Dear friends in Christ,
As we get farther into 2017, there is increasing discussion in the church world about the 500th
anniversary of the Reformation, which we will mark on October 31, 2017. To really delve into
some of the history and ongoing conversation, you’re invited to Adult Forum on Sunday, May
21. But I’d like to share some thoughts with all of you here.
First some problems:
The timing of the anniversary dates back to Martin Luther’s supposed nailing of the 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. If that happened (there’s good scholarship to suggest it didn’t), then it wasn’t a dramatic “here I stand” moment, but rather the equivalent of posting a flyer on the university bulletin board. And of course, Martin Luther was not the first or last reformer, and only the most public of a cohort that shaped the Lutheran tradition in its early years (see especially Philipp Melancthon and Johannes Bugenhagen). But if we have to choose a date, that is one that for centuries has been viewed as a pivotal movement in the opening of the Reformation movement.
For much good that came of the Reformation, it has also produced a great deal of hatred, mistrust, ugliness, and even war. This commemoration of the Reformation is one of the first to take that side of the history into present consideration. We have much to confess ourselves and on behalf of our predecessors for the ways in which church reform has resulted in the division of the church and the demonizing of the other.
Lutherans have for centuries also commemorated the Reformation with much anti-Roman Catholic sentiment. The last Sunday of October became in many places a joyful rejection of a significant portion of the world’s Christians. At the very least it has been tainted with subtle and not so subtle “we’re right and you’re wrong” language. Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress, contains language that did for Luther or has since his time associated the Pope, the Roman Catholic Church, and many of our interfaith partners as hordes of devils.
Lutherans in North America have also used the celebration of the Reformation to celebrate Northern European heritage. Historically, yes, Lutheranism began in Germany and put down roots in Northern Europe. But for much too long Lutherans have identified Lutheranism with its cultural origins, ignoring that more than half of the world’s Lutherans today live neither in
Europe or North America, but in places like Indonesia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and India. And Lutherans in Europe and North America are not all of European descent.
Now for some opportunities:
More than ever before Lutherans and Roman Catholics have been in careful and intentional dialogue. We do not agree on many things. But we agree to recognize one another’s baptisms, which means we recognize one another as part of Christ’s church. Eucharistic fellowship is not yet a widespread reality, but we are talking mostly civilly to one another with open hearts and
minds.We have an opportunity to confess our own history and to name our hopes for the future. With an honest reckoning of where we’ve been, we can more honestly talk about how we hope to be different in our interactions with other Christians in the future. We can and will do that in conversation and in ritual.
We have an opportunity to celebrate in a global way, thanks in part to the movement in our own corner of Lutheranism to learn and access the songs and prayers of Lutherans and other Christians around the world. We have an opportunity to celebrate the gifts of the Reformation taking shape in other countries and cultures beyond the Germanic history.
And we have an opportunity to engage what the commemoration of the Reformation has, at least in intention, sought to do: consider the ongoing need for reform in the church – in every denomination and every congregation.
As you continue to hear more about this from the wider church, mark your calendars for a joint lecture with Roman Catholic Bishop Mitchell Rozanski and Lutheran Pastor Karl Donfried on Tuesday, October 3, 7 p.m. at the UMass Newman Center and a joint prayer service on the afternoon/evening of Sunday, October 29, at Immanuel.