The Fight to Survive?

Jeremy Paxman (former Newsnight presenter and University Challenge inquisitor) has written a piece about the Church of England in, of all places, the Financial Times (to which he is a contributing editor). It’s an affectionate piece. He clearly has a soft spot for the good old C of E. But it’s a bleak piece too, about ‘the Church of England’s fight to survive’, as Paxman asks

“is the Church of the brink of extinction?”

Paxman describes a visit to “an ancient Dorset church as a tiny handful of parishioners takes communion”. The priest is 87 years old. None of the congregation is “in the flush of youth”. Paxman admires the scene but speaks of the Church’s “Irreversible decline”. Whereas a decade ago, 13 million British people identified themselves as Anglican, that number is now just 8.5 million. Fewer than one million people go to church regularly, a decline of 11% over the past decade.

The Church, he says, has some very precious real estate. But historic buildings are expensive to maintain: 20 C of E buildings are closed each year. Why not sell most of them off?, he asks.

Church giving, as well as church going, is declining as our core supporters age: 70% of giving to the Church comes from those over 50. 40% from the over 70s. He quotes Mike Eastwood, the Liverpool Diocesan Secretary, as saying that we have “about 10 years” to turn things around.

Paxman writes:

Optimism is a precondition for any job in the Church of England. But the overwhelming impression is of dwindling, ageing congregations: homely, well-mannered and kindly folk increasingly out of joint with the noisy, secular spirit of the age.

Underlying our problems is the fact that every survey shows that succeeding generations are less likely to believe in God or have a positive view of religion or church.

In the end, the C of E’s problem is that not enough people believe in the one thing that makes it different from the secular world…

There are signs of hope, too, including an increase in the numbers coming forward for ordination. (A quarter of the Church’s clergy are aged 60 or over.) But where are congregations growing?

One of the phenomena of our day is the success of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and the churches it has planted. ‘HTB’ is the church that gave us the Alpha Course which offers people an opportunity to explore the Christian faith, usually over a bowl of pasta. Paxman tells us that 24 million people have completed the course. HTB is a success story: not only are its services full but HTB sends whole congregations out to plant churches elsewhere. Sometimes the HTB plant takes over a church building that is in danger of being closed down. It’s a controversial strategy but one in which the Church of England is investing money. (One church that has been ‘taken over’ by HTB is St Sepulchre’s, Holborn. Known as the ‘National Musicians’ Church’, St Sepulchre’s is the last resting place of Proms-founder, Sir Henry Wood. When former HTB curate, the Revd David Ingall became Priest-in-charge, the church announced that it would no longer host concerts because the space was required for worship. The change in policy drew criticism from figures in the music world such as John Rutter and Aled Jones.)

HTB’s theology is conservative evangelical and its worship style, charismatic. It is the form of Christianity in which I was ‘born again’ and from which I heard the call to ordained ministry. But I have changed in the 31 years since I was ordained deacon. To those who care to ask, I sometimes describe myself as ‘post-evangelical’ and a ‘recovering charismatic’. I still believe that Jesus is good news and that God is to be encountered in the bible which bears witness to Jesus as the Word of God. My own preference is for contemporary styles of worship: my ideal church service would be a ‘Rock Mass’ – lead by a band (with me on lead guitar and preaching, of course). But even vicars don’t always get want they want. And neither should they! In Stretton and Appleton Thorn, we continue with our ‘mixed economy’ of services – from All-age Worship to Book of Common Prayer Evensong – because we are trying to serve the whole community. In city centres, you can specialise – if you want Anglo-Catholic worship there’s a church for you. If you want a conservative low church, there’s one for you. And if you want guitars and drums, you can find that too. In our churches, we have to try to offer something for everyone. The danger of course is that you end up pleasing nobody.

And I’m not pessimistic about the church: as Paxman says, you have to be an optimist in my line of work. I’m encouraged by some words I heard from former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the church survives because it is God’s idea.

I believe that God has a purpose for the churches in our parishes and I don’t think that involves us going out of business. We need to learn to engage with a culture that no longer takes faith in God for granted and which does not have a ‘brand loyalty’ to the Church of England.

We are not going to be ‘HTB’ – at least, I don’t think so – but we do need to be the church in this place. I still believe that the story of God’s love for the world revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the best news there is. How do we live our faith in the world as it is today (not harking back to some halcyon days, now long gone)?

Those are the challenges we face. I think we can do it. What do you think?

Alan Jewell


Thinking about our Worship

We have had a series of meetings across the two parishes to look at worship. On two occasions, we asked the Revd Andy Stinson, Diocesan Worship and Liturgy Missioner, to lead our thoughts and discussion. One of the things we have been thinking about is how our churches seek to reach others – our mission – and how that relates to worship. One of the questions we are asking is, How can we encourage more people to attend church services? Sadly, our motives are often mixed: we want more people to come to church. Why? Because we need more money in the collection plate to pay our bills! Why? So that the church will be there for us as long as we want it to be! Real mission happens when we believe we have something to share with others – the good news of God’s love. (Otherwise we are simply trying to recruit people to prop up an organisation that we support.)

It’s difficult to extricate the church’s worship from its mission. In fact, the two are very much tied up with each other. Mission is ultimately God’s activity: worship, our response. The church’s mission, as has been said, is to find out what God is up to and join in. So, what is God up to? God is the ultimate missionary. The incarnation is God’s coming to us and dwelling with us, sharing our lives and inviting us to share his. At Pentecost, we see how Jesus sends God’s Spirit to commission and empower the church to carry on his mission, God’s mission. In worship, we seek to respond to God who loved us so much that he sent his son (1 John 4:10-12). Once we grasp that we are loved, we are encouraged to share that love with others. So, worship (responding to God’s love) and mission (sharing God’s love with others) are intimately connected.

It’s a bit of a leap, then, to get from these lofty ideas to the nuts and bolts of what services we offer in our two churches. But we need to plan our worship so that it is (as far as we can manage) worthy of the God to whom it is offered and helpful to those who worship, and accessible to those who might join us.

One of the ideas that I got from Andy is based on the TV programme (sadly no longer being broadcast) Ready, Steady, Cook. The premise of the show was that members of the public had to bring a carrier bag of ingredients, bought on a limited budget, to their chef who had to cook up an enticing meal using what was in the bag, with a few stock items from the store cupboard. When it comes to cooking up enticing worship, what ingredients to we have to offer? We have two church buildings which are loved by their communities and a history of serving our two parishes. We have a church hall in Stretton. We have one vicar and are looking forward to the arrival of Ruth, our Curate. We have a couple of Readers and a large group of lay people who assist with our worship – from wardens and sidespeople, those who do the flowers, serve refreshments, lead prayers, sing, play musical instruments, ring bells, set up communion etc. We also have a number of congregations who meet for the services they value. What can we do with those ingredients? Quite a lot, I would suggest!

And what do we have in the store cupboard? The Church of England has the Book of Common Prayer, much loved and valued by many, and the range of provision under the heading Common Worship. We have centuries of liturgy and hymnody to draw on and the Anglican tradition of worship that has a recognisable structure but allows flexibility and seasonal variation.

We know that some value tradition and others prize contemporary expressions of worship. Some are more at home with formal worship, others with less structured services. Some like to have their communion at 8:00 AM, some like to worship mid-morning and some on Sunday evenings. Others come to midweek services, which include regular communions (weekly at St Matthew’s, monthly at St Cross) and Praise & Play. One of the things we must face is that those who come to church tend to like what they get: if you ask someone who attends the 8:00 AM service what time they think church should be, they are likely to answer ‘8:00 AM’. Equally, those who regularly attend other services. So, how do we find out what service dates and times, and what forms of worship, might suit those who don’t yet attend?

What media do we use or could we explore? The black ‘main volume’ Common Worship books are not necessarily user-friendly: they are bulky and contain material that we rarely use. The Book of Common Prayer offers services that some people love but in a language that resonates with some but not all. We use printed leaflets for many of our services, so that people have in their hands just the material they need – the structure of the service and the texts they are invited to share – but many churches now use projection for service words, allowing maximum flexibility (providing you get the technology to work reliably!). How would people feel about looking up at a screen rather than down at a book? (Singing and congregational speaking are probably improved by having people look up.)

When Andy spoke to our Deanery Clergy Chapter, I noted that he asked a couple of fundamental questions to think about when considering our worship:

  • Have we forgotten God?
  • Have we forgotten others?

If we have forgotten God or other people, then, whatever we are doing, it is not mission or worship! We have simply become a social club for like-minded people. Our worship, whether traditional or contemporary, high-church, low-church or middle of the road, needs to lead us towards the mystery of God. We also need to be hospitable to others: what are we willing to give up in order to make our worship accessible to those who don’t currently attend services?

I’m sure that we are never going to get it all to work perfectly. We won’t be able to please all of the people, all of the time. But each of us needs to ask what is the best worship we can offer and how can we make it accessible to those who are not yet regular worshippers?

As always, I value your thoughts!

Alan Jewell

Thy Kingdom Come

Prayer. It’s one of those things we know Christians are supposed to do but perhaps we don’t find enough time or energy for. Or perhaps we are stuck with the same words we used as children:

“God bless mummy. God bless daddy…”

Or perhaps we think that praying is best left to the professionals: after all, that’s what vicars are for, isn’t it?

Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. His answer was to give them the words we call the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Our Father’. Some have called this prayer ‘a summary of the whole gospel’. Others note that whatever differences of belief and practice divide us, The Lord’s Prayer is said by Christians of all traditions and denominations.

In Matthew’s gospel a slightly longer version of the prayer is given as part of Jesus’ teaching that we call the Sermon on the Mount: here the context is a warning against thinking that God is likely to be impressed by the many words we might use in prayer. Keep it simple, Jesus says, and don’t pray to impress others. It’s just between you and God.

Many who are not regular churchgoers have this prayer tucked away somewhere. Occasionally when I have been praying with someone who is quite ill and not at all communicative, I have noticed that the words of the Lord’s Prayer seem to strike a chord. Their very familiarity is a point of contact.

I’m not sure that when Jesus was asked, ‘teach us to pray’, his aim was to give us a formula to recite. After all, in the Sermon on the Mount we are told not to ‘heap up empty phrases’. Rather, I think that the Lord’s Prayer is an example of what prayer is all about. It begins by addressing God in a way that is both intimate and reverent – as ‘our Father in heaven’. Our first concern in prayer is for God’s kingdom and God’s will, before we come on to our own needs (our ‘daily bread’). Then we seek God’s forgiveness, which is tied in with our willingness to forgive others, and ask for God’s protection in the face of temptation and evil.

The Lord’s Prayer, then, is not a formula but a pattern for prayer. It’s also a useful resource to fall back on when we have no words or thoughts of our own!

In 2016, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York invited members of the Church of England to pray, “Thy kingdom come”. The invitation was offered for the period between Ascension and Pentecost that we should pray for God’s Holy Spirit to help us become better witnesses to Jesus Christ and that others might come to faith in him.

“In praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ we all commit to playing our part in the renewal of the nations and the transformation of communities.”

Archbishop Justin Welby

In 2017, the invitation is being re-issued. This year, Pentecost falls on Sunday 4th June. At Pentecost, we hear of God’s Spirit being poured out on the disciples, as Jesus had promised. It is the coming of the Spirit that turns them from timid followers to bold witnesses, and makes them the Church. (We sometimes call Pentecost ‘the birthday of the Church’.) This year, as well as attending a service on the day, can I ask you to set aside some time to pray? Perhaps you could do that as soon as you finish reading this! You might simply ask God to pour out his Spirit on you – in a new way, with renewed love and power. And then you might ask God to make himself known to your family, friends, and neighbours. You don’t need many words. Just the willingness to connect with ‘our Father in heaven’. You might think of a handful of people who need your prayer, that they will come to know Jesus Christ.

If you want to know more, there are resources online (‘Thy Kingdom Come‘).

May God bless you as you pray ‘Thy kingdom come’.

Alan Jewell

It’s an Adventure!

I was talking to someone recently who told me that he had heard that vicars were not allowed to work more than 35 hours a week. I wish I had known that! When I was offered this job, I had to complete a health questionnaire to make sure I was sufficiently fit to take on the demands of full-time vicaring. The company that administered the questionnaire did so on the basis that the job was 40 hours a week. I wish! The reality is that this job will take as much time as you give it and then some more. There are some clergy who have part-time posts but there is nothing part-time about vocation.

So, what about part-time Christians? Is there any such thing? You’d be right if you guessed that the answer is ‘no’. One of the problems we have is that the word ‘Christian’ is often used to mean someone who is good, or kind, or nice. My wife, Rose, says that she once helped a colleague pick up some papers that had been dropped and was told, “that was very Christian of you”. There are many good and kind people – atheists, Muslims and Jews, for example – who would be offended to have their goodness and kindness labelled ‘Christian’. And not all who go by the name ‘Christian’ are particularly good and kind people. Some of us worry that we are not very good Christians…

Acts 11:26 says that “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.” In other words, a Christian is a disciple and a disciple is a Christian. So, what is a disciple?

In the gospels, disciples are called by Jesus to spend time with him, learn from him and reach out to others in his name. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), the disciples are sent out to

make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:16-20)

I often quote the following from the Revd Dr Alison Morgan, a Christian thinker and author:

discipleship is a form of apprenticeship undertaken in community

It’s an apprenticeship: none of us is a master, we’re all learning on the job from the Master. We make mistakes and move on.

It’s undertaken in community: there may be Christians who are called to the solitary life but most of us live out our discipleship in community with others. Alison Morgan, again, says that “the plural of disciple is church“.

Jesus warns that this is no part-time job and no easy calling. In Luke 14:28-33 he compares it to someone who decides to build a tower. Imagine starting off with the best of intentions, digging the foundations, putting up the first few courses of brick and then realising that you don’t have the money to finish the job. Everyone who passes by will see not a tower but a folly, something ridiculous: a monument to your stupidity. Or a king going out to war against another who doesn’t sit down first and work out if he has the troops to get the job done. If he hasn’t, he takes the diplomatic route to see what he can rescue from the situation.

Who among you, Jesus says, if you were going to build a tower or start a war, would not work out first whether you have the resources to finish the task? Jesus is talking to large crowds. Many of them may be simply going along for the ride. Many may not have given any thought as to where this particular ride might take them. We know, as we follow Jesus towards Holy Week and Easter, that his journey is to the cross. On the other side of that is resurrection but he will not get there without walking the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering.

“I’m going to the cross: who’s coming with me?” It’s hardly the most enticing advertising slogan ever but that is how Jesus calls people to discipleship. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it:

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

This is not masochism and it gives no support for sadism. All human existence is touched by suffering: Christian discipleship is the call to die! At baptism, we are baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus. What is it that dies?, given that most of us were baptised as infants and here we are still walking around and breathing in and out! What is it that dies? It is our ambition. It is our self-determination. It is the view that the universe revolves around me. The implications of that take a lifetime to work out but the selfish self must die so that the God-self, your real self, can live.

I’m writing this in Lent, which many find a good time to look again at our discipleship, our walk with Jesus. Have we counted the cost, weighed up the pros and cons? Jesus warns us that Christian discipleship is tough; it’s costly. But, he assures us, the benefits are out of this world! In one of the songs that we sing with the children who come to Praise & Play, we’re reminded that:

It’s an adventure following Jesus.
It’s an adventure learning from him.
It’s an adventure living for Jesus.
It’s an adventure following him.
Let’s go where he leads us
Turn away from wrong
For we know we can trust him
To help us as we go along.
It’s an adventure following Jesus…1

In April, both parishes hold their Annual Meetings: a good time to re-evaluate our calling to live for and serve God in the communities in which God has put us. On 16th April, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and are reminded that although being a Christian is never easy, we are invited to live out our discipleship in the light of Easter.

The resurrection assures us that a life of Christian discipleship, although costly, is worth it. God puts his seal of approval on the self-giving life of Jesus and shows us that a life like that, lived in love, is one that even death cannot ultimately put a stop to.

I hope you will be able to join us for one or more of our services in Holy Week and Easter.

Alan Jewell

1. [Capt Alan Price © 1990 Song Solutions Daybreak]

God the Father

When we were in Berlin recently, we visited the Pergamon Museum. It was built in the first part of the C20th to house monumental buildings, including the Pergamon altar after which the museum is named. When we were there, the museum was being refurbished and the Pergamon altar was not open to the public. But we did see the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. It was built in 575 BCE by King Nebuchadnezzar II and stands 14m (46′) high and 39m (100′) wide. What you see in the museum is constructed from material excavated in the early C20th and then reconstructed in the museum with new bricks. It’s “One of the most complex and impressive architectural reconstructions” ever and is very impressive. You can walk along the processional way, also partly reconstructed, and imagine what it would have been like to walk into Babylon in the days of Nebuchadnezzar II. The walls of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the World, until they were replaced on the chart by the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the C3rd!

The Ishtar Gate that you can see is the smaller, outer gate. Behind it would have been an even bigger, more impressive gate – too big to fit in the museum, the bigger gate is in storage.

So what would it have been like to walk into Babylon in those days? The walls and gates are covered in blue-glazed brick, shining like jewels in the sun and decorated with images of dragons and bulls, symbolizing the gods Marduk and Adad. The walls of the processional way are decorated with bulls, dragons and lions, symbolising the goddess, Ishtar.

It would have been impressive! In fact, it would have been intimidating. The bulls, dragons and lions are there to terrify you. If you were even thinking of invading our city, don’t. It’s protected by our gods and they are fierce. This, and other artefacts in this and other museums, make a very good point about gods: they’re fierce, terrifying and you should be afraid!

Is that how you see God? Terrifying?

At the weekend, we went to see Fiddler On The Roof at the Everyman in Liverpool. It was the last night but I believe they are putting it on again in June. I recommend it. The main character is Tevye, the Jewish milkman, and his family and their community in Russia at the start of the century. Tevye and his Jewish community are trying to maintain their traditions in the face of huge changes in the world around. He’s poor and has five daughters that he wants to see married in keeping with tradition. I won’t spoil the story for you but very early on we hear that Jews are being evicted from their homes. How will they be able to maintain their faith, their tradition?

One of the most touching aspects of the musical is Tevye’s relationship with his God. Tevye talks with God: God is his confidant and the subject of his complaints. Why is my horse lame? Why am I poor? And what am I going to do about getting five daughters married?

Lord who made the lion and the lamb
You decreed I should be what I am
Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan
If I were a wealthy man?

In the face of adversity, Tevye says to God:

I know, I know. We are your chosen people.

But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?

Tevye’s relationship with his God is rather different from the picture we have from Babylon. God is a friend, a companion. In the Jewish bible we read of God as Father to his people:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

Hosea 11:1-4

Jesus takes that understanding of God as a Father to his people and makes it personal: God is our Father in heaven.

Not all of us have completely positive memories of our own fathers or families. But, in an ideal world, parents love their children and want the best for them. Jesus says that God is like that, the loving parent who wants the best for his children. Sometimes it’s not obvious. But that’s the picture of God that Jesus paints.

Reflection for Compline in Lent 2017, based on Book One, Session Two of the Pilgrim course.

The Trouble with Lent…

Sermon preached at St Matthew’s Church, Stretton

On Sunday 5 March 2017 / Lent 1 (Purple)



Heavenly Father,
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction: the Trouble with Lent!

I’ll tell you what the problem with Lent is:

It’s not that it’s not biblical. Although there’s nothing in the bible that says that if you give up chocolate for 6 weeks you’ll enjoy your Easter eggs more. And it’s not because people think that Lent comes from Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days… (It was originally to do with being baptised on Easter Day. Those who were to be baptised spent the days and weeks beforehand preparing. And those who had been excommunicated, being penitent, were to be readmitted to church fellowship – they would prepare with self-examination. Over the years, other Christians began to join in, and that’s where Lent comes from. It hasn’t always been 40 days.)

No, the problem with Lent is that it is dangerously close to the heretical cult of self-improvement. To be honest: for many, it’s a spiritual form of new year’s resolution. It’s March now and your new year’s resolutions have been binned, so you take this opportunity to have another crack at it.

As someone has said:

“Fasting without prayer is just a diet.”

Fasting – for health and weight-loss has become fashionable. It seems that abstinence is the new indulgence.

Pope Francis has said, what is the point of giving up something that is of no benefit to someone else? (He says we should give up our indifference to others.)

So, the danger is that our Lenten discipline can be narcissistic: self-interested, self-absorbed, self-obsessed. And that’s pretty much a definition of sin!

I’m not against self-improvement. There are a couple of things about me that could do with some improving…

The problem is the cult of self-improvement. Visit any bookshop: the shelves are full of self-improvement and lifestyle books. Spirituality is seen as a branch of self-improvement, an addition to our lifestyle.

The only British Heresy!

Britain has only produced one world-class, Olympic standard heretic – a few saints, but only one heretic: Pelagius. Pelagius was a British lay theologian who was influential at the end of the C4th and the beginning of the C5th. Pelagianism has come to mean the belief that human beings can earn salvation by their own works. (It’s possible that Pelagius himself didn’t believe or teach that.)

Pelagius is said to have reacted with horror to a prayer of St Augustine:

“Give what you command and command what you will.”

In other words, if you want me to be good, God, you’ll have to do it. I can’t! Pelagius taught that we can all be good, if we choose to be good. Augustine said that even our ability to choose is flawed. We need to be saved by God’s grace. And the church sided with Augustine. Luther rediscovered Augustine and the Church of England followed Luther in its 39 Articles of Religion:


WE are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

Or, if you like your Book of Common Prayer, the prayer of consecration at Holy Communion says:

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; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

In other words, Jesus has done it all. His death on the cross has dealt with the sins of the world, including mine. What can you add to that by giving up chocolate or alcohol? The bible says that we are saved, not because we are good but because God is good. There is nothing that you can add to what God has done in Christ. The good news is that you don’t need to.


What’s good about Lent? Lent gives us a great opportunity to consider our lives. To be serious about who we are and who we would like to be. Why does Christ die on the Cross on Good Friday? What does it mean that He is raised on Easter Sunday? What does that mean to me?

I hope that you will join us for Compline on Wednesday evenings as part of your Lent discipline. Not because it will help you get into heaven. But if might just help you live your life here on earth in the light of heaven.

A Franciscan Priest, Fr Richard Rohr, asks (in an article entitled, “Lent Is About Transformation“), Have you ever noticed that Jesus doesn’t give motivational speeches? “Try harder. Do better.” What he says is that we need to die and be raised to new life. That’s what our baptism service says.

What we need is not self-improvement by our own effort. What we need is to be transformed by God’s grace, by the example of Jesus and by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

Have a good Lent!

Have a Good Lent!

The Antiquities of the County of Suffolk (1846) by Alfred Suckling, record that in the registers of Darsham Church, there are “several curious entries”. Including:

‘A license granted to Mr. Thomas Southwell to eat meat in Lent, aged 82, and sickly, by John Eachard [Vicar], for which he paid 6s. 8d. for the use of the poor in Darsham, according to the statute, March 4, 1638.’

So here’s a church fundraising idea: rather than giving things up for Lent, you can buy a license to allow you to do whatever you like. Chocolate? That’s £10.00, please!

It’s been done before. In 1517, when the Pope wanted to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he sent a Dominican Friar called Johann Tetzel to Germany to sell indulgences. Tetzel said that you could pay to have someone’s soul set free from purgatory – a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card for a loved one. Tetzel was a good salesman, with his slogan:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.

That might not have been official church teaching – indulgences were really to do with punishments that the church could impose on the living, not the dead. But the way in which they were being marketed caught the attention of an Augustinian Friar by the name of Martin Luther. Luther put together a series of propositions and sent them to his bishop. (He may or may not have nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg. If he did, it was not the dramatic gesture it may have seemed – more like pinning something on a notice board.) These 95 theses included one which asked why the Pope, who was one of the wealthiest men ever to have lived, didn’t pay for the repairs himself rather than expecting poor ordinary folk to give their money.

These 95 theses, sent to the Archbishop of Mainz on 31st October 1517, marked the start of the protestant reformation. I don’t think that Luther knew what he had started, nor was he able to control where it led, but part of what he did was to get back to what the bible says, rather than what the church said the bible says, and what had accumulated over the centuries. Luther’s reformation shared with Renaissance humanism a desire to get back to the original sources – ad fontes: the Renaissance went back to Greek and Latin classical texts, rather than relying on mediaeval interpretations of those texts. The Protestant Reformation decided to go back to the bible, rather than on how the church interpreted the bible.

It began with this rejection of the sale of indulgences. Imagine being able to pay to have your sins forgiven and go straight to heaven!

But it turns out that the gospel is even more outrageous than that. What Luther discovered, when he went back to the bible, is that God saves us, not because of our merit, but by grace alone. We receive that grace by faith alone. Salvation cannot be bought because it is offered free of charge. It cannot be earned because it is God’s gracious gift.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Ephesians 2:8-10

The problem with Lent is that it can make us feel worthy, even self-righteous. But the gospel gives us no reason to boast because none of it is our own doing. It is God’s doing: we are what God created us to be. And part of that is a life of good works – not in order to earn our salvation but simply because that is who God made us to be.