I stood on a street corner in London, Ontario after the morning service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Mass had just ended at St. Peter’s Basilica next door, and Roman Catholic parishioners were joining the Anglicans as we waited for the bus I was taking back to the Western University campus. St. Paul’s carillon began to play, and a Catholic woman beside me remarked in a lovely Irish lilt, “How wonderful that they are playing one of our hymns!” It was Martin Luther’s greatest reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, sparked by that same Augustinian monk and theologian, Martin Luther. He did not intend a revolution, but that’s how it turned out. Social, political and technological circumstances coalesced with religious discontent to turn the world upside down. Five hundred years later, we are still working out the consequences.
Throughout the world, as in this region, there are numerous commemorations. Among others, in late September Lutheran Bishop Michael Pryse and Cardinal Thomas Collins are presiding at an ecumenical gathering in Toronto. Our cathedral is hosting an event on the last Sunday of October. The University of Toronto is hosting an exhibition of print from the Reformation, curated by Fr. Peace Carefoote, of our diocese. Wycliffe College is offering a number of lectures on Reformation themes.
The scandal of a church that over-focused on buildings and power met the persistent resistance of the fiery reformer. But he was helped by the power of the new technology of the printing press. Luther’s printer could mass-produce leaflets of his latest sermon overnight. It was the Twitter of the time – used just as protests today are coordinated and fanned by social media.
The rising power of cities and nation states found convenient allies in differing religious divisions to foster their own political agenda against the old institutions and dominating structures. The rebellious priest did not singlehandedly change world history, but he became a focal point, an icon.
The 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing his 95 rather dry, academic theses to a church door in Wittenberg, inviting debate, is opening new debate and discussion today about the place of the Reformation.
Like everything, the Reformation was mixed. It inaugurated tremendous reinvigoration of the church and it caused irreparable harm.
The promotion of reading of the Bible by ordinary people in their native language for devotion and study has shaped Western society, not just the church. The outpouring of literature, music and the visual arts – for propaganda, for devotion, but also for pure aesthetic pleasure – arose from reading and reflecting on the scriptures; it molded and continues to influence our self-understanding. The reformers built on the sense of the individual that was already developing in the wider society, to a new perception of the individual, not just the church, standing before God as redeemed sinner. Old verses were viewed with new eyes, and new ideas occurred.
The Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church in response led to a new flourishing of learning, the training of clergy and leaders, new forms of piety, competitive theological enquiry and alternative church order and practice. It also produced schism, persecution and prejudice. Factions produced still more factions. The 100 Years War that resulted tore Europe apart, destroying families and countries. Death and destruction were a terrible legacy that marred not only a continent but blighted relationships and bred hostilities that still infect us today.
The Reformation radically challenged old orthodoxies, either in calling them back to their roots (radix) or in challenging their legitimacy and authority. Any reformation is inherently violent to some degree, and that was certainly true in the 16th century Reformation. Reformations is perhaps a better term, because there were several, some more extreme, some more moderate, in different places and time.
We are now trying to assess the results of the reformations five centuries later, healing old wounds, correcting misunderstandings, clarifying issues, bridging divisions and also affirming truths and important principles. We continue to struggle in the process of reconciliation of our various branches of the church not because we do not want to get along, not because we are stubborn and proud – yes, we are indeed afflicted with these – but because we have hard-won experience and deeply cherished learnings and life-giving truths we have discovered in our encounter with the living God who is revealed in Jesus Christ that we have received as gifts to us through our own differing traditions that we cannot and should not give up. The ecumenical task is not to undo the Reformation but to incorporate its gifts into the one Body of Christ, the church.
Christ’s prayer for the church is that we be one, even as he and the Father are one. That then cannot mean a unity that is uniformity, but that each is so bound together in love and will that there is complete unity of purpose and life. The ecumenical task of seeking unity is not optional but the prayer of Jesus.