The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 22nd October 2017 at 3:00 PM
I recently had the good fortune to visit Switzerland. On a warm autumn day in Geneva the tall stern figures of the four ‘fathers of the Protestant Reformation’, Jean Calvin, John Knox, Theodore de Bèze and William Farel, stare down at you from the Parc des Bastions.
From their vantage point these reformers don’t just watch over the many churches of Geneva, they oversee a city at work. A city that believes in hard work (not least the city’s financial sector) the birthplace of international asset management, discretely represented by its many private banks.
In religious terms Switzerland is, of course, the seedbed for the Protestant Reformation. In the north, German-speaking cantons followed the theology of Zwingli, and in the French-speaking cantons of the south, Calvin held sway at Geneva.
In financial terms, the country grew strong through its discipline and frugality,
and the Swiss Franc remains one of the safest currencies available; virtually zero inflation and backed up by at least 40 percent in gold reserves at all times.
At first glance this combination of deep Protestant tradition and financial growth may appear a little incongruous, but actually both are built and thrive on hard work. Indeed more than that, they share values of free thought and independence, single-mindedness and determination.
Back in 1904 the German sociologist Max Weber took this further and convinced many that the rise of capitalism was closely linked to the emergence of Protestantism, with both individualism and hard work fitting smoothly within the principles of the market economy.
Indeed he argued that capitalist success stems directly from Calvinism. This of course came to be known as the Protestant work ethic, and for years it was widely accepted and unchallenged. It appeared to be such an elegant and rational thesis.
However there was a little problem: fully developed capitalism had already appeared many centuries before the Reformation. Strangely enough, this capitalism was actually a very Catholic invention.
Looking down on Poets’ Corner, are lodged the ancient archive papers for this great pre-reformation monastic estate of Westminster. Indeed throughout the medieval era the Western Church was by far the largest landowner in Europe, and its liquid assets and annual income not only far surpassed that of the wealthiest king, but probably that of all of Europe’s nobility added together.
Many Cistercian houses farmed 100,000 acres, and one in Hungary had fields totalling 250,000 acres. Indeed of all places, the great monastery of St Gall in Switzerland grew to be a vast complex of workshops, store-houses, offices, schools and alms-houses with a whole army of people living there.
Such medieval monasteries were not that dissimilar to modern twenty-first-century firms in that they were well administered and were quick to adopt the latest technological advances. So religious capitalism unfolded, and in a funny sort of way, they developed the Protestant ethic without Protestantism.
I say all this because St Benedict spoke about the importance of work, hundreds of years before Martin Luther was born. In his famous Rule he wrote: ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brothers should have specified periods for manual labour as well as prayerful reading … When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the Apostles did, then they are really monks’.
But of course the crucial point that Luther made was that God calls and empowers all of us through his Spirit to fulfil the tasks we’re given. He insisted that all Christians hear a call to the gospel and God’s kingdom, and then work it out within their lives. In this sense he forcefully argued that all honest work performed by a believer, is a calling, and therefore pleasing to God.
Luther advanced this Christian view of work in three essential ways.
First, he dignified all work, even if it was menial or unsavoury. Beyond praising farmers, he advised that ‘if you see there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges ... and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services’.
Second, he corrected medieval hierarchicalism. For Luther, the active life in society is as noble as the contemplative life in the monastery.
Third, while Catholicism stressed the self-oriented benefits of work, material provision, divine rewards, the way work cures pride, Luther described work as the very place to serve God and neighbour.
In other words, he was arguing that we can instil an element of sacredness in all our work, by the way we do it. So, from this perspective, we begin to see that all work has value in itself, simply because it’s a godly thing, a reflection of divine activity.
Here Catholics and Protestants have, through the grace of God, come closer together in recognising that we all work for the building up of the kingdom, that together we are called to serve God in all that we do.
This common notion of vocation is both illuminating and liberating for us. I remember it was George McCleod, the founder of Scotland’s lona community, who used to say that every week he volunteered to be part of the crew that cleaned the lavatories. ‘Thereby, I am preserved from preaching sermons about the dignity of all work’.
Although in this year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we’re all still painfully aware of our divisions, we do keenly recognise the important work that is still before us. We must never forget that the Gospel, and especially the parables, speak again and again to us of the joyful and dangerous crossing of boundaries:
The return of the prodigal son, whose father runs down the road to meet him, forgetful of the past; the rich man compelling the poor and the lame to come into his wedding feast; the Samaritan who turns out to be the hearers’ good neighbour; the vineyard owner who forgets the fundamental laws of economics and pays even the latecomers a full day’s pay; and, ultimately, the landowner who sends his Son, only to have him murdered by his wicked tenants.
I conclude with some words from Dorothy L Sayers. The language is a little dated, but the content is as true as ever:
‘Christians must revive a centuries-old view of mankind as made in the image of God, the eternal Craftsman, and of work as a source of fulfilment and blessing not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfil itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing’.