‘Reformation brought war and cruelty – but a renewed gospel’

The Westminster Abbey service to mark the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses was addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (centre by the microphone, in gold robes)
The Westminster Abbey service to mark the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses was addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (centre by the microphone, in gold robes)

The Reformation led to strife, war and cruelty – but also “beautifully and powerfully” renewed the message of Jesus for a vast number of Christians.

That was the message from the leader of the world’s Anglican community, the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in Westminster Abbey today 500 years to the day since Martin Luther published his 95 Theses – a move which challenged the Catholic church and heralded the birth of Protestantism.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (centre) attending a ceremony at the grave of Martin Luther at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (centre) attending a ceremony at the grave of Martin Luther at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany

Meanwhile, German political leaders gathered in Wittenburg, the birthplace of the Reformation, and the whole of Germany marked the occasion with a national holiday.

Speaking at a noon service in London’s Westminster Abbey, Archbishop Justin Welby told worshippers: “The gift that came through Martin Luther was first a moment of hope, then of controversy, then of politics and finally of war.”

However, quoting the Book of Romans, he said it also “brought afresh to every Christian disciple the possibility of saying ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel’,” – because it is through the gospel salvation comes.

“Through the Reformation we learned that we are saved entirely, confidently and unfailingly by grace alone, through faith, and not by our own works,” he said.

“Through the Reformation the church found again a love for the scriptures, and seizing the opportunity of printing, gave them afresh to the world – telling every person that they themselves should read them and seek the wisdom of God to understand them.

“In doing so the church released not only reformation but revolution, as confidence grew amongst the poor and oppressed that they too were the recipients of the promise of God of freedom and hope.”

He also noted the “dark side” of the movement – individualism, conflict, conquest, and “new ways of cruelty refined by science”.

“So what’s the problem? The problem, as in every age, is us,” he said.

“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.”

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier took part in a service in the famous Castle Church in Wittenberg, where Luther was said to have nailed his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517 (although whether he did nail them to the door is the subject of much historic debate).

Thousands were participating in different church services throughout the day in the eastern German settlement, which also put on a medieval-style street festival for the occasion.