Our Canon Theologian asks, ‘Why bother with the Reformation?’

‘Why bother with the Reformation?’ was the title of Dr Charlotte Methuen’s first lecture in the diocese since her installation as Honorary Canon Theologian in Ripon Cathedral in May.

Charlotte Methuen, who is Senior Lecturer in Church History at Glasgow University, has particular expertise in the German Reformation, women’s ministry in the history of the Church and the ecumenical movement between the two World Wars. 

At a clergy study day for the Leeds Episcopal Area this week, she compared the Reformation's influence in Europe and England and emphasised that it was an international movement whose impact is still felt today, 500 years later. 

The translation of the Bible into the vernacular and its spread through printing allowed, for the first time, people to think about faith for themselves and laid down the right of the individual conscience. But, Charlotte Methuen says, “the Reformation is sometimes criticised for leading to an overemphasis on individual faith – arguably at the expense of our sense of community and the common good. Freedom always needs to hold together with solidarity and responsibility.”

In the 16th century, heated debates about the meaning of scripture became widespread. The controversy about whether Jesus’ words, “This is my body” were meant literally (so that the bread really was his body) or metaphorically (so that the bread symbolised his body), was crucial to the way the Eucharist was understood. But there were other disagreements about the interpretation of biblical passages, and different churches often read these key texts in different ways.  One result of the Reformation was the growth of a plethora of competing creeds - which led to confusion, as groups splintered off. 

The Reformation raised other questions which are still relevant today.  How do we deal with opposing views well?  How should the Church, both local and national, relate to government?

Charlotte suggested that if Luther were alive today he might be calling the Church back to some of the things that in the 16th century he was calling the Church away from. For example, what impact does the notion of justification by faith have in a culture where people are generally not afraid of hell? She said, “While not reverting to sermons about damnation, do we need to be emphasising that actions have consequences?  Maybe justification by faith today also means recognising that we cannot control all aspects of our lives."

To find out more of Charlotte Methuen’s perspective on the Reformation, read her book, ‘Luther and Calvin: Religious Revolutionaries’ (Lion Hudson).

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
The 500th anniversary of the German Reformation will be commemorated in 2017; 500 years after Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. (The more significant anniversary for the English Reformation is 2034, marking the date of Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy in 1534.)

Charlotte Methuen
Charlotte Methuen is also an Anglican priest and assists at the Scottish Episcopal parish of St Margaret’s Newlands in Glasgow, and the Old Catholic Parish of Bottrop, in Germany, near Marl where her husband works.

She is a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England, the body which advises the House of Bishops, the General Synod and the Council for Christian Unity on ecclesiological and ecumenical matters and acts as a theological resource for the Church of England as a whole.  She is also a member of the Inter Anglican Standing Commission for Unity Faith and Order, which holds a similar remit for the Anglican Communion.

As Canon Theologian, she has a seat in Ripon Cathedral, and joins the Revd Canon Ben Quash who is also Canon Theologian for the Diocese. 

What does a Canon Theologian do?
A Canon Theologian’s role is to “encourage the Church through study and teaching to remain faithful to the mind of Christ and to discern God’s purposes for his Church and his world.” They act as theological consultants to the diocese, and especially the bishop, and preach or give a lecture in the diocese once or twice a year. 

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