BBC News reported this week that the Church of Scotland may soon take radical steps to address the changing needs of its members. A report due for presentation in May is "understood to recommend" closing nearly a third (500 of 1,700) of the Kirk churches, shifting power away from the central bureaucracy, and scrapping some elements of the traditional service.

While these shifts would mark a substantial break with about 450 years of tradition, the Church of Scotland has been radical from the beginning. In fact, it was founded largely on the principle that many sixteenth-century religious practices had to go—immediately.

All of the main sixteenth-century reformers—including Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli—criticized aspects of Catholic practice and piety, and most raised serious questions about Christendom politics as well. But in the opinion of the Kirk's founding father John Knox (ca. 1514-1572), none of these men went far enough. Knox preached his very first sermon in response to a congregation's demand that he clarify his exclamation, during a worship service, that the church of Rome was a harlot. He called England's Catholic Queen Mary Tudor, who rose to power in 1553, the "wicked English Jezebel" and openly advocated violent rebellion against her. The Scots Confession, which Knox drafted with five other men in 1560, is the Reformation's most vigorous and stringent statement of faith.

The Scots also instituted more drastic changes in worship than any other reformers. Where Lutherans in Germany and Anglicans in England, for example, retained much of the medieval liturgy, Scottish reformers rooted out everything they deemed nonessential: the "idolatrous" Latin Mass, oral confession of ...

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