FIVE hundred years to the day after Martin Luther’s 95 theses opened a new phase in history that became known as the Reformation, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others came together to declare that the rift over theological justification had been healed.
During a service at Westminster Abbey to commemorate the anniversary on Tuesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on behalf of the Anglican Communion, formally affirmed a 1999 concord between the RC Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the doctrine. Methodist and Reformed Churches signalled their assent in 2006 and earlier this year respectively.
Archbishop Welby said that the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was a “decisive moment for all Churches in the search for unity and reconciliation”.
Rebuilding unity was the over-riding theme for the Abbey service. A series of Lutheran choirs sang before readings from Romans — on justification by faith — and St John’s Gospel: Jesus’s prayer that all his followers “may all be one”.
The Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, said in his bidding: “Today, we stand together, reconciled in Christ, walking side by side, praying that we may be ever more united in our diversity.”
Archbishop Welby described the Reformation as a “gift” in particular: how it taught the Church that “we are saved entirely, confidently and unfailingly by grace alone, through faith, and not by our own works.”
“From the poorest to the richest, all will come at the end to stand before God, only with the words of the hymn: ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to your cross I cling.’”
But if the Reformation had brought riches, a renewed love for the scriptures and a vibrant missionary movement, it had also brought war, division, and cruelty, Archbishop Welby said.
“For each of the things that came through the Reformation — good as they are, precious beyond compare even — for each there is also a dark side.”
Rather than continue to “bat the ball to and fro, as historians and theologians have done for centuries”, Christians today must take up Luther’s challenge to preach the eternal truths of the gospel afresh for their own age.
Echoing the words of the Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr Raniero de Cantalamessa, to the General Synod in 2015 (News, 27 November 2015), he said that justification by faith today needed to be preached again, not against justification by good works, as in Luther’s time — as that argument was already won — but against “self-justification”, the idea that people could save themselves.
“Luther set the gospel free, and as human beings we seek continually to imprison it behind ritual and authority — or to make it serve politics or causes,” the Archbishop Welby said.
“Will we be willing ourselves to be reformed again and always, setting aside our differences because we are caught up in the grace that is found through faith?”
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said a prayer after Archbishop Welby’s sermon: “Let us pray that the household of faith may be preserved from all that would further divide us.”
The Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Most Revd Brian Farrell, said that the convergence between Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Reformed Churches on justification was drawing Christians into a “deeper community on the path to the full reconciliation of the Church, as the Lord wishes”.
After the service concluded, a symposium of historians and theologians was held next door at St Margaret’s, Westminster, on the legacy and impact of the Reformation.
Introducing the discussion, the chairman of the Council of Lutheran Churches, the Revd Torbjørn Holt, recalled the words attributed to Luther before the Diet of Worms, when he is said to have refused to recant. “It is good to move from the ‘Here I stand’ position to the ‘Here we walk together.’ We believe this afternoon will give us a new insight into our exciting ecumenical journey.”
The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, who chaired the symposium, said that all the Church was now starting to claim Luther as part of “our whole story, not just one part of it”.
Resolution 16.17: Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
The Anglican Consultative Council
1 welcomes and affirms the substance of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), signed by Lutherans and Roman Catholics in 1999; and
2 recognizes that Anglicans have explored the doctrine of justification with both Lutherans and Roman Catholics; and
3 recognizes that Anglicans and Lutherans share a common understanding of God’s justifying grace, as the Helsinki Report stated that we are accounted righteous and are made righteous before God only by grace through faith because of the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and not on account of our works or merits; and
4 recognizes that in 1986 the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) produced a statement Salvation and the Church, which observed that our two Communions are agreed on the essential aspects of the doctrine of salvation and on the Church’s role within it.
PA500 years on in Wittenburg: the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, attends a service to mark the anniversary of the Reformation, at the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, Germany, on Tuesday. Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 theses on the door of that church in 1517