500 years ago, on a day in October 1517, the Reformation began.
That day, a German priest, Martin Luther, sent his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ on the ‘Power and Efficacy of Indulgences’ to the Archbishop of Mainz, Germany. In these theses, Luther criticised the common practice of his fellow priests, who sold indulgences to their parishioners.
Luther also disputed the teaching of the church about purgatory (an intermediate state after death, before entering heaven or hell), and criticised the authority which had been claimed by the Pope. As a result, he was excommunicated by the Pope and condemned as an outlaw. Actions from that time unleashed a series of protests and changes across the church. This Reformation led to the formation of numerous Reformed churches. The Uniting Church stands with these churches, as an heir of the Reformation. Our forebears protested about the state of the church in their day; for that reason, Reformed churches are also known as Protestant churches.
This month, we celebrate five centuries since this event. But is it time for a new Reformation? Have we come to a point in time when we need to kick off the shackles of old traditions and practices? Is it time to set forth on a new venture, as the people of God, to protest what we have left behind, to reform ourselves once more?
There are some very clear pointers in this direction, when we turn to the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia. For instance, when I read through this foundational document for the Uniting Church, I can find 12 references to newness, renewal or reform. Paragraph 1 declares that the three denominations which united in 1977 “remain open to constant reform under his Word” and affirms that “they look for a continuing renewal” in their life.
Paragraph 3 affirms that Jesus is “the beginning of a new creation, of a new humanity,” “a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation,” and “a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love.” Paragraph 4 concludes with a similar affirmation, that “in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church”.
Paragraph 15 locates us in “a period of reconsideration of traditional forms of the ministry, and of renewed participation of all the people of God” in the various aspects of ministry. And since the Basis of Union was written, we have renewed the Diaconate and invited ongoing experimentation with forms of ministry.
So in Paragraph 11, the church “prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.” There’s one reference to ‘history,’ but it is in the phrase “the changes of history,” and three uses of ‘tradition,’ one of which is in the phrase “a period of reconsideration of traditional forms of the ministry.” So even these phrases are oriented towards change and reform.
Then, of course, there are the widely-known references to being a “pilgrim people” (once) who are “on the way” (twice). This imagery clearly points to the hope for still more reforming and renewing within the church.
The closing sentence in the opening paragraph of the Basis of Union sets the horizons of openness to the future: the church “awaits with hope the day of the Lord Jesus Christ on which it will be clear that the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of the Christ.”
It is this openness to whatever the future will bring which is most clearly to characterise the Uniting Church. I think the primary orientation is very clear: as people of the Uniting Church, we are oriented towards the future with hope, and we are called to work for a different future. We are people with an inheritance from the Reformation and with a calling to continue to reform the church.
So, let’s protest, reform, and head on our way.
Rev Dr John Squires, Director of Education and Formation for the Uniting Church WA