This year, Tuesday 31st of October, the evening before All Saints Day, (Halloween) marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the day he challenged the authority, teaching and practice of the church of his day with his attack on the selling indulgences guaranteed to reduce the suffering of your relatives in purgatory.
You may wonder how the Scripture readings relate to this story? And perhaps also the hymns, so in brief:
Romans and I Peter may be what we would expect on Reformation Sunday Luther’s breakthrough text – we are made right in the sight of God by trust / faith. The ideas in I Peter that everyone, not just clergy, are part of the religious leadership of the church, its priesthood and its mission.
Matthew is also relevant: the Reformation was about conflict where religion and politics came together in an explosive mix. The greatest commandments Jesus identified remind us:
1) - treating others as we would be treated, applies to how we do history as well as how we live in the present. Something we have been slow to learn.
2) – we worship God with our whole selves, both heart and mind. Luther held those together, the Calvinist tradition has been more comfortable with the philosophical, the legal and the theological than it has been with the aesthetic, the artistic, and the world of feelings. Individually this may be a matter of personality and gifts, but as a church we need both. I think Opoho does this well, but it is something to hang on to.
- · Now Israel may say, and that truly – survival after war and conflict
- · E te Atua - each in our own language, and learning from the language and faith of others: translation and interpretation continue
- · A mighty stronghold is our God – trusting God in the midst of conflict.
- · “By Gracious Powers” – trusting God when you may well not survive.
The Reformation Story
Luther was not the first to question whether the church really had control over heaven. Socially, economically and politically it was a time of change. Forces of nationalism, the economic and political power of new cities and universities coupled with threats of Islam at the gates and memories of the black death, undermined old authorities. New ideas were in the air and the new technology of printing was the media revolution of the day.
The fresh appeal of learning called scholars back to the foundations of knowledge, including the scriptures in Greek, the teachings of the early church.
Luther was a superb publicist and printers made fortunes getting his writings and tracts and the wonderful and often wonderfully rude woodcut illustrations into print. His ideas spread to Northern Europe. His writings were smuggled into Scotland. Students soaked up his vivid condemnations of the old order. Business men, traders, and universities conspired. They were exciting and dangerous times.
In Switzerland in 1522, Ulrich Zwingli started the Reformation in Zurich by the simple act of encouraging the eating of sausages in Lent. In Paris, a young French lawyer and student of philosophy, John Calvin, was linked to anti-Catholic placards which appeared overnight on 17 October 1534, including one on the King’s bedroom door. in England Henry VIII had found it expedient to break with Rome for the messy business of a royal divorce, and the financial benefits of closing down monasteries and selling them off. However dodgy, the process encouraged forces for reform.
If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time in any of this your life was in danger. Calvin fled Paris and was called to support the Reform in Geneva. People like George Wishart in Scotland and Guido de Bres in Belgium (some of whose descendants still live in Dunedin) were martyred. Wishart’s friend John Knox was captured in St Andrews where he supported those who hung the Cardinal out his palace window in revenge for the death of Wishart. Knox spent two years as galley-slave before joining Calvin in Geneva and then taking the Reformation to Edinburgh in 1560. Before Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1559 her half-sister Mary persecuted Protestants and burnt Archbishop Cranmer and others at the stake. Many went into exile in Frankfurt and Geneva until it was safe to return un Elizabeth, though struggles continued about what sort of church England would have with Elizabeth as head. Would it be like Calvin’s Geneva? Would it still look Catholic? In Scotland could Presbyterianism have bishops or was that a door to control by the King and a step back to Catholicism?
Good out of chaos
For many the Reformation heralded the rediscovery of true Christianity after the dark ages of medieval corruption. Others knew that the past was not all bad, and the story is not so one-sided.
It is right that Protestants celebrate Luther and the Reformers for giving power to laypeople, encouraging the reading of the bible for ourselves, and articulating the faith that we are made right in the sight of God just by trusting our lives to God’s mercy.
Having the bible in their own language meant that Churches became places for sermons not just sacraments. Psalms were to be sung. New music was composed. Theology was reinvented and hotly contested. The discipline of new ways was imposed as the marks of the true church took shape not around its history but around its faithfulness to the bible read with fresh eyes.
The Reformation changed how we think about God, about work and about God’s purpose in everyday life; it changed ideas about sex and marriage as good gifts not a second best for those who lacked self-control; about the church being a fellowship where we engage with God’s word through Christ and the scriptures in our own language; a community which is not afraid of science, business and education, and one where it is possible to share in its responsible governance. All believers were priests in the household of God, all were like the stones in a building, living stones, like Christ, once rejected, but with Him, able to share in the purposes of God’s kingdom in this life and in the life to come.
We can still celebrate these things. They have not gone away in the different worlds we live in 500 years later. I am pleased to belong to a church where I can be married and be authorized to teach and to share the sacraments. One where I am expected to be responsible to my fellow elders and ministers, yet have freedom to think and to read and to pray and to share God’s message as I understand it.
There is another side
But there are other things which need to be said. Catholicism is still part of me, and it too is a place where I belong.
For centuries, Protestants identified the Church of Rome with the Anti-Christ in the Book of Revelation. It was a reading of the bible which made sense at the time, yet it does not stand in the longer run of history. God did not give up on that church. In the Reformation there were many Catholic leaders who sought to accommodate Luther’s teachings. Today, Pope Francis is recognized as a religious leader by Christians generally, including those who do not see themselves as Christians at all.
The Reformation was messy. Once the authority of the church to decide was rejected, everything had to be worked through afresh. And you cannot re-examine every teaching, every practice, every ritual, in just a year or two. The role of the church in society cannot be reinvented without reference to other sources of power. There is not actually some blueprint in the bible you can just plonk down in another time and space. In the conflicts of the day religious and political loyalties easily aligned making the political, economic and theological strands of conflicts impossible to disentangle. Protestants collected stories of Catholic atrocities, but there were Protestant atrocities as well. The memories of these were collected and cultivated well past their use-by date.
When Christianity came to New Zealand it came with a legacy of these debates and how they unfolded in European history.
Yet today relationships have become warm beyond recognition. This year Catholics and Lutherans and other Protestants around the world have shared together in services commemorating the Reformation era.
Generous and creative things have been said. Many issues have been worked through. We all recognize the priority of God’s grace over human effort; the temptations of mixing money and religion are no longer seen as peculiar to one tradition, and nor are the sins of the flesh. People want to face the future in a common faith. Scripture is valued by Catholics. Protestants acknowledge that tradition is part of helping us discern what God is saying to us. Although when Luther appealed to conscience and scripture it counted for little in Rome, but today an appeal conscience is today taken seriously in Catholic social and ethical teaching.
It has helped that people brought together by the Charismatic movement in the 1970s remained connected through the frameworks for a sustained spirituality provided by Ignatian Spirituality and the prayers of the Divine Office.
There is something precious here out of the dust of battles of long ago that we need to keep alive as we face new challenges about the environment, poverty, ethics, and the sincere difficulty many have recognizing that God really does exist in love for each and in all circumstances.
It can seem that for all practical purposes the Reformation is over. I am not sure:
In 2002 Yvonne Wilkie and I were in Rome as part of an archives conference. It was an unbelievable setting on the Janiculum hill overlooking St Peter’s Square, the ancient city down to the Tiber on our right. Below us the house of the Augustinian order where Martyn Luther had stayed in 1510. Above to the left above the façade of the basilica, enormous statues, including of St Peter with a huge key; its message of religious authority apparent to all.
By the time Luther left in 1511 his disillusionment with the church, its penitential practices for was growing. For us we could acknowledge the temptations of power and ritual and grandeur, but they were not our temptations, and there were other things about people’s faith which seemed to rise above it all.
Yet it could be confusing. Our archives conference coincided with the canonization of Josemaria Escrivá the formidable founder of the Catholic order, Opus Dei. Not all our Catholic colleagues were thrilled.
However unreliable, you may have learnt of Opus Dei through the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code.
Walking across St Peter’s square later when the crowds had gone, I picked up a service book dropped in the plaza. The singing had been magnificent, and I was interested to see what they had sung.
I was surprised to see Martin Luther’s A mighty fortress is our God. Like Luther, Escrivá emphasized how ordinary Christians should worship God in their work and daily lives. Perhaps that was a point of commonality. What astounded me was on the last page – it had a statement about the indulgence you would receive from having been there at the service.
Just when you might think the Reformation is over, it seems you come across something which makes you wonder what has changed?
What might we say?
1) Differences between Christians are not all resolved and new ones will arise in every generation. What we need to learn is how to handle them better.
2) Also, every generation sees the past differently. In 1917 for instance, Protestants saw the Reformation as about religious freedom, democracy, rational education and deliverance from superstition. Catholics then saw their response as about restoring discipline and equipping them to resist the forces of materialism, communism and modernity, as well as the injustices of the Protestant English and Scots in Ireland
3) Fortunately, in most places today neither Protestants or Catholics have political power over the other. Responsible scholarship is no longer partisan. There are differences to be explored and arguments to be had, but not battles to be won at any cost.
4) In every generation we need markers of Christian identity that make sense to us and to others. For both Catholic and Protestant then and now, Baptism and Communion, have been places of encounter with Christ and the love of God. They remain recognizable and important however they are explained. But there will also be markers of difference to be respected not deplored.
Each of us will have our own stories. Whatever they are, those stories matter; The symbols stories and rituals of faith we grew up with, remain part of our formation as people and as Christians.
Today for Catholic as for Protestant the Reformation is a reminder that the church in every age needs reform of some kind and that that will always be a messy. We can learn from those who have been through this in the past. We may be less quick to condemn and more discerning in our praise. We may see our heroes in the peacemakers not just the stirrers. We will always need however that sense that our salvation and the salvation of the church is about God, not just about us.