Why remember the Reformation?


 A church historian asks what it means to remember the Reformation 500 years after Luther’s revolt against indulgences.

On 31st October 1517, just over 500 years ago, Martin Luther sent to the Archbishop of Mainz ninety-five theses – propositions – that he had written against the practice of indulgences.

Luther was disturbed and angry that people were being led to believe that if they paid for an indulgence, their forgiveness was assured.  ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs…’ as the popular ditty had it.  Luther disagreed.  ‘Those who believe themselves certain of their own salvation by means of letters of indulgence, will be eternally damned, together with their teachers,’ he warned (thesis 32).  Rather, ‘Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he purchases indulgences.  Because, by works of love, love grows and a man becomes a better man; whereas, by indulgences, he does not become a better man, but only escapes certain penalties’ (theses 43, 44).  Luther’s 95 theses sparked a storm, and that storm became the Reformation.  2017 has seen a wide range of events to mark this quincentenary, in Germany, as we might expect, but also across Europe.  Why?  What does it mean to remember the Reformation?  Is it really still relevant today?

As a church historian, this seems to me an entirely plausible question.  It is not at all evident that 2017 is such an important anniversary, in large part because it is not at all evident that Luther’s sending of the ninety-five theses to his archbishop on 31st October 1517 was such an important event.  What are we actually remembering?

2017 has been marked both as a Reformation anniversary and as a Luther anniversary.  Historically the Reformation anniversary is the more important.  It was not Luther as an individual, but the complex series of events that we refer to as the Reformation that led to the formation of a whole new complex of multiple churches in Western Europe, and which also reshaped the political face of Europe.

The Reformation, through the subsequent wars of the 17th century, brought into being the Netherlands, which was first recognised as an independent sovereign state in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.  Even when the Reformation did not create states, it shaped national identities.  Many of the small territories which made up the Holy Roman (i.e. German) Empire found in the Reformation a means of defining their identity over and against the emperor and the German prince bishops.  The Reformation reshaped ideas of what it meant to be Swedish, or Danish, or English or Scottish.  And of course the Reformation inaugurated an age of confessional difference amongst the European churches, fragmenting Latin, Western Christianity into Lutheran and Reformed, Anglican and Presbyterian, Anabaptist, Moravian and Brethren, and a newly defined Roman Catholic.  But in 1517, all of that was still to come.  None of it would happen for several years after 1517, and in some places not for several decades.  The quincentenaries of the Reformation as a movement still lie before us.

When did the Reformation actually begin?  Perhaps in spring 1521, when Luther stood before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms and declined to retract his writings?  Or in the winter of 1522, when his friend (but soon to become enemy) Andreas Karlstadt sought to put Luther’s teachings into practice in the churches in Wittenberg?  Or in 1525, when the new Elector of Saxony agreed to implement the Reformation in Saxony?

Perhaps we see the true beginning of the Reformation in the reforming of church practices in Nuremberg in 1522 and 1523, with the appointment of new preachers, the introduction of vernacular bible reading in the liturgy, the distribution of communion in both kinds (bread and wine), and the decision by some of the city’s priests to marry.  Reformation beliefs and practices were introduced into Hesse, after the young prince, Philipp, became convinced by Luther’s teaching in 1524.  A decade later, in 1534, the ruler of the south German territory of Würrtemberg found the Reformation key to the reassertion of his authority on his return to his lands from exile.  He called on Reformers from the city of Basel to help him introduce the new ideas.  The Reformation was not accomplished by one person on one day, but was a protracted process of complex change.

In England, too, 1534 was a key year.  Under Henry VIII’s direction the English parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, declaring the king to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England.  However, Henry did not do much else – apart from dissolving the monasteries – that looked to his contemporaries like an introduction of the Reformation.  In Scotland the Reformation would not be introduced until 1560.

Was a break with the pope a Reformation?  Catholic observers of England thought it was, but Protestants were less convinced.  Henry VIII did sponsor an English Bible translation, to be bought for every parish, but from 1543, he sought to control who was allowed to read it (women, and uneducated men should not).  Vernacular liturgy was not introduced in England until 1549, after Henry VIII’s death; nor, except for a brief period in the mid-1530s, were communion in both kinds, or married priests.  In around 1540, Margarete Cranmer, the wife of Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, fled back to Germany with their children.

When the Reformation was introduced into England under Henry’s son Edward VI, it proved a short-lived affair.  Edward’s half-sister Mary I returned the country to Catholicism, albeit a humanist influenced Catholicism, which had learned much from the experiences of Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole and his experience of the spirituali, a humanist reforming movement in Italy.  It was not until 1558, and the ascension of Elizabeth, that the Reformation entered into a more settled phase in England.  Elizabeth’s wish to keep England together, her assertion of her own authority in and over the church, her appreciation for music and liturgy, and her dislike of the theology that was emerging from Geneva gave the English Reformation a very particular form, although to Catholics the Elizabethan Church of England looked unequivocally protestant.

The Scottish Reformation, thanks largely to John Knox, was strongly influenced by the teachings and attitudes of John Calvin in Geneva.  Unlike the church that emerged from the English Reformation, the Scottish church rejected bishops, held that the monarch should have no say in the organisation of the church, and rejected the kind of liturgy that was laid out in the Book of Common Prayer.  In 1618, James VI of Scotland, who since 1603 had been also James I of England, tried to reintroduce into Scotland a number of practices which were still current in the England’s protestant church: kneeling to receive communion, the possibility of private baptisms and sick communion, episcopal confirmation, and the keeping of Holy Days (e.g. Christmas and Easter).  In protestant (Reformed) Scotland, these practices, largely accepted in protestant (Reformed) England, were firmly rejected as papist.  The Reformation was by no means monolithic, and the Reformation took very different forms in different territories.  Remembering the Reformation is partly about recognising and trying to understand the reasons for these differences.

Ecumenically, the Reformation has often been seen as a disaster: the breakdown of a unified Latin church into a confessional jigsaw.  The 1920 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops issued an ‘Appeal to All Christian People’ calling for Christian unity.  They recognised the sin of fractured unity, holding that ‘self-will, ambition, and lack of charity … together with blindness to the sin of disunion, are still mainly responsible for the breaches of Christendom.’  Moreover, they thought that ‘The faith cannot be adequately apprehended and the battle of the Kingdom cannot be worthily fought while the body is divided, and is thus unable to grow up into the fullness of the life of Christ.’

Overcoming differences so that Christians can stand and speak together is still important – perhaps even more important – today, nearly a century after the Anglican Bishops issued their Appeal.  But the Anglican Bishops also recognised a positive aspect in the heritage of the Reformation: the Protestant traditions, they thought, had preserved a multiplicity of gifts, ‘standing for rich elements of truth, liberty and life which might otherwise have been obscured or neglected…’  The emphasis on actual repentance and conversion, which Luther emphasised in his ninety-five theses, led him to a new understanding of the importance of personal faith.  Luther and the Protestant churches insisted that faith should be preached and prayed in a language that the people could understand.  They emphasised the importance of community and mutual responsibility for one another, and particularly for the poor and disadvantaged in society.  Some of these aspects had become obscured in the late medieval church.  Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and other reformers helped to rediscover them.

It has taken nearly five hundred years, but one of the gifts of the ecumenical movement has been the recognition that important aspects of the truth are preserved in the different traditions that emerged from the Reformation.  There is a vision of the united church which expresses this: ‘When the church is one, it will have the hymns of the Methodists, the liturgical sense of the Anglicans, the depth of prayer of Roman Catholics, the local rootedness of the Baptists, the spirit of the charismatics, the education of the Reformed, the preaching of the Lutherans… .’  Remembering the Reformation is important precisely because it helps us to recognise – and to celebrate – what we have to learn from each other.


Charlotte Methuen is Professor of Church History at the University of Glasgow and is an Anglican priest.

December 2017/January 2018

Open House held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.