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Reformation is a source of reform and pain

HONG KONG (SE): “The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe,” the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Archbishop Justin Welby, says in a statement for the global Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In a joint statement issued along with Archbishop John Sentamu, from York, the archbishop of Canterbury says that the great blessings that came out of the Reformation include the clear articulation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the bible to ordinary people in their own language and the recognition of the calling of the laity to the service of God and the Church in the world.

However, as against this, he points out that we must also remember the lasting damage done over the five centuries since Martin Luther pinned his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, as the turbulent years that followed saw Christian pitted against Christian and neighbour against neighbour, resulting in persecution and death at the hands of brothers and sisters and, tragically, in the name of the Lord.

“A legacy of mistrust and competition would then accompany the astonishing global spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed,” Archbishop Welby adds, noting, “All this leaves us much to ponder.”

Speaking at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome on January 16, Pope Francis said, “As bishop of Rome and pastor of the Catholic Church, I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behaviour of Catholics towards Christians of other Churches, which has not reflected gospel values.”

Then stressing the importance of the Year of Mercy in the context of ecumenism, in the next breath he invited all Catholics to forgive if they, today or in the past, have been offended by other Christians.

“We cannot cancel out what has happened, but we do not want to let the weight of past faults continue to contaminate our relationships. God’s mercy will renew our relationships,” Pope Francis said.

What Luther began in 1517 took some time to gain traction. An educated friar with a doctorate in theology he questioned many practices and expressions of questions touching on grace, repentance and forgiveness.

He also threw down the gauntlet, offering to defend his theses, wither orally or in writing, before anyone who wished to question him.

Reaction from the Church was slow in coming, but with radically changing lives across the German states and many parts of Europe, his theses grew sufficiently in popularity in the next two years to prompt the theologically erudite king of England, Henry XVIII, to write In Defence of the Seven Sacraments.

Luther replied, receiving an answer from St. Thomas More and, although his writings had been banned in England, a small group did begin meeting at Cambridge in order to study them, along with other material emerging from the European continent.

The makeup of these discussion groups formed part of the momentum for the staging of the Reformation in England.

Archbishop Welby says in his statement that the history of the past is important to understand, as it should bring us back to what the reformers wanted to put at the centre of every person’s life—simple trust in Jesus.

He then stresses that this 500th anniversary is an appropriate time to renew our faith in Christ and in him alone.

“With this confidence, we shall then be ready to ask hard questions about those things in our lives and the life of our Churches that get in the way of sharing and celebrating faith in him,” the archbishop of Canterbury notes.

But a word of warning has also come from the president of the Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Kurt Cardinal Köch, who points out that Luther never wanted or intended to divide the Church, but horrible confessional wars followed.

“We must acknowledge both of these pages,” Cardinal Köch says, “working for repentance and reconciliation, but also showing gratitude for the gifts of the Reformation.”

In speaking about the visit of Pope Francis to Lünd for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last year, Cardinal Köch notes that it is extremely close to the heart of Pope Francis that ecumenism not just be about theology, but also concrete collaboration for all of humankind.

The cardinal stressed that there are many other factors that have caused splits in the Christian Church, some dating back to 1,000 years prior to the Reformation, so it is important to remember the words of St. Paul when he spoke of the God who reconciles himself with us and, as a consequence, challenges us to be reconciled with one another.

While Archbishop Welby notes that the disunity in the Church is in clear defiance of the prayer of Christ that all may be one, Pope Francis prayed at the vespers ceremony, “May they be one, so that the world may believe.”

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