Julian Browning consults his Reformation Roadmap

Do try to keep up. You know it’s the Reformation Quincentenary this year and you haven’t been to anything. There’s loads to do (www.reformation500.uk). You missed the visit of the Reformation Roadmap storymobile in your area. You forgot to order your Playmobil Martin Luther doll (34,000 sold in three days). But you could still get a ticket for the service in Westminster Abbey on 31 October in partnership with the Council of Lutheran Churches, with a specially commissioned anthem, followed by a symposium, ‘Liberated by God’s Grace,’ in St Margaret’s Church. We’re good at that sort of thing. Yet the most liberating piece I have read on the Reformation Quincentenary isn’t Anglican at all and nobody from England contributed a word to it. It is From Conflict To Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 [published 2013]. Without in any way assuming a communion which is more than partial, the tone is unilaterally positive: ‘Catholics and Lutherans realize that they and the communities in which they live out their faith belong to the one body of Christ. The awareness is dawning on Lutherans and Catholics that the struggle of the sixteenth century is over. The reasons for mutually condemning each other’s faith have fallen by the wayside.’ There are regrets for past sins against unity in the compulsory new fashion for historical apology, but the overall message is a shared joy in the Gospel. This is more than quincentennial puff, an exchange of pens and smiles all round. The statement emerges from a heavier document, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church [1999]. These are not closed Lutheran-Roman Catholic texts: they invite our response. In 2016, in Lusaka of all places, the Anglican Consultative Council ‘welcomes and affirms the substance’ of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which sounds like an authentic Anglican grudge to me. Whichever view you take, the doctrine of justification was of central importance at the Reformation. New Directions can mark the Reformation Quincentenary by having a quick look at the doctrine itself.

‘Salvation—Not for Sale.’ So runs one of the banners on the lively website of the Lutheran World Federation. As a four-word summary of the doctrine of justification it can hardly be improved. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace. By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works. Catholics and most Anglicans would say that God’s forgiving grace always brings with it a gift of new life, which in the Holy Spirit becomes effective in active love. Without faith, no justification can take place. Persons are justified through baptism as hearers of the word and believers in it. The justification of sinners is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace, which makes us children of God. In justification the righteous receive from Christ faith, hope, and love, and are thereby taken into communion with him. As for sin, that preoccupation of the Reformers, this inclination does not correspond to God’s original design for humanity; is objectively in contradiction to God and remains one’s enemy in a lifelong struggle. Grateful for deliverance by Christ, we believe that this inclination in contradiction to God does not merit the punishment of eternal death, and does not separate the justified person from God. [Adapted from From Conflict to Communion, cited above]

Do you follow the General Synod debates? I am not suggesting that you actually join the comatose victims of the synodical process, slumped on their benches in the chamber of horrors, condemned for ever to do theology by anecdote. Just log on and look at the verbatim transcripts, while you get on with other things. All you have to insert are the deep sighs, the white-knuckle frustration, the heroic attempts at fair play. So in February this year, hard on the heels of fixed odds betting terminals and marriage & same sex relationships, the Reformation was officially welcomed, thanked, affirmed and commemorated [GS2044]. The English bishops, all cool emollience, bathed the scars of five hundred years and reduced the fever of bitter dissent, thus deepening reconciliation and promoting reflection. Gliding past the sacked monasteries, the burning pyres, the rack and the thumbscrew, the bishops concluded a little too easily that ‘the Reformation might be described as being, at heart, a movement to rediscover the gospel as good news.’ But in Paradise we must expect to see the flick of the serpent’s tail. What’s this? ‘[T]he Protestant Reformation took a path in England quite distinct from that followed by those parts of Germany… Anglicans will continue to disagree… about the extent to which the Church of England’s understanding of the doctrine of justification, as set out in its historic formularies (e.g. in Articles XI–XIV of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion), aligns with the ecumenical documents referred to in Resolution 16.17 (the Anglican Consultative Council’s recommendation to engage with the Lutheran ‘Not For Sale’ theme, mentioned above). Some—though by no means all—Evangelicals, within and beyond the Church of England, have voiced reservations about the interpretation of Reformation doctrine expressed in those documents…’ They are right, of course. It was different over here, and the legacy is also different. We are not going to the Reformation party organised by the Lutherans and Catholics. The Calvinists in our midst forbid it, quoting against us the predestination found in our own Thirty-nine Articles. Calvinism, seen through an English lens, is militant, battening on the revolutionary movements of the seventeenth century. God’s people make their own decisions now. Lutherans and Catholics and most Anglicans are wrong. As far as justification goes, there is nothing for us to do in response to God’s actions. ‘Our righteousness is not in us but in Christ… we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ.’ [Calvin, Institutes 3:11:23] We ourselves remain deadbeats before the judgement seat, whatever we do, miserable sinners indeed.

Is it possible for religious people to have too much historical awareness? The Lutherans and Catholics appear to have lightened their burden. We have not done so. This could be because the legacy of the Reformation in this country is not a theological divide, as between Lutherans and Catholics, but a cultural fissure between Puritan and High Church. This chasm has yet to be crossed, but a quincentenary is a good time to draw breath and start again. The historical complexity and social consequences of the Reformation, barely touched on in this article, still hold us captive. The answer is more theology. Perhaps our Lutheran and Catholic brethren can help. Here is the final paragraph of From Conflict To Communion: ‘The beginnings of the Reformation will be rightly remembered when Lutherans and Catholics hear together the gospel of Jesus Christ and allow themselves to be called anew into community with the Lord. Then they will be united in a common mission which the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification describes: “Lutherans and Catholics share the goal of confessing Christ in all things, who alone is to be trusted above all things as the one Mediator (1 Tim. 2.5f) through whom God in the Holy Spirit gives himself and pours out his renewing gifts.”‘ 

Fr Julian Browning is an Assistant Priest at All Saints’, Margaret Street, and a member of the Editorial Board of New Directions.