The Reformation: Firm Friendships Broken

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Martin Luther and Andreas Karlstadt studied and worked together in the German town of Wittenberg during the early 1500’s. These two young men dreamed of a day when the Bible would be read widely and its instructions taken seriously – yet neither would have imagined their small town would one day be “ground-zero” for the Reformation.

Two young men with nothing to lose but their own careers for biblical truth. Their friendship was firm as together they debated the powerful Vatican heirarchy. They  stayed firm  as they were threatened by the Vatican powers to recant their biblical beliefs, and it was together that these two theologians were finally excommunicated from the church by Pope Leo.

But then something happened to cause these two firm friends to eventually go their separate paths.

Karlstadt told Luther that if they really were going to be Sola Scriptura – “the Bible alone” as the foundation for their faith – then the Ten Commandments of the Bible should also be taken seriously. In particular, Andreas Karlstadt would focus on two of God’s commandments that had fallen into disrepair since the cross of Christ:- The second commandment of not bowing down to images and statues (Exodus 20:4-6); and the fourth commandment of honouring the seventh-day Sabbath as a sacred day (Exodus 20:8-11).

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“Sola Scriptura” was a belief of the church reformers that the Bible is the only rule of faith and Christian practice

 

Luther the pragmatist wanted the Reformation of the sixteenth century church to progress at a pace that allowed people to keep up, but Karlstadt the revolutionary wanted all of God’s light immediately. And so these two once-great-friends quickly became public adversaries. In 1524 Luther published an article that described Karlstadt’s radical ideas as the work of a modern-day “Judas”, and Karlstadt responded by calling Luther a “papist” and even “a cousin of the Antichrist”.

These difficult times of debating divinity tested tight friendships, and sometimes these friendships were brought undone. The Reformation needed Martin Luther’s pragmatism but it also needed Andreas Karlstadt’s zeal for all of God’s truth. Today, students of God’s Word might be forgiven for wondering what the Reformation could really have achieved if these two friends and colleagues remained exactly that.

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Andreas Karlstadt (1486 – 1541) was a key figure in Germany during the Reformation

 

Jesus once said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35) – and despite their different approaches to church reform Martin and Andreas did have a brotherly love for each other. Late in the evening on the 13th of June 1525, Andreas Karlstadt knocked on Martin Luther’s door. Andreas was desperate – he needed shelter and a place to hide. Even though it was Martin’s wedding night with his new bride Katherine, Martin Luther of course opened the door and took Andreas in.

The lesson from the relationship between Martin Luther and Andreas Karlstadt is that in pursuing biblical truth God’s people are stronger together.

 

 

 

Author: David Riley is a minister on the Gold Coast in Australia. This blog is a series of articles and “rambles” on the Reformation and christian church history.

Just a Little Indulgence (Part 3)

Martin Luther hadn’t intended to create continental chaos when he hammered his document into the church door, but turmoil is what his deed delivered. With one act from this seemingly obscure Augustinian monk the town of Wittenberg became ground-zero for the greatest spiritual and social upheaval the world has witnessed.

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Luther had been unsettled. The sale of indulgences by John Tetzel on behalf of the church had caused confusion amongst some of his parishioners and students. If they bought these indulgences did they really need to alter the behaviours that were against God’s will? Could they really buy their way into heaven – but what about Christ’s gift of salvation?

Luther had hoped his respectful letter to Archbishop Albert would bring some clarity to increasingly muddied church practices. Martin’s decision to then knock the document into a non-descript church door would spark radical change on the continent of Europe and around the world.

The invention of the printing press a few decades prior allowed someone to take this one document nailed to a church door in Wittenberg and easily duplicate it. These duplicates were then copied, and within weeks Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” of church malpractices were being discussed in palaces and public squares not just in Germany, but across Europe and in Rome itself.

In modern-day language – Martin Luther’s publicly posted “status update” was retweeted hundreds of times and had gone viral.

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The revolution we now know as the Reformation had been centuries in the making. Many God-honouring individuals had courageously voiced the need for more biblical practices – and they’d lost their lives. The Reformation of the Christian church would not be the act of one single person, but in Martin Luther’s hammer on a church door in Wittenberg there would be sparks that would illuminate God’s truth more clearly.

The Dark Ages were ending and Light was beginning to re-enter into the hearts and minds of millions.
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Difficult Times in The Shambles

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Wander the cobblestone streets of The Shambles in central York today and you find yourself snickering at the tumbledown techniques builders used centuries ago. Most of the shops lie askew, and floors and walls jut out at pedestrians as if this ancient English town was poking its tongue at modern-day visitors.

There are buildings where a resident on the top floor can stick their arm out their window and shake hands with a neighbour in the room across the street.

In amongst The Shambles you’d be forgiven for missing it. Number 35. A Dark Door. Second-floor leaning at an angle. A former butcher’s shop that hid secrets over four hundred years ago.

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The site of Margaret Clitheroe’s former home at Number 35, The Shambles in the city of York

Margaret Clitherow, a butcher’s wife, risked her young life by harbouring priests during the persecutions of the Roman Catholic Church in Reformation England. Her home in The Shambles became one of the most important hiding places in northern England for fugitive Catholic clergy.

At her trial in 1586 thirty-year-old Margaret refused to enter a plea. She feared her three children, or any of the other children from the school she ran, would be called as witnesses. In 1586 a witness of any age could be tortured to reveal their details, and young Margaret didn’t want to expose any child to that possibility. So she declined to anything.

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Margaret Clitherow (1556 – 1586)

 

The English courts had a solution for anyone who refused to enter a plea. Margaret Clitherow was taken to the main bridge in York and was forcibly laid down over a sharp stone in the middle of her back. With her eyes to the sky the front door of Margaret’s home was placed on top of her. With a crowd watching on that Friday heavy stones were placed one-by-one on top of the door. It was expected that with the increasing pain Margaret would cry out a plea – but she remained silent.

It took fifteen minutes of stones being placed on top of her door, but finally the stone laying underneath Margaret broke her back.

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The old bridge over the Ouse River in York

 

Margaret was pregnant with her fourth child at the time of her death. She lay dead on the bridge for another six hours before the weights were removed and her body, and that of her unborn child, were carried away.

Faith in the face of persecution has always required robust courage. Difficult times call for determined people willing to stay committed to their Creator. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”
(2 Timothy 1:7)

 

Author: David Riley is a minister on the Gold Coast in Australia. This blog is a series of articles and “rambles” on the Reformation and christian church history.

Just a Little Indulgence (Part 2)

“JUST A LITTLE INDULGENCE” (Part 2): The 500-year-old Story of Matin Luther

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The statue of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)  in the German city of Wittenberg

If you asked Hans Luther about his son Martin he would have told you Martin should not have been living in Wittenberg in 1517. And he certainly should not have been the professor of moral theology at the University there. Hans had wanted his son to be a lawyer but God had other plans – and so Martin Luther was indeed in Wittenberg when John Tetzel came to town selling “indulgences” on behalf of Pope Leo and Archbishop Albert.

According to the medieval teachings of the Roman Catholic Church people who bought an indulgence certificate were guaranteed less punishment from God for a specific sin. The church also promised the person named on the certificate would spend less time suffering in Purgatory after they’d died.

So when John Tetzel began aggressively spruiking these spurious spiritual promises in the German town of Wittenberg, Doctor Martin Luther was horrified.

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Johann (John) Tetzel (1465 – 1519) – The Grand Commissioner for the selling of “Indulgences” in Germany

Martin had experienced an epiphany in the city of Rome six years earlier when he attempted to climb the Holy Stairs on his knees. Luther had been reading the Bible and was rocked with the following reality: forgiveness came only through placing your faith in Jesus Christ – and not through climbing stairs or buying indulgence certificates at exorbitant costs or any other human invention.

So when some of Martin Luther’s parishioners told him they’d purchased indulgences from John Tetzel and therefore didn’t need to change their spiritually destructive behaviour, Martin sat down at his writing desk and wrote a respectful letter to Archbishop Albert of Mainz. Luther’s first point to Albert was: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” The lowly Wittenberg monk and preacher wished to alert the Archbishop of the pastoral difficulties generated by the sale of indulgences. At the time Luther wasn’t aware the money-raising scheme was actually initiated by Albert.

Luther continued his letter by reminding Albert that forgiveness came from an individual’s relationship with Christ and not from paying money or praying to a saint. Martin’s pen carried on writing and by the time he’d finished he’d added another ninety-four points to the first one. Martin’s polite letter to Albert would become known in history simply as the “Ninety-Five Theses” – and it would outline many common practices of the Catholic Church that weren’t found in Scripture.

Martin Luther mailed this letter to Albert with his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31st, 1517, exactly five hundred years ago this year. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But then Martin did something he didn’t realise would irrevocably change Europe and the Christian world – he walked the short distance down a cobblestone road from Wittenberg University to the Castle Church and in an act of transparency Martin Luther nailed a copy of the letter to the church door.

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Luther nailing his “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in the Wittenberg on the 31st of October, 1517. This document was a list of malpractices of the Roman Catholic Church in medieval times.

This Wittenberg monk and professor had just banged ninety-five points of protest of church abuse into public display. A revolution was about to begin. What Martin Luther didn’t realise as he walked away from the Castle Church door that day was he’d just started the Reformation.

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The original church doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg were destroyed in 1760. These bronze doors were a replacement in 1892 and list out each of the “Ninety-five Theses” Martin Luther nailed to the original door on October 31st, 1517. This year marks the 500th anniversary of this historic event.

(To be continued)

 

Author: David Riley is a minister on the Gold Coast in Australia. This blog is a series of articles and “rambles” on the Reformation and christian church history.

Just a Little Indulgence (Part 1)

JUST A LITTLE INDULGENCE (PART 1)

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Albert needed money. He needed a LOT of money and he needed it quickly

Albert desperately wanted to be the Archbishop of Mainz and he needed to finance the purchase of the role from Rome. He was already the Archbishop of Magdeburg and if Albert could secure the Mainz position then his power and influence in central Germany would be vast.

There was only one problem – Pope Leo was willing to give Albert his “blessing” to become the Archbishop of Mainz as long as Albert paid him. And the Pope’s price of sale was significant.

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Portrait of Albert in 1526 when he was promoted from Archbishop to Cardinal

Like Albert, Pope Leo also needed money. He needed a LOT of money. Leo wanted to continue the rebuild of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and in particular finish off the Sistine Chapel with the help of artist-in-residence Michelangelo.

So, five hundred years ago Leo and Albert hatched a plan. The plan was that Albert would borrow the money for the sale-price Rome was asking for in order to become the Archbishop of Mainz. To help repay the loan Albert would then be given by Pope Leo permission to sell religious “indulgences” to the large population in the region, and Leo and Albert’s plan was they would share the proceeds of the sale of these indulgence certificates fifty-fifty.

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Portrait of Pope Leo X (centre) painted by Renaissance master Raphael (hung in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy)

So, what were these “indulgence certificates”? According to the teachings of the church at the time the purchase of an indulgence entitled the buyer to receive less punishment for a sin during their life. It also entitled the person whose name appeared on the indulgence certificate to spend less time being punished in Purgatory after they’d died. Therefore, it was common for well-meaning but misinformed Christians to buy these indulgence certificates for recently deceased family-members. Their hope was to help lessen the time their loved-ones spent suffering in Purgatory.

A common expression at the time regarding purchasing an indulgence from the church was: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

This sale of indulgence certificates by the church to naïve believers five hundred years ago was a “spiritual shakedown” of the most malevolent kind. The Bible teaches no such thing as a sinner suffering in Purgatory after they die, but instead says that forgiveness by God is given “freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3:24)

But there’s money and power when you prey on people’s fear of eternal suffering compared to encouraging people to pray to a loving Father for His gift of eternal life.

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Medieval drawing of the church selling “indulgence” certificates

 

Pope Leo and Archbishop Albert’s plan to raise money through the sale of indulgences to naïve believers was going well. If only their travelling roadshow had avoided going to the German town of Wittenberg history might be different.

For at the University of Wittenberg, there was a professor of moral theology who’d vehemently disagree with the church selling indulgence certificates to believers.

The year was 1517, and the professor’s name was Martin Luther.

(To be continued)

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Pope Leo X (1475-1521) needed to raise money to continue rebuilding St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome – including completing the Sistine Chapel with Michaelangelo’s masterpiece “The Last Judgment”

 

Author: David Riley is a minister on the Gold Coast in Australia. This blog is a series of articles and “rambles” on the Reformation and christian church history.

 

The Lightning Bolt that Changed the World

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A few years prior to Martin Luther’s fateful visit to Rome and his interrupted climb up the “Holy Stairs” he’d been a very promising student of law and philosophy. Martin’s father Hans had big plans for his eldest son and had spent a significant amount of money having him educated in law. There was no way Hans was going to have Martin follow in the family business of mining and was very insistent in pushing Martin towards a more prestigious line of work.

On a summer’s Sunday morning, as the twenty-one-year-old Martin set off from the family home to return back to his university studies in Erfurt, the future Reformer should have been paying more attention to the ominous weather on the horizon. A thunderstorm was gathering, but Luther’s thoughts were preoccupied with dissatisfaction over his studies. Like all university students have done for centuries, Martin wondered if his chosen degree was the right path to take.

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The Luther family home in Mansfeld, Germany

 

Martin had been thinking about changing his degree to theology, but how would he tell his father of these possible plans? The young Luther remembered his recent experience in the university library where he’d chanced upon a Latin Bible hidden away in the library’s recesses. He’d heard sections of scripture read in church but this was the first time Martin had held a Bible in his own hands. That experience of holding God’s Word had so excited him he’d wondered if there would ever be a day he would have his own copy. So it’s ironic that history would later record the future Doctor Martin Luther as translating the Bible into the German language and changing the political and spiritual landscape of Europe for the next five hundred years.

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The University of Erfurt where Martin Luther studied Law and Philosophy

 

Martin’s thoughts were punctuated that Sunday as he noticed the lightning for the first time. The increasing volume told him the storm was heading towards him and so the promising university student sought shelter under a nearby tree.

But this would be no passing shower. The ensuing thunderstorm so petrified Martin Luther that when a nearby lightning strike shook the ground around him. Martin cried out desperately to Anna, the patron saint of miners – “Help me, Saint Anna!” So terrified of dying was Martin Luther he vowed that if he lived he would leave university and become a monk.

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A memorial stone stands in the place where Martin Luther says he made a vow that if he lived he would become a monk.

 

Two weeks later, Martin Luther stood by the door of the St. Augustine Monastery of Erfurt. A couple of university friends stood beside him still trying to talk him out of his decision. Surely Saint Anna understood that a hasty vow made in mortal fear wasn’t binding.

Martin knocked on the monastery door and asked to be let in. His parting words to his worried friends would be: “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

Martin Luther was wrong. His friends would see him again, and so would the books of history. One lightning bolt had changed the world.

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The Augustinian monastery in the city of Erfurt where Martin Luther devoted himself to long hours of fasting, prayer, and confession

One small step for monks…

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It should have been a fairly simple task. Martin wanted to climb the twenty-eight “Holy Stairs” on his knees just like Christian pilgrims had done for centuries. This young monk hoped the short pilgrimage up the staircase would earn him a small favour with the Almighty God – and therefore a little less time suffering in Purgatory. Martin Luther had already walked over seventeen hundred kilometres south from the town of Wittenburg in Germany to be in the ‘eternal city’ of Rome. Surely he could walk up another twenty-eight steps on his knees.

Ever since Luther could remember he’d had a fear of death. In later years he would compose a list of Bible verses that promised victory over death through faith in Jesus – and these scriptural promises would supress his anxieties whenever that fear of death resurfaced in his mind.

It was only twenty-eight steps, on your knees, pausing on each individual marble stair to say a prayer.

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The year was 1511, and and a young Martin Luther had been boyishly excited when asked to go to Rome with a colleague on Augustinian business. When Martin first caught glimpse of the city from a distance he yelled out “Holy Rome, I salute you!” But once in the city itself the overtness and extent of priestly decadence was a shock to Martin’s naïve expectations. He encountered ministers who openly mocked the people they were meant to be ministering to. And he was perplexed at the number of prostitutes working in the city. At the time of Luther’s visit to Rome there was one prostitute for every fifteen people living in Rome at the time. Close to seven thousand prostitutes for Rome’s population of one hundred thousand people. As a young man who’d take a vow of chastity Martin was unable to properly process the hypocrisy.

Despite his disappointment, Martin desperately hoped that climbing these twenty-eight marble steps of the “Holy Stairs” would bring him a little more ‘right’ with God – at least enough to keep him out of Hell and shorten his time in Purgatory when death came calling for him. These ‘truths’ taught by the medieval church were designed to frighten and control – and with Martin Luther it was working.

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Pilgrims climbing the “Holy Stairs” in Rome today. The steps were moved in 1589 from where Luther would have seen them the Lateran Palace and are now located across the road in the “Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs”.

 

He knelt on the first step and felt a spiritual rush. These were the stairs that stood in the court of Pontius Pilate fifteen hundred years before. These were the “Holy Stairs” that Christ Himself walked up when called before Pilate to stand trial. Martin gazed at the second step before placing his knees upon it. There it was! The dark stain! Right in the middle of the step!! The stain of blood that had dropped from the tortured body of Christ – or so it was said. To Martin Luther there couldn’t be anything holier than climbing these steps – and so this twenty-seven-year-old monk desperately hoped that climbing these twenty-eight steps would make God less angry with him.

 

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The Sancta Scala (“Holy Stairs”) in Rome are said to be the stairs from Pontius Pilate’s court that Jesus of Nazareth would have walked on. Tradition has it that Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, brought them back from Jerusalem around 326AD

 

When the famous British author Charles Dickens later visited these stairs in 1845 and watched Christian pilgrims ascending on their knees anxiously trying to win God’s favour he wrote: “I never, in my life, saw anything at once so ridiculous and so unpleasant as this sight.”

As Luther reached the middle of his short upward journey on the stairs something unexpected happened. He sensed a heavenly Voice speaking to him. It was a Voice that wasn’t filled with anger as Martin might have expected but a Voice filled with an everlasting love. And that Voice said to Martin Luther: “The just shall live by faith.”

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This spiritual truth is first found in Habakuk 2:4 in the Hebrew Bible and then repeated a number of times in the New Testament

 

The Voice and its short, biblical message vaulted the young monk to his feet. Martin ran down the stairs, out of the Lateran Palace and onto the streets of Rome.

Martin Luther had come to this city to do something that would please God in some small way. But instead the Saviour had pressed on Luther the reality that salvation doesn’t come from what we do – but from what He has already done. This spiritual reality would have been more obvious to Martin and the wider world had the church allowed the Bible to be freely available – but that would come later.

For now, the young monk from Germany would return from Rome to his homeland and begin to whisper to his colleagues a dawning realisation: “Sola Fide” (Faith in Christ alone). In the next few years this whisper would grow to become a roar ringing in the ears of kings, popes, and people throughout Europe.

The Reformation was beginning.

Three-headed Peacocks and the Early Flames of the Reformation

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The German citizens of Constance today are proud of their role in history. The great “Papal Schism” (1378 – 1417) where three popes ruled the Christian world at the same time – each claiming the other was the ‘anti-christ’ – needed straightening out. There are memorials in the city today of three-headed peacocks wearing papal ‘mitres’ that mock the absurdity of this situation six hundred years ago.

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And so, the Council of Constance (1414 – 1418) not only found time to resolve this significant problem of having three popes at once, the collected clergy from around Europe also found time to burn some people at the stake.

One of the first to be condemned was John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was a theologian and professor at Oxford University in England who’d spoken publicly about the Bible being the supreme authority when it came to the affairs of men. He also had the temerity to translate scripture from Latin into English so more people could read it. For this the Council of Constance condemned him as a heretic and the judgment was he should be burned at the stake. Fortunately for John Wycliffe he’d already been dead thirty years. But, the Council’s judgment must be obeyed and so the bones of Wycliffe were dug up, burned, and his ashes thrown into a nearby river.

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A month after the Council’s condemnation of John Wycliffe the trial of John Huss began. John had been invited to Constance from the city of Prague where he ran the esteemed Charles University there. Huss had not only read Wycliffe’s writings but had them translated into the Czech language for his students to read. John Huss had also spoken out against the church’s selling of “indulgences” – an increasingly popular money-raising method where the church would take exorbitant payment from both rich and poor by promising to shorten the suffering an individual would experience in Purgatory when they die. The professor from Prague saw this for what it was – a spiritual shakedown – and he said so publicly.

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King Sigismund of Hungary wanted to hear more from Huss on these matters and invited him to the Council of Constance to speak. The king promised John Huss safe passage from Bohemia to Germany, and John’s mistake was to believe this promise would be honoured. In Constance, he was arrested, found guilty, tied to a pole, and set on fire. Just like his mentor Wycliffe, Huss’s ashes were also thrown into a river.

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A medieval depiction of Jan Huss’s execution (approx. 1500)

 

It’s been observed by historians that the church’s attempts to supress criticism through the burning of Wycliffe, Huss and other “pre-Reformers” ironically served to fuel the flames of a much wider movement. It would take a hundred years, but it was almost as if the rivers these men’s ashes were thrown into would slowly take their spiritual message to other lands and then across oceans.

The Reformation of the church that would shake Europe and the Christian world was only just beginning.

She’s got the whole world in her hands…

The charming lake-side German city of Constance has many picturesque features to photograph. But the most snapped attraction in this town is a nine-metre-tall prostitute holding a naked king in her right hand, while her left hand clutches an equally nude pope.

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To understand how such a statue could come to be erected in this city we need to go back six hundred years.

The Council of Constance began in the year 1414. In attendance would be a pope, a king, and approximately 18,000 ranking clergy – including 183 bishops and 29 cardinals. The main goal of this major gathering was to resolve the biggest leadership crisis the Christian church had ever faced – the situation where three popes ruled the Catholic Church at the same time. Referred to as the “Papal Schism” by historians it was a situation decades in the making and would take this large gathering three and a half years in Constance to clear up.

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The charming city of Constance in Germany became the centre of the spiritual and political world for three and half years during the “Council of Constance” (1414 – 1418)

 

 

 

 

 

So what does a medieval town like Constance need in 1414 to run such an important and prestigious congress for the clergy of the church? Food, accommodation, meetings rooms and halls, and fifteen hundred prostitutes.

Yes, you read those last three words correctly.

The church was in such a corrupt and immoral condition that fifteen hundred sex-workers were imported into Constance to help with each evening’s entertainment. In the face of such hypocrisy there were surprisingly few eyelids being batted in this medieval city – such was the church’s perishing shape.

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King Sigismund of Luxembourg and Hungary (soon to be King of the Holy Roman Empire) arriving for the Council of Constance

And so, the city of Constance has a statue down by the lake as a reminder of the less than salubrious state of spiritual affairs in the church in former times. It was a church in desperate need of Reformation.

By the lake today, as you gaze up at a gorgeous scantily-clad giant holding her two prominent clients, it is easy to stand in moral judgment of past religious leaders who should have known better.

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The nine metre statue of a prostitute (known as “Imperia”) stands by the Lake of Constance with mountains in the background. She holds both the secular and spiritual powers in her seductive grasp.

But in amongst the photographing and the tittering and the sniggering there’s a small voice that points to our own hearts. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his listeners to reflect on our own inadequacies before we adjudicate others. “Judge not, lest you be judged” says the Saviour. Yes, the church needed a Reformation, but so has each individual before and since the catastrophe that was the Council of Constance six hundred years ago.

“Create in me a pure heart, oh God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10) – a prayer for everyone needing their Creator to perform a reformation in their own life today.

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