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Synod debates 500th anniversary of Reformation

24 February 2017

THE General Synod has welcomed signs of “convergence” on the doctrine of salvation, and supported further reconciliation between the Churches when it debated a motion on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

Introducing the debate on Monday afternoon, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, began by quoting the Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, who preached at a service in Westminster Abbey at the start of this quinquennium: “The Christian world is preparing to mark the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation,” he said. “It is vital for the whole Church that this opportunity is not wasted.”

The debate was an opportunity for the Synod to “join in a movement across Britain and other European nations — indeed, across the world — and actively support those developments and initiatives that serve God’s purposes of reconciliation, and to do so by deepening our renewal in the grace of God and our readiness to share the gospel of salvation with all the world.”

He described the Joint Declaration of Justification by Faith by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches in 1999 as “a momentous event in the story of the Church: a remarkable healing of the wounds of history”. He said that “a series of agreements” on the doctrine of salvation had followed, including the Helsinki report between Anglicans and Lutherans; and Salvation and the Church, between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

“The 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which began with Luther’s courageous insistence that salvation is not for sale, invites every Christian to join with the whole Church to be renewed in the grace of God and share the outstanding news of God reaching out to the world, running to meet us in Christ and embracing us into his life by the Spirit with an infinity of love that lifts us into the full statue of our humanity and raises us into the joyful responsibility of being human.”

The Revd Angus MacLeay (Rochester) moved an amendment to “inject a note of joy” into the motion, and to give thanks to God for the great spiritual blessings the Reformation brought about. Article 11 on justification taught, he said, that righteousness was given by the merit of Jesus Christ by faith, not by our works.

Mr MacLeay quoted Roman 5.9, to express “how easy it is to fall back on our performance rather than our relationship with God”. The doctrine of justification reminded them of the power of the gospel, he said. “Spiritual life, vitality, and assurance through the Church is at the heart of the Reformation, and should be rejoiced.”

Dr Cocksworth, thanked Mr MacLeay for the amendment. “How can you not rejoice in the gift of the Reformation doctrine of justification?” he said. But it was important that the mistakes were recognised. “It has been a complex process of eccumentical journeying, particularly on the Continent, to recognise the anniversary.” The RC Church has moved away from the Counter-Reformation, and they wanted to journey together, he said.

In 1517, Luther had for the previous two years been lecturing to his students on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Brian Wilson (Southwark) said. “This was the start of the Reformation, before Erasmus had published his New Testament, an inspiration sent by God.”

Salvation by grace alone was the gospel truth taken up by the Reformers, and they must remember the great men and women who had taken the chance to reform the Church, and who had been burnt to death for their unshakable stand on the documents on the Reformation, he said.

Canon Pat Hawkins (Lichfield) said that, while she did not want to “speak against” the spirit of God’s grace in Jesus, she would be “sad” if anything were put into the motion that had a sectarian feel.

Mr MacLeay’s amendment was carried.

The Revd Dr Philip Plyming (Guildford) showed the Synod a toy figure of Martin Luther holding a Bible. Luther, he said, had brought Germany together through a whole new language, bringing God’s word into the hands of ordinary people. Other languages had followed, and soon parishioners in every church in this land had been able to refer to the same.

It was fitting, he said, that lay leadership and discipleship was to be celebrated in the Synod later in the week: God’s word in the midst of God’s people. The Bible brought mutual understanding and reconciliation in a diverse Church. “Let us thank God for the gift of the Bible,” he said.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, welcomed the message of convergence around salvation, and the celebration of the anniversary, which, he said, had a “continuing relevance”. Let them learn to be the people of God once again, he urged, “recognising the importance, authority, and application of scripture as to how we are to behave”.

Bishop Henderson quoted Pope Francis: “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation gave greater centrality” to scripture; and concluded: “We not be ashamed to assert a central place for scripture.”

Canon John O’Toole (Roman Catholic Church) welcomed the motion. “Justification by faith ought to be preached by the whole Church and with more vigour than ever,” he said. “People today believe that they can save themselves by technology and man-made spirituality without need for a Redeemer. But Luther’s key insight was faith as a gift from God. On this we can all agree.”

It is ironic, he said, that the very doctrine that had divided Catholics and Protestants was no longer communion-dividing, but uniting Christian mission in the world.

The Revd Dr Dagmar Winter (Newcastle) welcomed the debate, which, she said, was clearly, in popular understanding, an event focused on Henry VIII and his six wives. But liberation could be achieved by understanding justification by faith alone. The upcoming Epistle readings are an opportunity for learning and reflecting on the Reformation and its theology, she said, and supported the motion.

The Reformation anniversary should be greatly valued, the Revd Peter Breckwoldt (Salisbury) said. To be captured by the Word of God was a lesson for the Church today. Protestants had spread quickly across Europe to North America and in 500 years had numbered half a billion people, “shaping culture”. Mr Breckwoldt supported the motion to mark a “terrific day”.

The Revd Dr Hannah Cleugh (Universities and TEIs) said that she was working on a project on the Reformation “which causes us to recall ways in which history and memories were constructed”. She called for “increased and widespread reflection and dialogue between academics and the Church” on the Reformation.

She described the nailing of the 96 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg as “just one snapshot — albeit the album cover” of the Reformation; and that other events had been equally significant, including Luther’s marriage to the ex-nun Katharina von Bora, which “created a new pattern for Christian living”.

The amended motion was carried:


That this Synod, in the context of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the European Reformation and the Church of England’s understanding of the doctrine of justification as expressed in our historic formularies:

(a) give thanks to God for the rich spiritual blessings that the Reformation brought to the Church of England;

(b) welcome signs of convergence between the churches on the doctrine of salvation, noting Resolution 16.17 of the Anglican Consultative Council in 2016 regarding the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and its relation to the Helsinki Report and ARCIC II’s Salvation and the Church; and

(c) commend initiatives in this anniversary year to foster mutual understanding and reconciliation between churches, for the sake of our deeper renewal in the grace of God and our ability to share the gospel of salvation with all the world.

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