Westminster Abbey marks
500th Anniversary of the Reformation
David Cornick reflects on the service to mark the 500th anniversary of the 95 theses and the start of the Reformation
Whether or not Martin Luther actually nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517 is doubtful. What he definitely did do was post a copy of them to his diocesan bishop on that day. What followed led to what we now call ‘the Reformation’ although it would be more accurate to talk of many reformations, some of which produced what later came to be called ‘Protestantism’ and others the reform of the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, the 500th anniversary of that day needed to be marked.
It is a particularly significant anniversary for our friends in the Lutheran Churches, and it was right that the Council of Lutheran Churches should take the lead, in partnership with Westminster Abbey, in offering a service to mark the day. They did so with open hearted generosity to ecumenical guests who filled the Abbey alongside them. CTE’s Presidents processed, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached and Cardinal Nichols offered prayer.
It was a thoroughly Lutheran occasion, marked in particular by the rich tradition of Lutheran music. The Abbey choir of women and men let Bach’s Lobet den Herrn open a door into the joy of Lutheran spirituality (Bach is surely one of Lutheranism’s greatest gifts to the world!) and their joyous voices rang around the vaulted arches. But two contemporary pieces commissioned by the Lutheran Council of Great Britain were glorious complements – The Answered Hymn by Barbara Höfling which allows at least five of the different languages used within the Lutheran Council to counterpoint each other in praise, and Bent Sørensen’s immersive setting of John 17:23 I in them and you in me. Victor Gollancz once said that music ought to be one of the proofs of God’s existence! Had he heard the choirs gathered for this service and the music they sang he might have considered his hypothesis proved.
In his sermon Archbishop Justin reminded us that the reformation recalled the church to the reality that (in the words of the BCP Collect for Trinity 19) ‘…without thee we are not able to please thee’, and he addressed the ambiguities of the heritage of the Reformation. On the one hand the renewal of the gospel and the gift of the Scriptures, on the other war, destruction and division. But the gospel speaks profoundly to every age, and in our day the gospel, so powerfully renewed in the Reformation, speaks to the inequalities of our day – refugees and human trafficking, human arrogance and materialism. Will we let the gospel transform us as those caught up in the reformations of the sixteenth century allowed themselves to be changed?
That in turn introduced a significant moment in the quest for Christian unity. The Anglican Communion have affirmed the substance of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (signed in 1999 by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity). It had also been previously signed by the World Methodist Council and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The Archbishop presented copies of the Anglican affirmation to the Revd Dr Martin Junge, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, and the Most Revd Brian Farrell, Secretary of the Pontifical Council, in the presence of Methodist and Reformed representatives. It symbolised the healing of those cruel divisions of the sixteenth century.
In the afternoon about 300 people attended a seminar in St Margaret’s Church, which is part of the Abbey. Professors Alexandra Walsham and Eamon Duffy from Cambridge, David Crankshaw from King’s College, London and Robert Stern from Sheffield, along with The Rt Revd Martin Lind, the Lutheran Bishop in Great Britain, explored Luther’s influence on English church history and European philosophy and theology.
It was a salutary reminder of how the world can be changed by one person’s concern for the integrity of the gospel, and as such a challenge to us all. The Lutheran community in this country is small, although it is of course a major world communion. This anniversary reminds us of how impoverished we would be without Lutheran spirituality, and how much we could be enriched by fellowship and dialogue with our Lutheran friends.
Picture courtesy of Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey.