We Protestants have no mother church. Not in the same way as the Catholics’ St. Peter’s Church in the Vatican, or the Orthodox Hagia Sofia. No church room that manifests faith, no place where the mourners can go to get embers from the old fire that they can take with them and light the candles in their congregations.
I have thought a lot about this after I left the Norwegian church. It was a difficult choice, but I could no longer follow the path the church has taken: without a rudder and without a keel, with a pilot who believes that the map and the compass are allegories. It will end in irrelevance or breakdown. Possibly both.
What happened to Protestantism? You know, our faith. A series of movements were nailed to a church gate in Württemberg, a final victory after thirty years of war, nearby congregations found a new meaning in the scriptures, a new ethic that gave birth to capitalism and, thereby, the modern world.
Through a mixture of hard work and frugality, Protestant communities achieved the fastest economic growth in history. Protestant work ethic gave rise to duties that counteracted the destabilizing values created by competition in a consumer society. We were Sparta, in the middle of Babylon.
You do not have to count churchgoers to find evidence of the weakening of Protestantism. Evidence is exposed in states full of private and public indebtedness, the weakening of the nuclear family, low efficiency per hour worked and a lack of innovation. Europe is weakening because fewer people are in work and we work less.
The consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that Europe will make up only 9 percent of the world economy by 2050, a marginalized fringe. If today’s trends continue, the average American in 20 years’ time will be twice as rich as the average European.
This means that Europe, during our lifetime, can become an Italy on a large scale; indebted and over-regulated: a place where tourists travel to see “how they lived in the past”. It says something about today’s Europe, that hardly anyone has indicated that the weakening of the continent may have something to do with the software that runs the operating system
Transformation of the Throne
Christianity is the answer to a question that fewer and fewer Europeans are asking themselves. All world churches are fighting, but no one is fighting like the Protestant. Germany is the birthplace of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, but since 1950 the number of Protestants has halved .
The worst is in Scandinavia, which was once the stronghold of Protestantism, with its state churches and monopoly of faith. Here, church attendance has dropped to less than half of the rest of Europe, below five percent. Historian Niall Ferguson claims that there are more practicing Protestants in China than in Europe.
In parallel, the Protestant churches have undergone a theological metamorphosis. The strict, demanding faith has been replaced by a weak, indulgent and immanent faith. The Christian message is transubstantiated. The kidneys and lungs were torn from the old theology while the heart was still beating. Compassion came from the heart and all condemnation disappeared. Being disobedient was no longer sinful, nor was being thoughtless and irresponsible. Priests became more concerned with political righteousness than the salvation of the individual.
We have thus moved some distance from the core of Lutheranism: the rejection of papal and ecclesiastical authority in favor of the Bible (sola Scriptura), and the insistence that human reconciliation with God be achieved exclusively through divine grace (sola gratia), acquired exclusively by faith ( sola fide).
Some would say that it was inevitable, because the Protestants lack a robust hierarchy like the Catholics, or an orthodox respect for the authority of the Holy Scriptures. We lacked protection from radical theologians who were unleashed on innocent congregations. Bishops who carry their weak faith before them, as a kind of mark of nobility.
Others would say that Protestantism fell victim to the forces it had unleashed. By giving more space for personal repentance, one also created a space to be able to turn away from the faith. And it turns out that the morals of society survive, even without the belief in a judgmental God. At least, for a while.
When I found out that the Norwegian Church was no longer for me, I set out to find, I visited other Christian congregations, evangelical, Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox. Everywhere I found something I liked, but nowhere a place where I felt at home. Because I’m a Lutheran, I’m a Protestant.
The Norwegian Church lives in a ritual sense. They were filled at baptisms, weddings, Christmas and funerals. Otherwise they are mostly empty. My nearest church, on Ormøya, has more rainbow flags than My little Pony and climate messages from children. The collection always seems to go to work for more Muslim migration.
The weakening of Protestantism and Europe coincides. Whether there is a causal connection between them is unclear. Niall Ferguson believes that the Chinese embrace Luther, as he teaches that everyone should be restrained with pleasure and satisfaction for the benefit of the next generation. Be diligent and peaceful. Work and pray, was embroidered on a runner where I grew up.
A huge castle
Many of our churches are empty, such as the Zwinglikirche in Berlin, where the statue of Gustav Adolf, the defender of Protestantism, now looks down on anti-religious concept art scrawled by white people with dreadlocks and blood alcohol levels. Those who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.
It is fitting that the church where I found the spirit of Protestantism is empty. As the Protestants in Silesia lost the Thirty Years’ War, they were stranded in Catholic camps and expelled from their churches. In the Peace of Westphalia (1648), Sweden secured the right to build churches in each of the three principalities for the Protestant majority.
The emperor put obstacles in the way. The churches were not allowed to lie inside the city walls, they had to be built of wood, clay and straw. No stone structure was allowed, and the churches had to be built without towers and church bells that were meant to make the Protestant church invisible. The construction time was limited to one year.
The Church of Jawor
The Protestants then built Europe’s largest barn in Jawor. And every Sunday, 16,000 believers attended three packed services. The interior is a simple and restrained baroque that was meant to avoid distractions and create space for reflection. To me, it is familiar, as a church should be.
Under the mighty organ, stands a shield with the words “Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott!”, Our God is a huge castle for us. The most famous of all the Lutheran hymns. It urges us, not to build a paradise on earth, but to keep darkness at a distance. Martin Luther wrote it himself.
And while I stand there, the organist Johan Sebastian Bach plays Toccata and Fuge in D minor, some may remember it from Once upon a time a man, and the church is filled with the composer, whose deep understanding of Lutheran theology made his work the Lutheran signature tune.
Collapse and rebirth
Today, it is Polish Catholics who look after the Protestant Church of Peace, and for that they deserve thanks. The eye between Protestants and Catholics has disappeared. We share more concerns than disagreements. No one knows if Protestantism is marked to death, or if it will re-emerge.
The Free Churches dream of a new reformer; to protest against the secular slippage of the bishops, to cleanse the church room of religious treasures, to throw out wicked priests and tear down the barriers between the common man and the God of the Bible: In short, a Martin Luther.