Christianity’s Next Reformation
This is the introduction to a potentially long series of articles on this theme, as it is a subject of great interest to me. In the past I’ve written articles with the title ‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die’, inspired by Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book of the same name. So, when an article by Keith Michael entitled ‘The Next Reformation of the Christian Church — Is Already Here’ appeared in my Medium feed, I was obviously intrigued, wondering what I would find.
It immediately made me think of Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why¹. In it she says that “about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and growth may occur”. She identifies three such reformations from earlier times:
- the best known one, that of Martin Luther, which led to the emergence of Protestantism
- the Great Schism, when the Eastern Orthodox Church separated from Roman Catholicism
- what is known as the Fall of the Roman Empire, or the Coming of the Dark Ages. (The most significant event was the Fourth Ecumenical Council of 451 AD, the Council of Chalcedon, when an attempt was made to codify correct doctrine.)
If she is correct, then we are certainly due another one; we might perhaps even say that this is long overdue. The question is therefore, what will this new Reformation look like? It’s possible that there are as many different versions as there are progressive Christians, although they will obviously be gathered in various groupings. For the time being I’ll stick with those with whom I am familiar, thus Phyllis Tickle, John Shelby Spong, Keith Michael, and indeed myself.
In recent correspondence Gerald R. Baron, Medium writer and Christian, has also told me that he agrees “that Christianity needs reformation” and believes that is “in the process of a deep reformation”. I was initially surprised when I read that because, from our exchanges, I had always thought him to be a more or less conventional Christian.
However, he continued: “I am eager for that particularly in the rejection of Americanicity as someone called it. The conflation of nationalism and Christianity for so many has been extremely harmful to the mission of the church. If I do write on this issue of the now and coming reformation I will do so from the view that it is not necessary to throw a good baby out with the stinky bathwater”. It would seem therefore that he is seeking not so much a reformation of Christianity, rather a return to an earlier, more authentic version of it. This is also the position of Keith Michael (who generously offers a free copy of his book — see the end of his article), although from a very different perspective from that of Baron.
It would seem therefore that there are:
- those who seek a radical transformation of Christianity in a new, progressive direction — John Shelby Spong and myself (although with different visions)
- those who think that the Christianity that has been handed down to us is deeply in error, and that we should therefore return to an even earlier version of what it could and should have been (Keith Michael)
- those who think that the Christianity that has been handed down to us is perfectly fine, but has been corrupted by later developments (Gerald R. Baron).
I’m guessing that such different assessments and visions for the future are exactly what one might expect in a period of great turmoil. There are obviously going to be some serious debates, even conflicts, before the next Reformation happens.
The two most recent upheavals in Christianity have resulted in massive, and so far permanent, schisms. As Phyllis Tickle says: “the Church actually ends up with two new creatures where once there had been only one”. It’s possible and likely therefore that the next Reformation will have the same result. That is to be expected. Hopefully, as she also says: “a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge”.
Furthermore she says that, following previous Reformations: “the faith has spread — and been spread — dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress”. Let’s hope that this is the case. Humanity is badly in need of a new and true religion which can unite us all.
Much to explore in future articles.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my profile.
- Baker Books, 2008