On the last day of this month the Church will commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation and the birth of the Protestant Church.
On 31st October 1517 an Augustinian priest, Martin Luther, wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, protesting against the sale of indulgences and enclosing his famous ninety five theses. It’s claimed that a copy of his theses was also nailed to the door of All Saints’, Wittenberg. The Reformation spark had been ignited and would not be extinguished!
Though the Reformation took many decades to spread across northern and Western Europe it is regarded as one of the defining moments in history. It encouraged a spirit of free thinking and enterprise that led to many of the advances we have seen over the last few centuries.
Of the many leading lights in the Reformation revolution, Erasmus the Dutch reformer, Zwingli and Calvin of Switzerland and King Henry VIII of England, Martin Luther’s name stands head and shoulders above them all.
Luther was a well known German theologian at the time. For a number of years he had spoken out against the practice of selling indulgences to raise money for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The sale of indulgences had become a huge commercial enterprise for the Catholic Church. It claimed to give to the faithful, who could afford it, temporal pardon for sins and reduced their punishment in Purgatory.
Though most would agree that Luther never intended to bring schism to the Church, his appeal to the authority of the Bible rather than of the pope resonated with people who were eager for reform. He used the printing press to spread his message and he translated the Scriptures into German. He argued that priests had no more authority than lay people and his rallying call was that ‘the just shall live by faith’ [Romans 1.17]. It wasn’t long before Luther was excommunicated by the pope and branded a heretic.
Other reformers began to call for their national Churches to break from Rome. In England Henry VIII, anxious to marry a queen who would give him a male heir used the tidal wave of reform to establish the Church of England. By the time of Elizabeth I it had become the Church of the ‘Middle way’, both Catholic and Reformed.
Luther, like Henry VIII, was both an inspirational and controversial figure in Church history. Though his reforms undoubtedly changed the Church for the better in many aspects of its life they also led to schism and plunged northern Europe into decades of bloody conflict. Understanding the Reformation is crucial to our understanding of western society.
For a number of decades now the ecumenical movement has sought to reconcile the historic wounds of division between the Churches. Five hundred years on most of us would say that Christians of various traditions are now much more united than we have been over the last five hundred years. But we have a long way to go before we fulfil Christ’s prayer for us, ‘That they may be one so that the world may believe.’
It’s why, at this important milestone since the Reformation, the presence of Pope Francis at a joint Lutheran and Catholic commemoration in Sweden some months ago was a most positive sign for the ecumenical movement. The Pope has gone so far as to reverse centuries of Catholic opinion by describing Martin Luther as a ‘great reformer’ rather than as a ‘heretic’.
We will commemorate the Reformation at a special service on Sunday morning 15th October, when we will be joined by our friends in the German Church. The Lutherans use All Saints’ for worship every other month and it will be good to come together to celebrate our shared heritage.
As we mark this important anniversary we can be confident that the reconciliation of the Church communities across the world is now much more of a realistic possibility than the distant hope it was in the past. Catholics and Protestants are coming together more and more to celebrate how we are no longer strangers but fellow pilgrims in Christ.