Thursday, November 04, 2004

Martin Bucer part II: Discipline and the Ecumenical Church

This is part two of what will be a four part series on the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer and his motivations in the Abendmahlstreit. You can read part one here.

Bucer’s theology appears to be a bizarre mixture of condemnation and accommodation with Roman Catholicism. One could go down the list of rites and find places where Bucer condemned the spirituality of practices but recommended that they should be preserved. Bucer was not convinced that the break from the Catholic Church would be permanent. Not only did he believe in reconciliation with Rome was possible, he worked toward it. Moreover, Bucer believed that unity was of the Church was essential for the mission of Christianity. He was appalled by the schismatic tendencies within Reformation theology, and he tried to contain entropy. His theology reflects the need to maintain the discipline of the Christian community, especially the urban community.

On the surface Bucer’s criticisms of Catholic ritual are contradictory. Bucer rejected the spiritual importance of most Catholic rites, but he refused to call for their abolition. Confirmation played no role in the spiritual development of the individual, but Bucer suggested that it could be reformed for practical purposes. Instead of a religious rite, confirmation could be transformed into a statement of faith and obedience by adults. It would play the same role as the citizens’ oath that adults would take to the urban polity, but it would unite that polity in spirit as well. Furthermore, he wanted membership in guilds and other associations to be tied to the oath. Similarly, Bucer rejected the clergy as spiritual intermediates, but he assigned them a central role in spiritual life as the main source of religious instruction. Priests should monitor the behavior of their congregations, admonishing those who fell outside of good moral practice. They should compel parishioners to attend adult catechisms to reinforce learning and discipline.

Bucer rejected the notion that priests were conduits for repentance: they need not preside over confessions, but they could help make the confession more meaningful for the repentant. The clergy were, therefore, different types of authorities than under Catholic doctrine. They formed the spiritual community that would nurture individuals. They instructed, examined, policed, and counseled, but the individual was still responsible for his or her spiritual health. In fact, one contemporary critic, Andre Seguenny, claims that Bucer did not address the individual but the social: the individual, acting without guidance, could poison the rest of the community. The body of rituals, practiced in the context of the community, affected the behavior of individuals, and they took that with them into the larger community. (At some point I will comment on the relationship between the spiritual space of the Church and the urban space in Bucer’s teachings).

Could it be claimed that Bucer wanted to change the foundations of Christianity without changing its forms? Catholic ritual was familiar. Rites affirmed the cohesion of church communities. It was the product of traditions that allowed the Church to thrive and spread, and thus was an essential instrument of its mission. Because of their utility, rituals should not be abandoned. Bucer, who believed that the “end times” were near (as did many reformers), was cautious about making too many changes. Radical changes to the outward appearance of the Church would be dangerous. The mission of the Church must proceed, and as many people as possible must be brought into the Church community. Rather than discontinued, many rites should be examined and reformed. It should be made clear that they are not the essence of salvation.

Perhaps Bucer’s theology could be described as symbolic iconoclasm: undermining the spiritual import of ritual, but ascribing social and political purpose. The destruction of religious symbols was not as widespread in Strasbourg as it was in other cities (especially Basel). The city magistrates preserved as much of the religious art as it could. Some pieces were locked away. Others were put on the periphery of ritual spaces so that they could not become objects of devotion. The Reformation in Alsace had a certain conservatism. Religious art was the product of a powerful oligarchy that did not want its authority challenged. Jacob Sturm dragged his sister from the convent and defrocked her, but he would not approve of radical changes in worship or the reconfiguration of ritual space. Bucer proposed reforms that did little to change the appearance of ritual, allowing to coexist with the practices that the Church had already developed. (With regards to iconoclasm, Bucer believed that art was important for instruction, but he felt that the art that was produced in previous centuries was insufficient for that task.)

Bucer’s concern for the “end times” reflected his attitude toward the cohesion of the Church. He was alarmed by the tendency in reform for communities to break off to form their own churches. Schisms had affected the diplomacy of the Germans cities, setting themselves against each other for minor, but firmly held, theological differences. Bucer was one of the few voices that called for unity. He would constrain his own writings so that they did not address problematic issues directly, but talked around them, providing some meaningful ground for compromise. He also tried to bring together the ideas of the clergy who worked around them, refusing to institute his authority over them (despite the fact he guarded that authority). This became characteristic of his ecumenical diplomacy: finding broader meanings that could be affirmed, allowing reformers to work together. However, his voice lost its urgency, and perhaps, some of its appeal.

Part three should appear some time over the weekend, probably Saturday afternoon. I will also write a conclusion about the importance of Bucer for faith in the Rhine region and its effects on spatial practices. BTW, I might sometimes write Buber instead of Bucer. I am conscious that some of the attitudes of Bucer's toward interdenominational and interfaith dialogue resemble those of Jewish theological Martin Buber, but there is no connection between them.

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