Today churches all over the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s theses and the Protestant Reformation with music, sermons, tree plantings, workshops, and more. Like most folks raised in the Christian tradition, I’m no stranger to Luther. My husband was raised in a Lutheran tradition, with numerous Lutheran clergy relatives. When I was in elementary school, I channeled our recent lesson on Luther into petitions to remove styrofoam from lunch service, taped to the cafeteria doors (did Luther get called to his principal’s office?). Winnie’s godfather’s middle name is Luther, after, ya know, THAT Luther. There are folks all over Christendom who get the warm fuzzies whenever Martin Luther’s name is mentioned, but I have to tell you– I’m not one of them.
Don’t get me wrong: Luther and I have a lot of theological common ground. Quite frankly, so do Luther and the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church. I find indulgences to be abhorrent. I believe in the power of internal repentance (though I believe in the sacrament of the Reconciliation of the Penitent, too– just not as the only tool we have for reconciliation). I believe in almsgiving and the power of good works. I believe in a God full of grace.
I also believe that the schism of the church that followed the theses was a sin. I believe it is a sin (and that is to say, a separation from God) for which both the Catholic and Protestant churches are responsible. I believe that we owe a great debt to the thinkers and believers of the Protestant Reformation for opening up the way of Christ, for challenging erroneous thought that kept people from God. I believe that there are theologies promoted and actions taken in both modern churches that serve to separate us from Creator, Christ, and Spirit. I believe, though, that despite these mistakes and because of God’s grace, the Spirit is present in each church (no how matter how much I may disagree with the sermon or the administration of Holy Communion or the strength of the coffee) and in each of us.
I’m not Catholic, it should be stated. I never have been, though I have entertained the idea. In late 2008 and early 2009, I very seriously considered conversion, in fact. But I had been raised in the Episcopal Church, baptized in the Episcopal Church, communed in the Episcopal Church, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church (all in the same Episcopal Church, in fact). And sacraments are dear to me, for the connection they make not just between us and God, but between us and the Communion of Saints and between us and the larger world, as conduits of grace. I disagreed vehemently with the Roman church on a number of issues: the ordination of women, closed communion, and about twelve other social issues you can probably guess, but that isn’t what stopped me from converting. I knew that I couldn’t further divide myself. And I knew that my sitting in the pews disagreeing, particularly as a convert, wouldn’t bring us any closer to a fuller communion in the larger church, which was what I did and do ultimately desire.
Wildly*, I now attend a Congregational church, a member of the United Church of Christ. I have been assured I’m still allowed to be an Episcopalian here, and as an Episcopalian it means I can occupy that via media or middle way between the Catholic and the Protestant. The Anglican Communion is somewhat unburdened by veneration of its origins, perhaps because our origins weren’t, depending on who you ask, particularly venerable. They were, like so many decisions of the day, utterly political. Henry VIII isn’t known for his theology but for his marriages. Nobody talks about Richard Hooker outside of seminaries and confirmation classes. And so we are able to sit comfortably in this middle space, paying respect to our cousins in Christ in Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions.
I don’t mean to lay the blame for division only on Luther or the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church owes a great deal to Luther and his theology and was absolutely deserving of criticism. Being unable to hear and act on that criticism was as much an act of division as the Reformation following. Pope Francis himself kicked off the 500th anniversary in a remarkable show of ecumenicism. But for our part on the Protestant side**, we can acknowledge that, as Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America put it, “Breaking up the western church was not a gift to the church.”
As humans grappling with divinity, we make mistakes. We cling to harmful theology, we resort to division rather than reconciliation. In a way, the Protestant Reformation illustrates both the humanity and divinity present in our communion as people of faith: that we can so utterly deviate from God’s word, that we can divide so sharply, but that we can find and pursue restoration with ourselves and with our God, little by little. And maybe someday my kids or my kids’ kids can share a Communion table with Catholics and Episcopalians and Congregationalists and Lutherans (even with a Missouri or Wisconsin Synod representing!) and Orthodox and Presbyterians and more, breaking the same bread and sharing the same cup, the same body and blood of the same Christ, made sacred by the power of the same Holy Spirit.
(And if that happens, maybe the coffee will be strong, too, but I’m not holding my breath.)***
*This is as wild as I get
**This is as close as I will ever get to calling myself a Protestant. Screencap for posterity.
***Church coffee is prepared with love and given freely and in hospitality, and also the low-hanging fruit of church jokes, and I humbly apologize.