nineteenth century. Even so Methodism grew rapidly, especially in the USA.

Following American Independence, several Protestant churches there set up national organizations. The Presbyterians formed a General Assembly and the Dutch and German Reformed churches became independent of their European parent churches. Anglicans drew together in the (Protestant) Episcopal church. In the nineteenth century, which was marked by a series of revivals, both the Baptist and Methodist churches grew rapidly. Methodism also spread in Canada and Australia and other places where people from Britain had settled.

The Missionary Era

Catholic Missions

The nineteenth century also saw sustained efforts by the churches of western Europe and of North America to spread the gospel in Asia and Africa. Already from the sixteenth century, Catholic missionaries, especially from Spain and Portugal, had preached the Christian faith in Asia and South America. In 1542, St Francis Xavier reached Goa, on the west coast of India. He went on to Travancore, Sri Lanka, and in 1549 landed in Japan. Other Jesuits followed, but in Japan, in the seventeenth century, their work was cruelly crushed.

In South America, the spread of Christianity was under the direction of the crown. The papacy had little real influence. The church was caught up in the struggles between Portugal and Spain and was often a pawn in oppressive exploitation of the people who were already settled there before the white invasion. Some of the missionaries, such as Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566), who worked with the Chiapas people of Mexico, had a deep, if paternalistic, concern for their people and tried to resist colonial exploitation. Even so, much of the history of the spread of Christianity in Latin America is one of oppression and suffering, although it remains a part of the world where the Catholic church is still strong. In recent years, several notable Catholic leaders, such as Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-80), who was killed as he celebrated mass, have championed the rights of the poor, and it is in Latin America that radical Liberation theology has had its most outspoken exponents.


White settlers, many of whom were convicts sent there involuntarily, started arriving in Australia in the late eighteenth century. From the mid-nineteenth century free settlers, mostly from the British Isles, arrived in large numbers. The churches were quite successful in maintaining the newcomers’ loyalty, even though in the outback settlers might be very isolated. The twentieth century has seen the coming together of the major Protestant churches into the United Church of Australia while the membership of the Roman Catholic church has increased steadily, partly because of the growing number of immigrants from southern Europe. The abandonment of the ‘whites only’ settlement rule has led to an influx of immigrants from South East Asia, so that some of parts of urban Australia have become multi-ethnic and multi-faith. From the early days of the settlement, efforts were made by some Christians to reach out to the Aboriginals, whose numbers were drastically reduced in the nineteenth century. In recent years there has been growing appreciation of the Aboriginals’ sense of sacred space and of their rich spiritual traditions of the ‘dream-time’.


In sub-Saharan Africa, the island of Madagascar was one of the first areas of Protestant work. To South Africa, British and Dutch settlers each brought their respective forms of Christianity. There was also considerable missionary work amongst the African population, especially by the London Missionary Society. By 1914, it was reckoned that about thirty per cent of the African population was Christian. David Livingstone (1813-73), the greatest missionary to Africa, started his work in South Africa, but his urge to explore, together with his Christian faith, led him to make many journeys into the interior. The fame of his travels spread and encouraged others to take up the work. In 1857, in a lecture at Cambridge, he issued this challenge to his audience: ‘Do you carry on the work which I have begun. I leave it with you.’16 In response, the Anglican Universities’ Mission to Central Africa was established in 1858.

A particular area of Christian growth was Uganda, which became a British protectorate in 1894, where Anglicans sent by the Church Missionary Society and the Roman Catholic Mill Hill Fathers both did much work. By 1914 there were some 200,000 Christians, about forty per cent of them being Anglican and sixty per cent Catholic. In the vast area known from 1914 as the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Catholic missionaries were very active and the church’s growth there was spectacular.


In Asia, numerical growth was very much smaller, despite the heroism and sacrifice of many missionaries. In India, where especially in the south there had been a small Christian presence from the earliest days of the church, the East India Company discouraged missionary activity. One of the most outstanding early Protestant missionaries, Christian Friedrich Schwartz (1724-98), therefore, did much of his work in the independent kingdom of Tanjore, where he became a chief adviser to the rajah or prince. Likewise, William Carey (1761 -1834), a Baptist missionary, Joshua Marshman (1768-1837) and William Ward (1764-1823) established themselves at Serampore, a tiny Danish colony, some sixteen miles from Calcutta, where there is still an important theological college.

In the nineteenth century, British restrictions on missionary activity were lifted and there was a great deal of work, although the number of converts was small. It is probably true to say that the greatest missionary contribution was in terms of educational and medical work. Many schools and colleges were established and offered a good, albeit Western style of education. Alexander Duff (1806-78), of the Church of Scotland, which produced a number of scholarly missionaries who made a significant contribution to higher education in India, established a college at Calcutta in 1831. In 1832, John Wilson (1804-75) established Wilson College in Bombay and a little later John Anderson (1805-55) set up in Madras ‘the Institution’, which was to become Madras Christian College, which moved to Tambaram, a suburb of Madras in the 1930s. Another college, founded by Stephen Hislop, was at Nagpur, which has became an important Christian centre. At Vellore, Ida Scudder (1870-1959), daughter of an American missionary doctor; established a medical training centre for women, and later also for men, which, like the hospital at Ludhiana in the north, was to set standards for medical care. Other Christians worked with the poor and outcaste; where they gained most converts, and with the leprosy patients.


In the early nineteenth century, China was closed to foreigners, and Christians, who were descendants of those converted by earlier missionaries, were a tiny number. China’s doors were levered open by the colonial powers, led by the British who forced the Chinese government to allow the importation of opium. In the second half of the century, there was an influx of both Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Many of the latter worked for the China Inland Mission, which was founded by James Hudson Taylor (1832 -1905), who first went to China in 1853 and returned in the late 1860s, when he tried to adopt a Chinese style of life.

In the twentieth century, Christian missionary work in China has had to contend with the changing and difficult political situation. When the Communists won power, all foreign missionaries were expelled. Catholics were forced to reject papal authority, although some secret Catholics refused to do this. The Protestants of various denominations were forced together and the church launched the Three-Self Movement, based on self-administration, self-support and self-propagation, to rid it of imperialist influences. Christians, like many others, suffered severely during the Cultural Revolution, but in recent years there has been quite a rapid growth in numbers of both Catholics and Protestants.

The Missionary Heritage

It is fashionable today in some circles to disparage missionary work, but care is needed in judging a previous generation by contemporary standards. Missionary work is seen to represent Western paternalism. Too often the missionaries did impose a Western life style on their converts and in recent years African and Asian Christians have tried to recover their cultural heritage. Some missionaries identified too closely with the ruling powers, although others were critical of empire. In South Africa many Christians took the lead in opposing apartheid. It is also sometimes felt to be arrogant to presume that only one faith is true, and this has been a widespread Hindu criticism of missionary work. Yet, missionary activity has been at least a factor in the renewal of the ancient religions of Asia and some missionary scholars helped to make knowledge of these faiths available in European languages.

Whilst missionary efforts met with considerable success in the Americas, Australasia and Sub-Saharan Africa, Christianity, despite considerable support in the Philippines and South Korea, remains very much a minority religion in most Asian and North African countries, where the great faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam have been long established.

The Ecumenical Movement

It was in the mission field that the urgency of Christian unity was first most strongly felt. The term ‘ecumenical’ comes from the Greek oikoumenikos, which means the ‘inhabited earth’. Although the word has come to be used of the search for Christian unity, there has been a parallel and now growing quest for understanding and co-operation between members of the world religions.

The denominational differences of Europe and America seemed irrelevant in the mission field where Christians, even if all were counted together, were still a tiny minority. In schools, colleges and hospitals Christians of several denominations might find themselves working together. Consultation between missionaries of different denominations who were working in the same or nearby areas began quite early in the nineteenth century. For example, the Bombay Missionary Union was formed in 1825, consisting of members of four societies and including Anglicans, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. By the 185 Os, there were regional conferences in north and south India. In Japan the first conference for missionaries from all parts of the country was held in 1872. In China, missionaries of different churches joined in translating the Bible in 1843.

There was also from early days regular consultation between missionary societies. As early as 1819. the secretaries of foreign mission boards with headquarters in London formed an association for ‘mutual counsel and fellowship’. In 1885, a Standing Conference of all German Protestant missionary societies was formed and the Foreign Missions Conference of North America was first convened in 1895.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, international Protestant missionary gatherings began to be held, and in 1910 a significant and remarkable World Missionary Conference was held in Edinburgh. The preparatory papers give a fascinating picture of the progress of Christian missions and of the surprisingly sympathetic attitude of many missionaries to other faiths and cultures.17 The conference, which was a landmark of the Ecumenical movement, appointed a Continuation Committee, which helped to start an influential missionary journal called The International Review of Missions. Eventually, from these developments, the International Missionary Council was formed in 1921, which in 1961 was integrated into the World Council of Churches (WCC) at the New Delhi Assembly.

The two movements which initially came together to form the WCC in 1948 were ‘Life and Work’ and ‘Faith and Order’. Life and Work,18 inspired by Nathan Söderblom (1866 -1931), Primate of the Church of Sweden, was concerned with the relation of Christian faith to society, politics and economics. It held major conferences at Stockholm in 1925 and in Oxford in 1937. Faith and Order was concerned to address theological differences and questions of ministry. It held major conferences at Lausanne in 1927 and at Edinburgh in 1937.

The World Council of Churches

Plans for the formation of the World Council of Churches were well advanced before the outbreak of the Second World War, but only came to fruition in 1948. The Council is a ‘fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior’. The headquarters were established at Geneva in Switzerland. Membership now consists of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and Pentecostal churches. The Roman Catholic church sends observers to many meetings. Assemblies have been held every seven or eight years in different continents: at Amsterdam in 1948; Evanston, USA, in 1954; New Delhi. 1961; Uppsala, Sweden, 1968; Nairobi, 1975; Vancouver, 1983; Canberra, Australia, 1991; and in Harare, Zimbabwe, in late 1998.

The WCC, which we shall discuss more fully in a later chapter19 has been a source of renewal and has stimulated a great deal of contact between member churches, but it has not been without its tensions. From Africa and Asia, a growing number of independent churches, free of foreign missionary control, have taken their place at the Council. The views of their delegates have often challenged the more conservative outlook of representatives of the churches from Europe and North America, for example in persuading the WCC to establish the Fund to Combat Racism. The Council has in part reflected the political divisions of the world, especially when it met in Canberra during the Gulf War. The theological approaches of member churches are often very different. The Council also seems distant to many members of local congregations. The churches have been reluctant or unable to find the funds necessary for the Council to achieve its full potential.

Church Unions

The World Council of Churches does not itself negotiate unions between particular churches. This is a matter for the respective churches themselves. A number of unions have taken place -- some, as with the Methodists, within the same family of churches. Others brought several churches together, as for example the pioneering Church of South India, which was inaugurated in 1947 and which united Methodists and most Anglicans in the area with Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Dutch Reformed bodies which had already come together. The number and pace of unions has, however, been much slower than the pioneers of the ecumenical movement would have hoped for. Some other churches, whilst not agreeing to unite, now allow some inter-communion with other churches, which means that members of one church can receive Communion if they attend a service at a church of another denomination.

Evangelical Protestants have often thought of the church as a spiritual fellowship of all believers, rather than as an organized institution. To them questions of church order and discipline have been of little importance. From at least the middle of the nineteenth century, such Protestants, from a number of denominations, have been ready to work together in the Sunday school movement, in Bible Societies, in the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations and through a variety of other bodies. Many Anglicans, however, who have insisted that clergy should be ordained by a bishop in the apostolic succession20 have not been willing to receive Communion from clergy not so ordained, although Anglicans now seem more relaxed about this. The divisive issue recently has been whether women should be ordained.

Roman Catholics, until the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), insisted that theirs was the one true church. They denied the validity of the orders of other clergy. The Council, convened by Pope John XXIII, gave an enormous impetus to a new attitude of friendship towards members of other Christian churches. Although communion with members of other churches was never approved, in the 1970s it happened informally in several countries, but in recent years the authorities have severely discouraged this. The willingness of many Protestant and Anglican churches to ordain women, of which the Orthodox churches also disapprove, has added to the tensions. Even so, there is much practical co-operation between Roman Catholics and members of other churches.

The Interfaith Movement

The Second Vatican Council also marked a turning point in the Catholic attitude to other religions. The initial concern was with Catholic relations with the Jews, but the decree on this subject was eventually widened to refer to all religions. It stresses that ‘all peoples comprise a single community’ and that from ancient times ‘there has existed among diverse peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things’.21 Reference is made to the contemplation of the divine mystery in Hinduism and to Buddhism’s acknowledgment of the ‘radical insufficiency of this shifting world’. The Declaration then says that ‘the Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions’ and encourages dialogue with members of other religions and co-operation on social and moral concerns.

There is then a special section on relations with Muslims and another on relations with Jews, Nostra Aetate, which rejects long centuries of Christian anti-Jewish teaching and preaching. Although various pressures led to the watering down of the text on relations with the Jews, it affirmed the great ‘spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews’ and expressed the Council’s wish to foster mutual understanding.

Since Vatican II, the Catholic church, both at international and national levels, has actively pursued dialogue with people of all faiths, whilst continuing to proclaim Christ as ‘the way, the truth and the life’. Pope John Paul II, on his travels, has regularly met with leaders of other faith communities. In 1986, he invited leaders of all religions to join him for a Day of Prayer for Peace at the Italian town of Assisi, which was the birthplace of St Francis. He has also made a historic visit to the synagogue in Rome.

The World Council of Churches has also been concerned to foster dialogue and co-operation with people of living faiths and decided in 1971 to set up a sub-unit for this purpose.

The relationship of the Christian faith to other faiths has been a controversial matter. Traditionally Protestants have claimed that salvation was only possible through faith in Jesus Christ and Catholics have said that ‘outside the church there is no salvation’. This view, which is often labeled ‘exclusive’ has been challenged by those who adopt an ‘inclusive’ position, which recognizes the saving presence of God within other faith communities, but which insists that the full and final revelation of God is in Jesus Christ. Others have argued for a ‘pluralist’ approach, suggesting that no religion can claim a preferential position, but that the Divine Mystery, who is revealed in each religious tradition, is never fully apprehended and that each faith tradition witnesses to aspects of the divine glory.

While in recent years churches have given more attention to dialogue with people of other faiths, much of the initiative has come from individuals and unofficial organizations.

In this century also, there has been a considerable growth in the study of religions as an academic discipline and courses on the world religions are taught in some schools. Many books and videos about the world faiths are now available. At the same time interfaith organizations, often initially viewed with suspicion by religious leaders, have encouraged people of different religions to meet and get to know each other, in the hope that they can work together for peace and to uphold moral values.

The 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions

The beginnings of the ‘interfaith movement’ are often dated to the World’s Parliament of Religions which was held in Chicago, in connection with the World Fair, in 1893. The idea came from Charles Bonney (1831-1903), a lawyer, who was a member of the Swedenborgian church, which derived its distinctive teachings from the extensive writings of the Swedish scientist, philosopher and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Bouncy, described at the time in the Catholic World as ‘the bearded patriarch of the Cosmic religions’22 hoped that the Parliament would unite religions on the basis of the Golden Rule and in good deeds. As people of faith came together as brothers and sisters, so he believed that the ‘nations of the earth would yield to the Spirit of concord and learn war no more’23

During the course of the twentieth century, a number of interfaith organizations have been established. One of the first was the World Congress of Faiths, which was convened in London in 1936, by Sir Francis Younghusband (1863-1942), an explorer and mystic. Whilst sharing Bonney’s concern for moral values and peace, Younghusband, from his own spiritual experience, believed that the meeting with the Divine transcended the particularities of individual religions. This view has been held by a number of those who have advocated inter-religious fellowship; others, however, stress the very real differences between religions.

Some interfaith organizations, such as The World Conference on Religion and Peace, and the Peace Council, have focused on work for peace. Others have devoted their energies to human rights or environmental issues. Since the special events held in 1993 in India, Britain, Japan, the USA and some other countries to mark the centenary of the World’s Parliament of Religions there has been growing emphasis on the practical work that people of different faiths can do together to address the critical issues of today, such as violence, poverty and pollution. Others, however, remain more interested in intellectual discussion, some believing that the teachings of the great faiths are eventually convergent. Others are more concerned to explore the various spiritual paths and suggest that the true meeting is in the ‘cave of the heart’.

Interfaith activity is very various. Some attempts have been made to co-ordinate this work on a national basis through the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom, which was established in 1987 and the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN). Efforts to ensure world-wide co-operation through, for example, the International Interfaith Centre at Oxford, arc still in their infancy. There are also efforts to co-ordinate dialogue between members of two religions. For example, the International Council for Christians and Jews links those engaged in Christian-Jewish dialogue, and the Christian -- Buddhist society is for those involved in that relationship.

Threats of Secularism, Communism and Fascism

Despite these efforts, religious and ideological differences have aggravated the many conflicts of the twentieth century. Although, at times, voices have been raised to suggest the withering away of religion as man has come of age’, the closing years of the twentieth century have seen an increase of religious extremism and conflict. For much of the century, however, the greatest threats to Christianity in Europe and North America were secularism, Communism and Fascism.


Secularism is a term used in different ways and which covers several phenomena. In part it indicates an assertion of the autonomy of daily life, thereby excluding the interference of religious authorities in the government or political and economic life of a country. In the USA, there has always been a clear separation of church and state, although church membership is higher there than in western Europe. In this sense, the word ‘secularism’ is used in contrast to a theocratic regime, such as Iran under the ayatollahs, where religious leaders exercise political control. The term can also suggest that individual citizens do not have any moral pattern of behavior imposed upon them by the state. For example, in many countries until recent years, homosexual acts, which were regarded as immoral by the dominant religion, were illegal and punishable by law. Today in some Western countries this is a matter for the individual. In the same way, in most Western countries abortion, with some restrictions, is no longer illegal. Beneath this is the question of whether a society needs some shared moral values. If so, should the government by education and legislation seek to encourage or impose these values?

Secularism may also describe a change of mood by which people no longer seek to explain life by reference to religious beliefs. For example, there was a time when if a child was ill, the parents would ask the priest to say special prayers and they perhaps would make a vow. Now, the expectation is that medical science and skill will provide the way to recovery. Illness is not seen as a punishment from God. Believers will, of course, still pray for those who are ill, but even some believers do not expect a miracle but see prayer as a way of attuning their will to God’s will.

Awareness of God seems absent from the consciousness of many people. Religion is regarded as a private or ‘leisure’ activity, which some people engage in at weekends, whilst others play golf, go sailing or take up yoga. This may be in part be cause of the dramatic changes to people’s way of life. Industrialization and now the information revolution have changed the way people work. It has increased mobility, offered some people more leisure and destroyed tight-knit local communities. At the same time, the horrors of war and genocide together with the various intellectual challenges to Christianity have undermined belief. Many people are not convinced by the Christian claim that the world is made and governed by a God who is Love.


If the acid of secularism has eroded belief, Communism attacked it. In 1917 the tsar’s regime in Russia collapsed and very quickly the new Soviet authorities declared all land to belong to the nation and took over the church’s extensive properties. Soon afterwards, it was declared that only civil marriages would be legally recognized. Quickly religious schools were forbidden and religious life drastically curbed. Religious life was largely restricted to offering the liturgy in the few churches which were allowed to remain open. Many Christians, some of whom showed great courage, were imprisoned or killed and the career prospects of anyone known to be a Christian were small. The pressure on the church was severe, although it was eased during the Second World War so as to enlist her support against the Germans.

The countries in eastern Europe, having already suffered from German occupation, which came under Communist control after the Second World War, experienced the same hostility to religious life.


Fascist rule in Italy and Spain seemed at first to favour the -Roman Catholic church against often atheistic socialist groups.

In 1929, the Pope signed a concordat with Mussolini, who had taken power in Italy. Almost immediately, however, church youth organizations were absorbed into Fascist youth movements and the government asserted more control over church schools. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Pope Pius XI declared wars of conquest to be unjust, and during the Second World War Pope Pius XII worked for peace and tried to protect the suffering. There has, however, been considerable criticism of Pope Pius XII for not being more vigorous in his condemnation of Fascism. Why, it has been asked, was Hitler never excommunicated, despite the atrocities of his regime and the pressure he put on Catholics in Germany?

In Spain, the republican regime, which came to power in 1931, nationalized ecclesiastical property, disestablished the church, expelled the Jesuits and restricted church schools. It is not surprising that the church supported General Franco (1892-1975), under whose regime the church was again made the state religion and was given back its property. In Portugal, too, under the long rule of Prime Minister Salazar (1889-1970), who was a devout Catholic, the church had government support. It is questionable, however, whether the church’s alliance with Fascist rulers was in its long-term interest and it has clouded its record on human rights.

The Nazis

In Germany, some Christians initially gave their support to Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The nation’s defeat in the First World War was a shock and it was followed by severe economic difficulties. Some Christians hoped that Hitler could provide the strong government which they felt was needed. Even those opposed to Hitler were weakened by the divisions amongst Protestants. Soon after the First World War many of the regional Protestant churches - Landeskirchen - had united in the German Evangelical Federation. Even so, Protestants were divided and these divisions were increased by Hitler’s advent to power. Some supported the German Faith Movement, led by Jacob Wilhelm Hauer, which wanted to accommodate Christianity to the ‘German spirit’. Others joined the less extreme Faith Movement of the German Christians, which confined its membership to those of Aryan descent, cut off all connections with Freemasons and vigorously denounced Communism, whilst supporting Hitler. Others, led by the courageous Pastor Martin Neimüller (1892-1984), who opposed the new regime’s interference in church affairs and discrimination against Christians of Jewish background, came together in the Confessional Synod or Church. From different Protestant churches, they declared their opposition to Hitler at the Synod of Barmen in 1934.

Like many others who opposed Hitler, those Christians who did so suffered severely. Some were killed, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), a brilliant theologian who was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Others were imprisoned, like Neimüller himself, who was sent to Dachau concentration camp. After the war, Neimüller did much to restore the German church and to bring it into the ecumenical movement. He was a president of the WCC from 1961 to 1968. He became a pacifist and was active in the Christian peace movement and in opposition to nuclear weapons.

Although the Nazis were defeated in 1945, their regime and particularly the honor of the Holocaust in which some eleven million people were killed, of whom six million were Jews, was a traumatic shock to German Christians. How could such barbarity happen in the heart of Christendom? This question has prompted a purging of anti-Jewish elements from Christian teaching and, as we have seen,24 led to theological rethinking.

From the Second World War to Today

The division of Germany immediately after the Second World War into two countries, East Germany, under Communist control, and West Germany, which was democratic, weakened the rebuilding of the churches, although several kept pan-German structures. The churches in East Germany in the 1980s were to play an important part in bringing about the demise of Communist power, but churches throughout Germany face the problems of loss of faith common to much of Europe, which have been particularly notable in France, where a large number of people seem to have lost all real contact with the church.

The Christian churches in Europe have survived the onslaught of Fascism and Communism. In Russia, the Russian Orthodox church is regaining some of its old prestige. In Poland, the Catholic church commands considerable support. Elsewhere in much of Europe churches of all denominations struggle to slow down the decline in membership, although conservative Christian groups, perhaps meeting as house-churches, have increased their following. In part the churches’ decline reflects changes in European society. The church’s economic and political power in the world has declined. Many European societies have become ethnically, culturally and religiously plural. Christianity no longer provides the world view or moral framework to be a cohesive factor in European society. Perhaps most significantly, in a changed intellectual climate and in societies that are rapidly changing both economically and culturally, the Christian faith does not command the intellectual and personal assent and conviction of as many people as it did.

None the less, many churches have been vigorous in their efforts to address contemporary concerns. The wealth of religious books published each year reflects active theological debate. Liturgical revision, new hymns and changing patterns of worship reflect vibrant Christian communities. There is new interest in prayer, meditation and contemplation. Many Christians are actively engaged in social action and campaigning. There is far greater awareness of environmental problems, while feminist theology is bringing new insights to the whole church.

In North America, church attendance has not seen the same decline as in Europe, partly perhaps because churches play a larger part in people’s social life. In Africa and Latin America, there are areas of vigorous church growth. The resurgence of Islam and the revival of Hinduism and Buddhism have restricted church growth in areas where those religions are dominant, but the churches are growing in South Korea and the Philippines.

It is a mixed picture. Some people anticipate a continuing decline in church membership with a decreasing importance for organized church authorities and institutions. This may not, however, mean a decline in faith, as a growing number of people who see themselves as followers of Jesus do not attach great importance to church structures. Others hope that the profound rethinking of the Christian faith and reshaping of church life will make it more relevant to people today. Yet it may be that, fast as the church has been changing, society continues to change even more quickly.


The general histories of the church mentioned at the end of the previous chapter also deal with the period covered in this chapter.

On the Reformation, see Roland Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1953, Hodder and Stoughton, 1963); E. Cameron, The European Reformation (1991); and H. O. Evennett, The Spirit of the Counter Reformation (1968). B. M. G. Reardon, From Coleridge to Gore (Longmans, 1971), and A. M. Ramsey, From Gore to Temple (1960), are useful for Anglican thinking during the period covered.

On the Church in the twentieth century, a stimulating book is David L. Edwards, Religion and Change (Hodder and Stoughton, 1969).

For the Ecumenical Movement, see Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, ed. N. Lossky et al. (1991).

On Christian-Jewish relations see my Time to Meet (SCM Press, 1990); and Christian-Jewish Dialogue ed. Helen Fry (University of Exeter Press, 1996).

On the history of the Interfaith movement, see my Pilgrimage of Hope (SCM Press, 1992), and Faith and Interfaith in a Global Age (CoNexus Press and Braybrooke Press, 1998). On the theological issues see Alan Race, Christianity and Religious Pluralism (SCM Press, 1983).



1. Quoted in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edn, vol.6, p. 953.

2. Ibid. p. 954.

3. See Luther’s Sermon of the Threefold Righteousness (1518), and his statements during the Heidelberg Disputation.

4. Speech at the Diet of Worms, 18.4., 1521.

5. Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum.

6. J. Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1877) vii, p. 550.

7. J. Strype, Memorials of Thomas Cranmer (1812 edn), vol. 1, p. 558.

8. J. Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (pt 1, 1678; Pt 2, 1684), 3rd edn. 1811, p. 424.

9. Appleton, The Oxford Book of Prayer, 237, p. 81.

10. Ibid. 254, p. 86.

11. Quoted by Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (Eyre and Spottiswoode, n.d.), p. 837.

12. From the Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer.

13. The Works of Mr. Richard Hooker, eds. Keble, Church and Paget (1888), ii, p. 362.

14. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843-44), Introduction.

15. See below p.233.

16. Latourette, A History of Christianity, p. 1308.

17. See further, Kenneth Cracknell, Justice, Courtesy and Love (Epworth Press, 1995).

18. See below, p. 237.

19. See below, p. 238.

20. See above, p. 16.

21. ‘Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions’ in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. W. M. Abott SJ (Geoffrey Chapman, 1966), p. 660.

22. Quoted by Richard Hughes Seager, The World’s Parliament of Religions (1995), p. 132.

23. Quoted in The World’s Parliament of Religions, ed. John Henry Barrows (1893), p. 67.

24. See page p. 175.