Happy 500th Birthday Protestant Reformation!?
On the eve of its feast day, people found a document nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg, Germany. On that day, October 31, 1517, an Augustinian Friar named Martin Luther affixed his “95 Theses” to the door of that parish church and launched the Protestant Reformation. In many churches, October 31 is known as Reformation Day. We don’t tend to celebrate Reformation Day in the Episcopal Church, even though this is widely commemorated in Protestant Churches and is even marked by the Roman Catholic Church, which sends representatives to its commemoration in Germany. However, on this 500th Anniversary of this event, we will be thinking about reformation at Christ Church Cathedral.
Luther did not intend to divide the Church but to reform it. The problem was he picked a fight with its finances and not only its doctrine. He protested the selling of indulgences and the power of the Church, for a fee, to dispense grace and justification for our sins. The medieval Church was ripe for another wave of reforms, but instead of reform Luther’s protest launched divided the Church. Several new Protestant denominations began from his simple protest 500 year ago this month.
There are a couple of reasons we don’t celebrate Reformation Day as much in the Anglican tradition. First of all, many Anglicans and Episcopalians do not consider themselves protestants at all but catholics in the Anglican tradition. However, many other Episcopalian and Anglicans do consider themselves protestants. In other words, we are not of one mind. The former group considers the Reformation a sad schism, or divide, of the Church. The later group views the Reformation as a wonderful event that restored the Bible to the faithful and reaffirmed a strong theology of grace to a central place in the Christian faith.
While I lean toward the first camp, I believe there is significant merit in both views. On the one hand, division is always a sad tendency among Protestants, who have been great at dividing and poor at unifying. There are more than 200 Protestant denominations just in the United States alone. On the other hand, even the Roman Catholic Church has come to terms with the reform Martin Luther began. In 1999, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church came to a common understanding of grace and justification by faith, the core theological issues at stake in Luther’s protest.
There is second reason we Anglicans do not observe Reformation Day. Our “reformer” was not a great theologian like Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Huldrych Zwingli. The English Reformation was started by Henry the VIII. Henry had been an ardent Catholic, until the day Rome would not grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He wanted a male heir, so he forced the church in England to break with Rome and become the Church of England, with himself as the Head of the Church (the Queen of England is still the Head of the Church of England). He also enriched himself by seizing control of Church lands and wealth, and he went on to have 6 wives, “To six wives he was wedded/ One died, one survived,/ Two divorced, two beheaded.”
While his daughter, Elizabeth I, eventually helped the Church of England chart a middle way between Protestant and Catholic traditions, she was preceded by prosecutions of Catholics by Protestants and vice versa, depending on the persuasion of the monarch at the time. She was followed by similar religious violence. The English Reformation was messy and led by Kings, Queens and Bishops of sometimes questionable motives and dubious character.
Rather than common doctrine, instead we developed common worship, as made evident in the Book of Common Prayer. We are united not belief but by praying together–though this idea itself has not always sustained us.
The Protestant Reformation in Germany, Switzerland and in Northern Europe was not without its similar wars, persecutions, and atrocities. In many ways it was worse. Whether you were a Protestant or Catholic was not up to the individual believer but up to the king or prince of a territory. You were what your king was. And those who dared to differ, following their own consciences, were persecuted and often killed. This included not only Protestants and Catholics, but also Anabaptists and Jews, who were killed by both Protestants and Catholics.
In the end, it became a sad story of Christians killing in the name of God. And while there were important matters of Christian belief and practice hanging in the balance, these usually were of far secondary significance to power and politics. (This I say as I tip my hand as an Anglican of a more catholic sensibility.)
But there is one thing about the Protestantism that I embrace and hold fast, the principle of reformation. I am not a catholic because I want to preserve the one, true Catholic faith as it existed at one time in the past. There really was never a time or place when everyone, everywhere believed the same thing. The catholic church is not behind us to be restored, it is ahead of us to be won, and only with God’s help and grace.
Ours must be a reformed faith because it must be a critical faith. By this I certainly do not mean that we are to be critical of others. That is all too common and exactly the opposite of what I mean here. I mean that we must be critical of our own faith. As Anglicans we have a slight advantage in this regard: namely, the fact that our reformers were often such terrible Christians. We cannot look back at them as models. We do not look back and try to restore or preserve some past glory. Instead we hold ourselves and our church under the critical lens of the Gospel and ask, “Are we following Jesus?”
This is true of the Episcopal Church. It is true of Christ Church Cathedral. It is hopefully true also for you and for me as individual Christians. Reformation is not just an event in our past, of ambivalent historical meaning; it is a principle of growth for us in faith and in spirituality. It is a lifelong journey. In our baptismal covenant, when are asked “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” We always answer, “I will, with God’s help.” We are never done. Hopefully we draw nearer to Christ over time, but always and only with God’s grace and love.
I invite you to the Dean’s Forum in October as we consider the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Sundays beginning at 11:30 am.
October 8 The English Reformation
October 15 Luther and the Reformation
October 22 Luther and the Jews with Professor David Chandler
October 29 The Protestant Principle
Dean and Rector