Sunday, 10 October 2010

A View from the Pew – Finding traces of Jan Hus in Prague

Published in Newslink, the Diocesan magazine for Limerick & Killaloe in October 2010
Jan Hus monument, Old Town Square, Prague

Jan Hus, early church reformer
This summer I visited Prague on holiday with my wife by rail – Eurostar from London, a few nights in Cologne, the overnight sleeper to Prague, on to Vienna, then Bratislava, and back home. Very civilised, a wonderful adventure - and we saved carbon emissions by not flying!

I had vaguely heard of a church reformer called Jan Hus, but in Prague I found traces of him around every corner – there is a gigantic statue of him in Old Town Square, erected during the Czech national revival in 1915 – so I decided to learn a bit more about him.

Jan Hus was a Bohemian priest and theologian at Charles University in Prague. He was influenced by John Wycliffe, the 14th Century English reformer who first translated the Bible into English. Like Wycliffe, he taught that the true church consists of all redeemed Christians; that Christ, not the Pope, is its head; and that the Bible alone provides the laws which should govern church life. He railed against the abuses of the medieval church, with its payments for indulgences, masses etc. Caught up in the maelstrom of church and international politics, Hus was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1415 at the Council of Constance, where Wycliffe also was posthumously condemned.

After the death of Hus, his followers rose up in revolt. After a long and bloody crusade to suppress them, a peace treaty was signed in 1436 which permitted them to have their own independent Hussite Catholic Church, in which priests and bishops held no worldly possessions and laity were permitted to receive communion in both kinds. This lasted until 1620, when the Roman Catholic Hapsburgs finally suppressed it, forcing Hussites to go underground or leave Hapsburg territory. One group found refuge in Saxony, and as the Moravian Brethren inspired John Wesley.

The spirit of Jan Hus lives on
While in Prague, I also went to a chamber concert in beautiful baroque St Nicholas’ Church. To my surprise, I discovered that this now belongs to the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, which I had never heard of before. When I enquired further, I learned their story.

A modernizing movement of Czech Catholic priests asked the Vatican, after the foundation of the Czechoslovak state in 1918, to accept reforms, including the use of Czech in the liturgy and voluntary clerical celibacy. This was refused. But at Christmas 1919 masses were said in Czech in many churches anyway, and the next year the breakaway church was formed. It grew rapidly in the nationalist fervour of the times, and with around 180,000 members in 300 parishes and 6 dioceses it remains one of the largest Czech denominations today.

They describe themselves as ‘Christians who strive to combine contemporary moral striving and scientific knowledge with the Spirit of Christ as preserved in Scripture and the tradition of the Early Church, and in the reform movements of the Bohemian Reformation and subsequent reformation efforts.’ Like us in the Church of Ireland, they claim both Catholic and Protestant traditions, they combine Synodical with Episcopal governance, they ordain women, and are members of the World Council of Churches.


Daniel & Sonja said...

Fascinating Joc, sounds like a great holiday / adventure that you had.

Joc Sanders said...

It was indeed, Daniel. Five week trips like that are one of the blessings of retirement!

I can't help wondering whether the Holy Spirit is leading some of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ in the same direction as the modern Czech followers of Jan Hus...