Luther, Europe and the First Hard Brexit

Republished piece by
Prof. Dr. Julian Lindley-French from his Blog Blast Series

“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write”.
Martin Luther


Alphen, Netherlands. 31 October.  Five hundred years ago to the day a little known academic and theologian in a small, obscure German town wrote a lengthy tract entitled Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum to his local archbishop. The tract complained about the sale of so-called ‘indulgences’, the selling of pardons to wealthy sinners, whenever the Catholic Church needed money.  Dramatic though the story is Martin Luther did not nail what became known as his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church, Wittemburg as myth would have it, and he had no intention of starting the storm he did. However, Martin Luther is the undoubted ‘father’ of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation that followed. What does the anniversary of Luther’s ‘Protestantism’ say about Europe today?

That Luther could ignite such fury showed the extent to which the reputation the distant Church of Rome had gained for elite corruption.  Much of northern and western Europe of the time was utterly fed up with what it saw as the self-serving power of the Catholic Church and its princely acolytes.  Luther exploited that anger and within four years of publishing the Theses in 1521 he declared Pope Leo X the anti-Christ.  In 1524 he also published On the Bondage of the Will in which his separation of individual faith from the structure and power of the established Church helped to generate a mass movement that was as much political as spiritual.

Millions died between 1517 and 1648 when the Treaty of Westphalia brought the bulk (by no means all as I saw during my trips to Northern Ireland) of Europe’s religious wars to an end with the creation of the modern European nation-state.  The counter-reformation saw the Church and its princely allies try to eradicate Protestantism during a series of reverse-engineered crusades, the worst of which was the Spanish Inquisition.  However, as protestant states emerged the struggle over the conscience of the faith became systemic, as did the wars that were fought in pursuit of the One True Faith.

Perhaps the most important of those states was England.  In 1534 King Henry VIII embarked on the first hard Brexit (Engxit?) when he broke with Rome and formed the Church of England which, naturally, he headed.  Henry was hardly a reformist. In 1521 Henry had been awarded the title, Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith, by Pope Leo X for defending the established Church against Protestantism.  What Henry sought in 1534 was distinctly earthly, the money and wealth the English Church had accrued over the centuries, as well as the removal of a competing pole of power in the land.  He also wanted a divorce from his first wife, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon, which Rome had refused to grant.

The Reformation today in Europe?  It is everywhere.  The cultural difference between northern and southern Europe reflects the Protestant and Catholic traditions that emerged as Rome tried to stamp out the Reformation.  To simplify what was a very complicated process (and by no means wishing to offend Catholics) Protestantism, with its greater emphasis on the personal relationship between the Almighty and the individual, saw the church and society in much of Northern Europe become more austere, modest. Catholicism, with its emphasis on High Church ritual and strict Observance, saw a very different form of governance emerge across much of Southern Europe.  This is not least because the established Church reinforced the power of the established Aristocracy.  It is no coincidence that modern democracy emerged in Northern and Western Europe, as well as its colonial offshoots.

Which brings me to the EU and the Reformation. Many historians, mistakenly to my mind, simply focus on the role of what became the Union in resolving the economic, and by extension strategic tensions between France and Germany.  The most important tract of the EU is the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which in many ways reads like a semi-secular Edict of Worms that emerged from Holy Roman Emperor’s counter-Luther Diet of Worms in 1521.  In its highest form the EU was, and is designed to end the deepest split of all in Europe; the historical split between Catholics and Protestants, plus now those member-states that share the Orthodox tradition.

It is no coincidence to my mind that Brexit took place in Britain, with England the heartland.  The same English distrust of distant, unaccountable, arrogant and self-aggrandising power that so irked my ancestors also irks many of my compatriots today, me included.  Even though I am a big picture Remainer, I am also an EU-sceptic.  This is partly because I worked for the EU and saw at close quarters the emergence of an intolerant Euro-theology, replete with the High Priests of Euro-fanaticism and their One and Only True Way creed for some form of European super-state…that they would (of course) lead.  Worse, I also witnessed at close hand the self-serving indulgences of the Brussels elite paid for with the taxes of hard-pressed citizens too often held in aloof contempt by an elite who also believe they always know best.

And yet, I believe Europe also needs a ‘Europe’. However, if the EU is to survive it must be the Reformation not a latter day Counter-Reformation, believing it can crush all opposition simply by calling them ‘populists’.  Luther was just such a ‘populist’ because he expressed in his pen the frustrations millions felt with a failed power mainstream.  Indeed, Luther emerged just like contemporary populists because the power mainstream had failed to deal with the legitimate concerns of millions of ordinary people, and steadfastly refused to acknowledge their own failure.  Then as now!

If the EU is to survive it must offer hope to ordinary Europeans by becoming the champion of people, not power.  That aim will also mean an EU willing and able to recognise limits to its ambition and power. Luther helped create the modern states of Europe against the universalism of the Church because he reflected the identity-politics of his age.  In this latest struggle between national-identity and power-universalism the EU would do well to accept its role as the agent of the States of Europe United, not the ruler of a United States of Europe. To many the latter is simply the latest incarnation of a new/old Rome, with Jean-Claude Juncker cast as the Bishop of Brussels and the Commissioners his cardinals.

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