The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has spoken of the pain caused by the broken communion between Christians brought about as a result of the Protestant Reformation. But, as the churches mark tomorrow’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the door of the Schlosskirche (All Saints / Castle Church) in Wittenberg, Archbishop Welby said that “we have learned once again to love one another — and to seek to bless and love the world in which we live.”
Archbishop Justin made his comments in a comment piece for London’s Evening Standard newspaper. In it, he wrote about a recent Communion service he attended in the city’s Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, led by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols.
“Because of the events of the Reformation and the history since, it remains impossible for Anglicans and Roman Catholics to receive communion together,” he wrote. “At that solemn moment in the service I lined up at the front with everyone else. But because I could not put my hands out for the bread and wine, I knelt down to be prayed for by Cardinal Nichols. He took my hand and lifted me to my feet. Both of us had tears in our eyes. We are the closest of friends, and being reminded of the divisions in the global Church pains us both very deeply.”
Describing past persecution, he wrote about a fig tree planted in 1556 in the grounds of Lambeth Palace – the archbishops’ official London residence – by a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole, “to celebrate trying his predecessor for heresy, and then having him burnt at the stake.”
It was, he said, an example that there was “much to mourn, and much for which to be sorry” about the Reformation.
“Entirely against the teaching of Jesus Christ, Christians learnt to hate and kill each other, even more than they had done in the past,” he wrote. They sought to impose faith through force when it should be a personal choice (although the Reformation eventually led to a breakdown in that coercion, it took a long time to do so).
“At the heart of the Reformation was something Luther had seen as he read the Bible. He saw that God offers forgiveness of sins, and the promise of heaven, not because we do good works but because we trust in God. There’s an old hymn that says: ‘Nothing in my hand I bring,/Simply to your cross I cling.’ That was Luther’s immense discovery: the grace and love of God for human beings in all their failings and faults.
“Tragically, those failings and faults showed themselves in the working out of the Reformation. In this year of its 500th anniversary, as my friendship with Cardinal Nichols shows, we have learned once again to love one another — and to seek to bless and love the world in which we live.”
Tomorrow (Tuesday), Archbishop Justin will preach at an ecumenical service in Westminster Abbey to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Similar services are taking place throughout the world.
- Read the full article by Archbishop Justin Welby on the Evening Standard website.