This Sunday afternoon I am representing the Archbishop, Peter Smith in the Luther Quincentenary Choral Evensong being held in Canterbury Cathedral. The last day of October is the 500th anniversary of the occasion when Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Magdeburg. He criticised the way the St Peter’s indulgence was being promoted and preached. Pope Julian II began to rebuild St Peter’s basilica in Rome and he announced an indulgence to help finance the costly project. Luther enclosed with his letter a copy of the 95 Theses which he offered as a way of clarifying the teaching on indulgences and other theological questions that he regarded a doubtful. As Holmes and Bickers wrote in their book “A Short History of the Catholic Church”.
“These theses, written in a polemic and provocative way, touching on questions and grievances long felt, became the symbol, and Luther, the spokesman, of all those who were disillusioned with the present state of the contemporary Church. The historical importance of this whole episode lies in the Church’s failure to respond because of both the inability or unwillingness to accept the seriousness of Luther’s complaint, and to recognise the number of those who supported him.”
What began as a justified reaction to corruption in the Church spiralled into schism and division and destruction. I strongly agree that, at the time of Luther, reform was vital but obviously do not agree or condone the change and rejection of Catholic teaching that followed.
Much dialogue and progress has been made since those days of the 16th Century, especially in the last fifty years. In 1999 a joint declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was agreed between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.
Last October the Pope travelled to the Lund cathedral to commemorate the Reformation with Bishop Munib Younan and in our own Cathedral of St George, Southwark there was a joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation hosted by our Archbishop, Peter Smith. Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household, said, referring to this commemoration,
“It is vital for the whole Church that this opportunity is not wasted by people remaining prisoners of the past, trying to establish each other’s rights and wrongs. Rather, let us take a qualitative leap forward, like what happens when the sluice gates of a river or a canal open to enable ships to navigate at a higher water level. The situation has changed dramatically since then. We need to start again with the person of Jesus, humbly helping our contemporaries to experience a personal encounter with Him. Justification by faith, for example, ought to be preached by the whole Church – and with more vigour than ever. Not in opposition to good works – the issue is already settled – but rather in opposition to the claim of people today that they can save themselves thanks to their science, technology or man-made spirituality, without the need for a redeemer coming from outside humanity