Friday, 7 April 2017

Luther, Brexit and the shy British

Martin Luther was a young man of thirty three, the age of Christ at the first Easter, when he nailed his 95 theses in Latin to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on 31 October, 1517. Luther was a German professor of theology, composer, priest and monk. He partly intended to reform Catholic practices, particularly 'indulgences'. Instead he triggered the Protestant Reformation which still echoes like a giant shockwave, or tear in the fabric of Western Europe. Its impact echoes down the centuries and exists in Britain, today.

The 95 theses are inscribed on All Saints' church door, Wittenberg.  By A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) - Own work, FAL,

No doubt, it is a sense of a distinct culture in Britain today, as opposed to the largely culturally Catholic Continent, that has led to Brexit. The British, after The Reformation evolved into keenly literate and largely freedom-loving people. The Reformation replaced material sacramentalism (relics, statues, saints, the Eucharist, praying for the dead, magical healings) with the authority of the Bible. It was during The English Reformation that the role of the laity was raised into 'the priesthood of all believers', undermining the power of Bishops (mostly aristocrats). This change of emphasis led to an explosion of educational reform, in England and Scotland. The Reformation was a people-centred revolution and, in this sense, Brexit is not dissimilar.

Literate Britain
Within decades the clergy were university-educated. The people could read the Bible for themselves - in English. Writing and reading has been a mark of Britain ever since. It has more bookshops and more books being published per capita than any other nation. The emphasis on the laity as equal to the priesthood, actively singing Psalms in place of Catholic choirs, led, by steps, to The Civil War, which balanced the power of the people and that of the monarch. Out of this came democracy, the concept of government by the people for the people.  It is opposed to oligarchy.

We can trace all this back to The Reformation which took an iron hold in the strangely fertile soil of Britain and before that to Luther’s challenge to Catholicism. The Reformation was not just about Catholic clerical corruption, which was prevalent. Indulgences were being sold for money e.g. to build St Peter’s in Rome and enable the Pope and church to enjoy a lavish lifestyle. It was also about basic doctrine.

A different version of Christianity
Luther struck at the underlying presuppositions, or some would say misinterpretations of the whole Christian message, by the Church of Rome. He said that the New Testament, and therefore Christ, taught that we are saved not by indulgences, pilgrimages, masses but as 'a free gift' through the death of Jesus on the Cross, in a one-off act of atonement (literally 'at-one-ment'), setting aside God’s Judgement on our sin. It was an entirely new reading of the Bible, or at least a rediscovery of the original faith that the Apostles had taught. This released to the people assurance (acceptance and forgiveness) which changed and energised lives, creating a distinct version of Christianity. Protestants saw it as a return to the 'primitive' (meaning the 'original') teaching of Christ.

People of words
The British are still characterised by a huge appetite for reading, as a nation, and for writing. The English language is the largest in the world. The British are people of words, if no longer people of The Word. Their greatest writer (Shakespeare) had so huge a vocabulary that no one has ever equalled it. Their leaders are their most fluent people. To succeed is still to master more words in the English language than other people. The British still read more than any other nation.

A plain culture
They still regard emotionalism with deep distrust, notable in disapproving reactions to mass weepings and informal roadside wreath-layings. The sense of a purified or puritan British culture remains strong. It deeply irritates some people (even me at times)  that British culture is not more warm, emotional or flowery, but it is not. It is still in essence 'Protestant'. British culture is fundamentally different to that of The Continent with far less emphasis on sensuality, beauty, art, the art of food, material show and visible symbols. The English nobles had to be introduced to the senses in a disciplined way, via The Grand Tour. Britishness emphasises the unseen, the imagination, wit, the mind and rationality. This does not make the British a more spiritual people, but it does, still, set them apart, still. They generally agree on how they like things done i.e. in an orderly, plain, honest, restrained fashion, fairly, without undue showiness, rationally, with tolerance, with a quiet, ideally witty, civilised sense of humour. Anything that smacks of disorder, injustice, self-indulgence, dramatic pomp, dressing up, manipulation, blackmail, emotionalism and above all lying still turns them off.

The retiring British character 
The Reformation’s strong cultural hold on Britain is not the only cause of Brexit. It is the British character, known to be largely introspective and socially retiring, even vaguely socially inept that plays a key role. Though they make an effort, most British do not enjoy mixing with large numbers of other people: other people make them nervous. Most of them actually like being alone in their gardens, in their eccentric sheds, watching birds, listening to music, with dogs, with their thoughts - on an island.

Introverted, they do not naturally know how to enjoy the good things of life, unlike the more sociable and exuberant Italians. Instead, they are natural readers, animal lovers and garden-lovers. It is not inaccurate to say that an English person’s home is his or her 'castle'. The British need a retreat from other people like the sick need a hospital...

Their only social outlet is joining hobby clubs and associations (including West End London clubs) which flourish. Clubs attract millions in Britain : there is nothing like these clubs, say, in France. These are governed by 'school' rules, the purpose of which is partly (presumably) to keep the more emotionally annoying members in check.  The peoples' other option is 'pubs' where the challenge of social interaction is eased by alcohol.

The real pity is that the regular reading of the Bible is no longer central to their increasingly uniform lives. These private lives, as a result of a cocktail of modern pressures, are being drained of essence, identity and possibly even a sense of meaning.
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  1. What you descrive ad the British character, is what I feel to ne, eventi if I am not formally British. It's difficult to draw broad categories as these. It Gould fit to the Alpine people, which I al one...

  2. Very interesting: perhaps it is the introverted general charater of the those people in the north and east partly linked to climate?