2019 marks the 502nd anniversary of the Reformation. October 31, 1517 was the year Martin Luther famously (and perhaps apocryphally) nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. For centuries, Lutheran churches in particular, along with many other Protestant denominations, have observed the anniversary of this event.
Unfortunately, these observances have often been national and confessional in character. They have facilitated and strengthened division, focusing attention on what churches are against, or what they are proud of and how they are right. In more recent years, as the global ecumenical movement has facilitated greater conversation between denominations and among Christians of varying traditions and pieties, Reformation observances have changed. They have, as it were, shifted attention away from conflict, and towards our shared communion.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation, just two years ago, was observed differently than previous centennials. It was marked by its openness, freedom, and ecumenism. The Reformation, in all its complexity, has played a crucial role in the development of the modern age. The entire planet has been influenced by the historical events of 1517, so observances of this anniversary will took place across the globe, from Tierra del Fuego to Finland, from South Korea to North America. There are Lutherans in all of these places, of course, but because the Reformation commemoration is increasingly ecumenical, people of all faiths will observe the historic anniversary all across the globe.
Although the Reformation is often observed as the anniversary of an individual person, Martin Luther, heroically nailing a poster of protest to a church door in opposition to the religious establishment (the Roman Catholic Church), the actual historical context is much more complex. Luther was strong in his convictions and inspiringly articulate, but he was not the lone force for reform.
For example, in that same year, 1517, the Oratory of Divine Love was formed in Rome. This was an informal society of about 50 clergy and lay people committed to reform in the Roman Catholic church, encouraging reforms similar to those suggested by the liberal Renaissance humanist Erasmus. Simultaneous voices for reform were emerging in countries all across Europe, and voices of reform, like Jan Hus in the Czech Republic and John Wyclife in England, preceded Luther by over a century.
Other events were afoot globally as well. Though less widely known, 1517 is also the year official trade relations were established between Portugal and China. King Manuel I authorized Fernão Pires de Andrade to lead the trade mission of seven vessels (with a Muslim interpreter!). The fleet arrived at the Pearl River Estuary on August 15th. It’s fascinating to imagine these events in comparison and concurrent–Martin Luther in his study, pen in hand, drafting the 95 theses for publication in October, while the fleet of Portuguese ships made the harrowing trip from Europe to China. Meanwhile back in Rome, reform-minded leaders gathered to imagine ways the Roman Catholic church itself might be reformed and ever reforming.
How we imagine historical events and commemorate them has a significant impact on how we live today. Like the coxswain in rowing, who sets the direction for the shell by keeping an eye on landmarks behind, our vision of the past, and the way we call it out to those who are rowing, makes a difference for the new directions we set in the present.
For those who are interested in the ecumenical dimensions of the Reformation commemoration, consider reading the ecumenical joint Catholic-Lutheran statement, From Conflict to Communion, available on the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation web sites.
I am particularly fascinated by the idea that the Reformation, as much as it may have had an originating force for the religious tradition I call home–Lutheranism–also has within itself capacity for wide and faithful ecumenical and global engagement. The reformers opened their arms and hearts, in halting but faithful ways, to the world. Although they had clear difficulties with the authorities in Rome, they carried on an ongoing correspondence with the patriarch of Constantinople, commissioned translations of the religious texts of other faith traditions, and participated in that great rebirthing and flowering of study in the 16th century–the Renaissance.
This can and should be inspiration for the interfaith work now happening across the globe as not just varying types of Christianity, but world religions themselves, learn together in order to each deepen their shared sense of humanity in relationship to ultimate things.
I hope to be so inspired that 500 years from now, historians will say of the 21st century, “Theirs was an era worth commemorating.”