At rare and unpredictable moments a revolutionary concept fundamentally changes the underlying assumptions that had previously held an assortment of beliefs together. This is known as a Paradigm Shift1, a totally new mindset that reshapes relationships so that nothing can ever be seen in the same way again.
Travellers in England early in the sixteenth century would have been impressed by the country’s apparent prosperity, by the colourful nature of its festivities as well as its beliefs in hobgoblins, witches and fairies. Few questioned the biblical teaching that man’s present life on earth was simply a preparation for eternity. Everything a person did would be weighed up on the dreadful day of judgement; it would either be upwards to heaven, or downwards to the everlasting fires of hell. As Christ had promised forgiveness of sins to those who truly repented the outcome on judgement day was rather like Russian roulette ─ providing you truly repented on your deathbed (and gave away all your wealth) then hopefully it didn’t matter just how many sins you had committed beforehand. The regular sinner, however, feared that if death caught him unawares, there would be no time for forgiveness and, be he king or pauper, it was to the fires of hell that he would be bound. Virtually everyone believed that ─ it shaped their every action.2
A perceptive visitor would have found many critics of the ostentatious wealth of the Church, and they would have heard some men questioning the doctrine that it was the clergy who controlled the entry to heaven. The Pope had recently licensed pardoners to sell Indulgences which the gullible believed could release sinners from punishment. This touched a particularly raw nerve in England where thousands of copies of an English-language Bible were already in circulation. In these bibles Englishmen could see no theological justification for buying salvation3. salvation, as the German monk in far off Wittenberg was soon to argue, could come only through faith. English society was still devotedly Christian, but it was fast becoming anti-clerical.4
Living in today’s highly secular world it’s hard to appreciate the quite enormous influence the Church had on all aspects of daily life five hundred years ago. The Church seemed an impregnable institution, the nearest thing ever seen to a super power ruled over by a pope whose spiritual authority was supported by temporal powers comparable in our day to those of the Secretary General of the United Nations, the President of the World Bank, the Chief Executive of the I.M.F. and the financial resources of Microsoft, all rolled into one person. To shout ‘heretic’ was to unleash the same civil powers of repression that an appeal to ‘national security’ does today.5
When copies of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses first reached England they created little interest ─ such things had been said before. Henry, still the epitome of a young, sophisticated and dynamic Renaissance prince, was affronted, however, and wrote a lengthy refutation of these in 1521 for which the Pope honoured him with the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’. Then within five years it all changed. Henry was frustrated that his Queen appeared incapable of giving him a male heir (in the sixteenth century inheritance was everything, and the biggest excuse for war), and by now totally infatuated with Anne Boleyn, who consistently refused to sleep with him as his mistress6. Anne’s price was marriage, and possibly a public endorsement of Protestantism. Marriage required Henry to divorce Catherine. Such matters had earlier been settled privately, if deviously, between monarchs and Pope but, unfortunately for Henry, Pope Clement had recently been taken prisoner by Catherine’s nephew, the Emperor Charles V.
A sexually tormented prince was cornered, but was not to be frustrated.7 Demanding of Thomas Wolsey, his Lord Chancellor, who was a Cardinal and therefore answerable to the Pope, that a way had to be found of gaining him a legal separation from Catherine even if that meant turning the legal practices of England into a farce. Wolsey saw in Luther’s Ninety-five Theses a ruse for denying the Pope’s power to legislate against a temporal monarch.8 Initially it didn’t work; the Pope called Henry’s bluff, and the once mighty Wolsey was arrested on a charge of treason and had the good fortune to die before his trial. But the cat was out of the bag. A mind-changing idea in theology had found a specific context. A paradigm shift was occurring that was to reshape Western civilisation. Nothing would ever be the same again. The tipping point had simply been a single broadsheet with ninety-five theses, an early version of a modern-day blog.
Thesis 26: 24th August 2006