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Founded in 1840


The news that the Lutheran and Catholic Churches are to embark on a joint review of their shared history sets an example that others could usefully follow. Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has announced that both Churches have agreed to collaborate in their preparations to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517.

Challenged to withdraw them, he refused and was excommunicated in 1521. So 1517 has always been taken to mark the start of the Protestant Reformation, which spread outwards from Germany triggering war, massacre and persecution. Only slowly did the tension between the two settle down into uneasy coexistence. In the last 50 years, have we started to understand how much we have in common, and how much of the former conflict came from myths, misunderstandings and misrepresentations, which were exaggerated to suit political ends and sustained by pride and obstinacy. Many of the changes the original Reformers sought have now been conceded by the Catholic Church, and substantial theological agreement has been reached on the once contentious issue of justification.

Indeed, few Catholics would now deny that the Church of 1517, including the papacy itself, was overdue for reform. Meanwhile, many Lutherans would admit that Luther’s attacks on it were nevertheless excessive and inflammatory.

It was another 18 years before Henry VIII, taking advantage of the weakening of Rome’s position under Luther’s onslaught, precipitated what was to become the English Reformation. As on the Continent, both sides constructed a narrative that was as much myth as it was history; each side treasured the memory of its martyrs; each side’s version of the facts put the entire blame on its opponents.

A BBC TV series with the ironic title How God Made the English, presented by the newly knighted church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, is about to remind the nation of the extent to which its national identity depends on an overly nationalistic interpretation of the English Reformation. Most modern historians of the period are no longer comfortable with this, thanks to the influence of Eamon Duffy’s groundbreaking 1992 book The Stripping of the Altars. Professor MacCulloch, himself an Anglican clergyman, wants to show how much of the national identity really goes back to the time when England was ardently Catholic, an insight which previous generations of English historians have preferred not to acknowledge. With goodwill and open-mindedness, none of this need affect the transformed state of relations between the Catholic and Anglican Churches, either in England or worldwide, which is one of the ecumenical movement’s best achievements. Indeed, they could benefit from an English version of the collaborative study that Catholics and Lutherans are to embark on.

Catholics need not flinch from asking whether Pope Clement VII’s refusal of Henry’s request for an annulment from Catherine in 1527 was motivated by fear of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; that the excommunication of Elizabeth I by Pope St Pius V in 1570 was both an affront to national dignity and a fatal mistake is no longer really in dispute. The Church of England needs to be equally honest: it too has skeletons in the cupboard. The blood of martyrs was shed on both sides. True reconciliation among Christians requires the healing of memories.


Convicting and sentencing two men for the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in south-east London 18 years ago has stirred conflicting feelings. In part, it is cathartic: at last, some justice has been done. But there is cause for shame at the length of time it took and at the reasons for the delay. Justice still demands that other members of the same gang should also pay the penalty.

Nevertheless, this was a watershed case in the history of race relations in Britain. British society learned a number of painful lessons, and the process is not yet complete. Because of evidence suggesting the initial police investigation had failed through incompetence or worse, a public inquiry took place under Lord Macpherson. Its report attributed the failure of the investigation to a mindset it called “institutional racism”, which it found was present at all levels in the police service.

It was a key insight, and it caused many individuals and institutions who until then had never thought of themselves as overtly racist to re-examine their attitudes and behaviour. It manifested itself among the officers in the original Lawrence case as a feeling that his murder late one night in the street in Eltham was perhaps not so serious as to warrant any special effort. Police went through the motions. Evidence that could have led to an early arrest was either not followed up, or it disappeared.

Problems were known to exist in the police in what was called the “canteen culture” – how rank-and-file police officers talked to each other informally when no one was listening. Some officers involved were guilty of stereotyping the victim according to their prejudices. They fell too easily for the convenient story – for which there was never any evidence – that this was a gangland killing to do with drugs.

Thanks to the sustained efforts of Stephen Lawrence’s parents and many others who helped them, public perceptions began to change. The Lawrence family did not conform to any racial stereotype. They were decent, churchgoing people raising a sportsloving son who had ambitions to be an architect, and the talent to succeed at it. In other words, this black family lost its racial “otherness” and looked like any other ordinary British family of whatever skin colour. It is a reflection on the state of race relations that this change of perception had to occur before the murder of a black youth became a cause célèbre. But occur it did.

Racism can take many forms. The discovery of the pernicious influence of the institutional version of it is not the end of the matter. Racism still hides behind Islamophobia, stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists. It can break out in black-on-black violence between different groups of African immigrants. It is still present in the police. It is still present in Eltham. It can occur as prejudice against new white immigrants from Eastern Europe, and it can occur among such people themselves. It can be aimed at the white working class. The British record is perhaps fairly good compared to others, but it is by no means good enough. The Stephen Lawrence case needs to be seen as a signpost to follow, not a landmark achieved.

2 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012