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Reflecting on the Reformation

Rev Canon Ronald Branche (left), Leela Ramdeen, and Fr Thomas Lawson. Photo: Christopher Phillip.

By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ (http://rcsocialjusticett.org) & Director, CREDI

On November 20, I addressed the members of the St Francis RC, and the St Margaret’s AC communities in Belmont at a service organised by Fr Thomas Lawson OP and Rev Canon Ronald Branche, to remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The service was held at St Francis. I share below extracts from my presentation.

We come together to heal and to build unity in Christ, our Lord. October 31, 2017 marked 500 years since Martin Luther, a university lecturer and Augustinian monk, posted on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, his 95 Theses — a list of criticisms of the Catholic Church’s doctrines and practices at that time e.g. he objected to the highly profitable sale of indulgences.

This was seen as a way of gaining remission for some types of sins by buying one’s way out of punishment. One could shorten one’s time in purgatory by purchasing a letter of indulgence from one’s local parish. This led to some corrupt practices. (In 1567 Pope Pius V abolished the sale of indulgences).

Luther also posited that justification/the doctrine of salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. He believed that avoiding hell and gaining admission to heaven was an issue between an individual and God, and that there could be no mediation by the Church. The Catholic Church’s theology is that justification/salvation is a life-long process conditioned by faith — baptism/the sacraments — and good works (see Matthew 25).

Luther’s theses sought to reform the Church. Instead, his stance led to a schism in Western Christianity, the outcome of which was the birth of the Reformation and Protestantism. Today there are thousands of Christian denominations. Luther was condemned by the Catholic Church as a heretic; was excommunicated in 1521; and his writings were banned.

The split led to hundreds of years of widespread bloodshed, wars, destruction of churches/monasteries, and religious art. Thousands were hanged, drawn and quartered or burnt at the stake for their religion — on both sides.

Ecumenical efforts

The birth of the Anglican Church is as a result of action by King Henry VIII of England who, in 1527, asked to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. He wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. The pope refused to grant it.

In 1534, King Henry created the Church of England and named himself as its spiritual and political leader. The titular leader of the Anglican Church is the monarch. Anglicans reject the concepts of transubstantiation, the primacy of the Pope, Papal infallibility, Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary. The status of women in the hierarchy of the Anglican Church is another key difference between the two denominations.

Over the past 50 years, there have been ecumenical efforts. Pope Francis has made ecumenism a hallmark of his papacy. Both Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, have apologised for the violence that followed the Protestant Reformation. I agree with them that there is much in our history for which we should ask God’s and each other’s forgiveness.

On October 31, 2016, Pope Francis and Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, signed a joint declaration at an ecumenical prayer service in Lund, Sweden, commemorating the schism. Inter alia, the declaration states:

“Through dialogue and shared witness, we are no longer strangers. Rather, we have learned that what unites us is greater than what divides us. While we are profoundly thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation, we also confess and lament before Christ that Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the Church. Theological differences were accompanied by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalised for political ends… We emphatically reject all hatred and violence, past and present, especially that expressed in the name of religion.”

On January 17, 2017, the UK Guardian published a moving article entitled: ‘C of E Archbishops call on Christians to repent for Reformation split’. In it the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, called on all Christians “to repent of our part in perpetuating divisions. Such repentance needs to be linked to action aimed at reaching out to other churches and strengthening relationships with them.”

On October 30, 2017, the Evening Standard reported on Archbishop Welby’s expression of pain at not being able to receive communion together. But there is hope. Read 2 Corinthians 5:14–20. The love of Christ compels us to work towards unity. We are all the Body of Christ.