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Richard Holloway, the former Episcopal bishop, author of ‘Godless Morality’, who has been branded as ‘having taken an atheist worldview’, describes himself as a ‘Christian agnostic’. Harry Reid’s ‘Reformation, the Dangerous Birth of the Modern World’ (St Andrew Press, £24.99) portrays the Reformation as an essentially political and cultural process. Put on a stage together by Aye Right, the Glasgow book festival, to discuss Reid’s work, Holloway introduced Reid as an archetypal Presbyterian, principled, argumentative, democratic and attractively old-fashioned.
Despite Reid’s Presbyterianism and the book’s having been published by the Church of Scotland’s publishing arm, it is a balanced survey. It attacks the Roman church for its laxity and its corruption but notes that it also provided an education rigorous enough to arm men such as Luther and Knox to challenge it comprehensively. He portrays Protestantism as opening up the world to a wider literacy and enlightenment but as having committed awful atrocities on the way: Luther’s anti-semitism, the witch trials and the destruction of fine buildings and art. (The last is a moot point. The spare, austere aesthetic integrity of many Scottish vernacular churches contrasts favourably with garish, gilded Virgins and sadistic crucifixions.)
Reid views the Reformation as shaping the modern world and doing so for the better, but he makes no attempt to justify either the process or any of its major constituent parts, Lutheranism, Calvinism or even Anabaptism, as theologically justified. Yet the Reformation was clearly about religion, in a way that is hard to understand in today’s secular society. The Scottish Reformation, one of the later reformations, was ultimately the triumph of the pro-English, as distinct from the pro-French, camp in Scottish politics. It grew out of a developing and genuine popular rejection of the Roman church, of its corruption but also of its theology, as well as its links with particular power groups. The Reformation offered a utopian blue-print for a civil society but it was also predicated on a repressive model of social control.
Reid rejects the kill-joy portrait of Knox who enjoyed drink, even on the Sabbath (so long as it did not interfere with worship), and enjoyed female company but forced service on the French galleys had toughened him and made him a determined political player.
What Reid fails to achieve is a judgement on the theology. One fundamentalist in the audience challenged him and Holloway, stating that the triumph of the Reformation was that it abolished the mass, gave the bible to the people and proffered salvation through faith alone. Both Reid and Holloway dodged the question. For this irreligious reviewer, the importance of the Reformation was indeed how it slotted into the history and power-politics of its day but how also it shaped the mindset of later generations. From Reid, the practising Protestant, something better should have been expected. Instead he played to the respectable audience for which debate on philosophical and theological issues is a challenge too many.
Reid’s suggestion however, that the Scottish Reformation was primarily an extension of the English Reformation misses the target. Henry VIII’s theological compromise was about personal and dynastic power. It created a compromise church with a ritual (such as the prayer book) which Reid admires and an episcopal hierarchy tied firmly to the English monarchy, but which hardly put it in the vanguard of radical Protestantism. That tendency to compromise and seek the middle way but to remain deferential to hierarchy, particularly to monarchy, remains an English habit of mind to this day.
The Scottish Reformation created a fundamentalist theology with an absolute reliance on scripture as God-given truth. It subsequently rejected such ritual as a prayer book. It was rigorously Calvinist both in its adherence to predestination and in the creation of an essentially democratic form of church government. Reid comments on the fissile nature of Protestantism. These factors also flow from its origins: its belief in scripture as absolute, god-given truth, its sense of its own elite as an elect of the saved but in its almost contradictory openness to debate. These tendencies also, an over-confidence in our righteousness and an endlessly disputatious approach to all matters, civil and religious, remain Scottish traits to this day.
Holloway suggested that today’s Kirk is a ‘fusty institution’. Reid responded that it had more potential than it exercised but was too bureaucratic to be effective. Its democracy meant that it made no decisions or, worse, contradictory ones. Perhaps the simpler truth is that Reid now recognises, as Holloway does, that the concept of a supreme being is of decreasing relevance to the great ethical questions. Political and social power struggles no longer require to be dressed in theological garb. The majority of the population in industrial and post-industrial cultures understand through education, partly initiated by the great Protestant reformers, that the Bible is not literal truth. The Kirk may have an ethical perspective but it can no longer be based on scriptural certainty or God-given laws and it must debate its position on the terms of an increasingly secular world. Reid’s political, rather than theological, analysis of the Reformation indicates that he at least has intuitively understood that God is not only unnecessary for an understanding of morality but unnecessary for an understanding of religion.
The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 30 March 2010:

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