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Why the 2017 Brexit debate is surprisingly similar to 1517's Protestant Reformation

We're 500 years on since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, yet some things haven't changed, especially in relation to Brexit. Steve Apted explains 

This year sees the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On 31st October 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church (or so the story goes) and unknowingly fired the starting pistol that led to a series of events that changed both the Christian world and the geo-political face of Europe forever.

But the issues, debates, challenges and changes that occurred at the time of the Reformation bear a striking resemblance to issues that confront us today in the aftermath of the EU referendum.    

In England the Reformation had a double significance. Not only was it a huge shake up of the theology and governance of the church, but it also triggered the biggest changes in power politics since 1066.

As we emerge into a new post-Brexit era, there are a number of surprising parallels between the Reformation of the early 16th century and our own situation. 

Of course the biggest point of difference, which must not be forgotten, is that the current situation arises as a result of the democratic will of the people; which was not the case under King Henry VIII. 

The political aspects of the English Reformation centred on where power, control and influence lay. Was it with the Pope in Rome or was it with Henry VIII as sovereign who saw himself as God’s appointed head of the nation? In the case of Henry it was his desire for a marital divorce from Catherine of Aragón that brought things to a head. Philip, the Holy Roman Emperor, was the nephew of Catherine of Aragón and vehemently opposed Henry divorcing his aunt. Philip was also threatening the Pope with an invasion of Rome at this time; thus strongly influencing the responses given to the English envoys pleading Henry’s cause in Rome. Henry broke with Rome in order to regain control and not to be answerable to a foreign power. He argued for the divine right of kings to rule their nation’s affairs without being subject to Papal authority.

Where should power reside?

For our generation the defining issue of the EU referendum has been the control of our borders and the free movement of people. Should power and sovereignty reside in London or Brussels?

Henry spent a lot of time in diplomatic efforts to maintain relations with the Pope and secure a divorce. The break with Rome was entered into as an act of desperation and Henry was to learn that the Brexit of his day was a lot longer, messier and more protracted than he ever could have imagined.

One of the best generalist books on this subject is A Brief History of the Reformation by Derek Wilson. Wilson is a popular historian who demonstrates great insight and sensitivity into the nature of salvation through faith alone that lies at the heart of the Reformation but also examines the faith issues in the wider political and social context. A number of the quotes in his book - published in 2012 long before the EU referendum - contain quotes that are directly applicable to the in/out EU debate.

Henry VIII was to learn that the Brexit of his day was a lot longer, messier and more protracted than he ever could have imagined

One of the most significant aspects of the Reformation which had a profound economic, financial and social impact on local communities was the closure of the monasteries. The monasteries were centres of local production and social justice. They were economic hubs in local communities. Monasteries acted as the budget hotels of the time, providing safe and secure predictable accommodation for travellers. Monasteries also brewed beer, grew agricultural produce, provided health care for the sick, doles for the poor and unemployed and were employers of servants, agricultural workers and retainers.

Henry first started to move against the monasteries in 1534. This had profound economic consequences for the local economies as the monasteries were forced to close. Aristocratic landowners were the big business and financial leaders of their day. They were also responsible for keeping the peace and raising a militia when required. Just as today it is critical for governments to retain the support of key industries and major employers, so Henry used the dissolution of the monasteries and the wealth that this released to sweeten the changes he was making. (Note the government’s assurances to Nissan, a major employer in the North East of England, over their concerns about tariffs while the rest of the country was being told: "Brexit means Brexit")

Key landowners in the know were ready and waiting to snap up monastic bargains in the form of land, artefacts and buildings. Regional powerbrokers saw this as an excellent opportunity to extend their estates or consolidate their landed holdings. The money from the sale of monastic properties went directly to the king’s coffers. Monks were paid off and many of the older ones became destitute as they were unable to work or build new lives for themselves.

As in our own day, arguments and passions ran high with both sides of the Reformation divide making wild and unsubstantiated claims

Wilson concludes that the means by which these ancient institutions were brought down were shoddy in the extreme and the motives of most people concerned were questionable at best. For those dubious about the monastic closures there was a moral carrot. The money currently expended on maintaining the monastic system could be better spent on social enterprises, such as improved education for the masses. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, even suggested in one sermon that the king would have no more need to tax his people. As in our own day, arguments and passions ran high with both sides of the Reformation divide making wild and unsubstantiated claims.           

Consider these quotations taken from Wilson’s book referring to the Reformation which have direct applicability with the current Brexit debate:

1. "The advocates of change in the King’s employ of course wished to encourage this questioning culture – as long as it led the people to the ‘right’ conclusion. But what if it did not? What if, having weighed up all the evidence, an intelligent man decided the king could not replace the Pope as head of the English Church?"   

Replace "King’s employ" with "Parliament", "Pope" with "EU" and "English Church" with "legislative body" and you have a statement directly relevant to the current EU referendum debate.

2. "This realm of England is an empire with the right to determine its own laws and customs" - Henry VIII 

The desire to change society was not new in the 1530s. It was however given an impetus of unprecedented vigour. And England was changed – profoundly. It looked different thanks to the disappearance of the monasteries and the creating of large estates by the new men. It sounded different, it felt different. Being separated from Latin Catholicism made England distinct, (perhaps in a manner not dissimilar from modern British aloofness from the Eurozone).

3. "[Bigod] had hoped that the money raised from the dissolution of the monasteries would be ploughed back into the economy and particularly new educational projects. Discovery that the government was playing the people false and that the Northern shire could expect no succour from the Henrician regime enraged him."      

Substitute "dissolution of the monasteries" with "EU exit" and you have a quote in directly parallel to the deeply contested £350 million per week promised to the NHS as a result of Brexit.

4. "There was a deep sense of alienation in the remoter parts of the realm from what was happening in the centre".

"Communities now felt under threat from a government that was as distant emotionally as it was geographically".        

In the same way that the protagonists on both side in the current Brexit battle are fighting for influence and control, both sides were fighting for the ear of the king so in the political sphere of the Protestant Reformation. Henry VIII had the steering wheel, the reformers had the accelerator, the traditionalist had the brake and nobody had a road map. Anything sound familiar?

Steve Apted has a background in supply chain, procurement and operations management having had a 30 year business career in three publicly quoted companies. He is now a member of the newly formed procurement team at the Salvation Army territorial HQ based in central London. He is also a Trustee of CWR and a member of the leadership team of Faith in Business, a ministry of Ridley Hall theological college in Cambridge. 

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