Sermon preached at the first special Evensong to mark 500 years of the Reformation (1 October 2017) by Andrew Carwood, Director of Music

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12:30pm Eucharist
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Sermon preached at the first special Evensong to mark 500 years of the Reformation (1 October 2017) by Andrew Carwood, Director of Music

Looking specifically at King Henry VII, Andrew Carwood discusses some of the music of the Reformation as well as looking at where we are today, 500 years on. He ends asking if we have learned the lessons of the Reformation.

This month at St Paul's, we are looking at the history of the Reformation in England in the sixteenth century. That astonishing period when England started as a Catholic nation, was changed into a reformed, semi-Catholic state except with the King as head of the Church under Henry VIII, was then forced into a Protestant regime under the boy king Edward VI, then returned to Rome under Mary before finally being settled under the title of the Church of England under Elizabeth.

Our reason for reflecting on these events now, is that in October 1517, an Augustinian monk called Martin Luther, who was Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, wrote a list of propositions designed to stimulate debate. This list is properly called the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences but we know it rather better as the Ninety-five Theses. On 31st October 1517, Luther sent these Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz and may – may – have nailed them to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg (although there is little evidence for this once popular belief).

In this Disputation, Luther spoke against the power of indulgences. An indulgence was something that you paid for – a piece of paper or certificate or maybe even a relic – which allowed either you or your friends and loved ones to reduce the amount of time that had to spend being punished for their earthly sins once they had died and were confined to purgatory. To us this sounds rather ridiculous but for the medieval mind it was a logical and comforting doctrine. Nobody could be perfectly good on earth. What happened when you died? How did you atone for what you had, inevitably, done wrong? By doing good things on earth – contributing to the Church, or to community, or to the poor – you showed your devotion and inherent goodness and there would be a reward for this in the afterlife. Over time the abuses of this system became many and things had to change.

In 2017, there is an extra resonance for us, of course. The Catholic church held massive power in Europe, even over sovereign princes. It was a centralising and political unit as well as a religious one. Its administrative and organisational centre was in Rome and its senior clergy were diplomats and politicians who were all priests, who carried the will of the Pope to the farthest ends of the Continent. Luther's Ninety-five Theses were the initial spark of the Reformation which led some in Europe to move away from Catholicism and some to become even more devoted to it.

Disagreements, wars and massacres followed and a major European political unit was broken up. So, yes, there are resonances with Brexit but one has to be careful about over emphasising them. The one thing that we can be sure about, is that, unlike Brexit it was not a 48% remain – 52% leave split when Henry VIII decided to separate from Rome. The vast majority of the country remained deeply Catholic and the protests and non-compliance of the people were clear to see. It might also be worth saying at this point that Henry's decision to reform the Church was an entirely political decision rather than a desire to embrace Luther's ideas and other reforming philosophies from the Continent. In many ways, Henry remained a Catholic all his life.

Henry VII was the first Tudor monarch and the father of his larger-than-life son, Henry VIII. Henry VII is important for a number of reasons. First of all, he brought stability to the country after a lengthy period of wearisome political instability which we call the Wars of the Roses. The royal houses of Lancaster and York had been arguing about who should be king for a number of years and it was the country which suffered. It wasn't plain sailing for Henry VII, who had only a tenuous claim to be the Lancastrian front-runner for the crown but he was tenacious and well-organised and defeated a superior armed force under Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. To strengthen his claim, once king, Henry married Elizabeth of York, one of the daughters of Edward IV and so united the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York and ended the dynastic struggle. He remained King until his death in 1509.

Henry was exceptionally good with money. All of his immediate predecessors had been rather bad with money. He knew how to get the nobles to behave, he standardised the tax system and he made sure people paid what they owed. If you look at his picture in the National Portrait Gallery you will see a thin-lipped, rather intense man who appears to be holding onto a ledge. He was reputedly very tight with money and, to be honest, he does rather look like it in this painting. But he left the coffers of England full when he died and ready for his son Henry VIII to exploit. Henry VII was also very good at dealing with people who impersonated other people – especially those who claimed to be the Princes in the Tower, those sons of Edward IV who disappeared from the Tower of London during the reign of Richard III. He was also a shrewd diplomat who knew how to use his children to best advantage by marrying them to eligible princes and princess.

Henry named his first-born son, Arthur – a sure sign that greatness had returned to England again and the first time that a royal son had been given the name of the famous British hero. Henry decided that this new Arthur should marry the young Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon. It was also his decision, that when Arthur died tragically young at the age of 15 having already married Katherine but having achieved none of the hoped-for greatness, the young, widowed Spanish princess should marry his second son Henry, later to become Henry VIII. And it was the problems in this relationship which led to the split with Rome and not only to a century of religious problems but also the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the English Civil War of the 1640s, the Glorious Revolution of 1685 and the ultimately, the rise of Non-conformism, the Oxford Movement and the charismatic movement. We still feel now the differences first expressed at the Reformation and argue about them to this day.

In Henry's time, England was a deeply Catholic country. Any of us who studied the Reformation before the 1980s would essentially have been taught that the English Reformation – from about the 1530s onwards – was the actions of a monarch (Henry VIII) in response to the unhappiness of his people groaning under the weight of a Roman yoke. That was how the Tudor spin-doctors wanted us to see it and they did a good job. The truth of the matter is that, although there were criticisms of the Church – a group called the Lollards had been complaining from the mid-14th century – the vast majority of the people seem content in their faith.

The major celebrations of the Church revolved around Eucharist or the Mass and the Divine Office, Evensong being an important part of that. Although most people could only experience these services from a distance, through a screen which divided a Church in half, the religious aesthetic was one of devotion and of witnessing of a secret but powerful event. Just being present at Mass was felt to be enough to be inspired with the power of God. In addition there were many examples of popular devotion. There were pilgrimages to shrines, the honouring of saints, local festivals and religious guilds. There were popular services when the people walked around the towns singing the Salve regina. People were involved in their religion and it was a central part of their lives.

The music of this period – some of which you have heard at Evensong tonight – reflects this confident spiritual tradition. The music is sweeping and grand and lengthy – there is no tradition on the Continent which rivals the English for the grandeur and imagination of their music in the pre-Reformation. There is drama contained in the alternation of sections for a reduced number of voices set against sections for the full choir. The text – although it colours the nature of the music – is not at the centre of these compositions. Rather each syllable, in the solo sections at least, has many notes assigned to them. It is the sweep, the power, the undulations and twists which make this music so impressive, rather like watching incense curling up into the high vaults of a Gothic cathedral.

An large amount of music was written in honour of the Virgin Mary. The piece which you have heard as an anthem this afternoon is a rather modest example by William Cornysh – most pieces of this type would have gone on for at least ten minutes. The cult of the Virgin was very strong in England – indeed from the medieval period onwards, England is often referred to as Mary's dowry, indicating the closeness of this devotion.

From the late 1520s onwards as Henry VIII's relationship with his first wife Katherine of Aragon began to break down over their inability to produce a male heir and as new ideas from the Continent started to take root in England, religion and music changed. The sound-world of Henry VII was swept away for ever. The swaggering confidence of the music of William Cornysh would be replaced by pieces where each syllable was only allowed to have one note. Where the high notes of the boy choristers were removed altogether and were music became propaganda for a Protestant regime.

"A time there was" – wrote Thomas Hardy in his poem Before life and after – "as one may guess, and as indeed earth's testimonies tell, before the birth of consciousness, when all went well". Maybe we would all like to think there was a time "When all went well". It certainly wasn't the time of Henry VII but, for many believers in the 1530s traumatised by the ongoing changes in religion, it certainly seemed to be so. A settled time, a time of certainties, a time of growing confidence and an age of faith and devotion. The actions of Henry VII's successors, which you will hear about in the following weeks, changed the country out of all recognition: monasteries – the welfare state system of the medieval period – would disappear; families would be set against each other. There would be fines, imprisonment, torture and burnings.

Did the Church need to reform? Yes, undoubtedly. Did it lead to extremism, violence and deep unhappiness? Yes. Have we learned the lessons of the Reformation? No. Until we realise that history provides the clues to solving our present day problems we will never address the divisions which still rack the Church and we will never realise the hurt that religious intolerance can bring. Will there ever be a time when all could "go well"? Not on this earth. But we could, by trying, make it so much better.

There are four more special Reformation Evensongs in October, each looking at a different king or queen.
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