The Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, is one of the larger Protestant denominations in the United States. On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, this organization hosts a countdown calendar online: as I write this, it notes fourteen days, eight hours, six minutes to the beginning of the major shaking up of the Catholic Church that produced not only the Lutheran Church, but literally hundreds of other Protestant denominations. While there was a larger and longer history at work behind the event commemorated by the Lutherans, tradition suggests that the Protestant Reformation started when Martin Luther nailed his complaints against the Catholic Church to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517.
It is likely that Luther had little idea of the storm of protest, reform, reaction and the theologies of independence and individuality that he was unleashing on the world.
Reform and protest seem to have been the norm since the initial Reformation, and they show no signs of abating. Even as the contemporary church in Europe and North America is in decline, there is little effort to knit things together. Some efforts towards unification have been made in Canada: in 1925 the United Church was formed of Methodists, Congregationalists and many Presbyterians, but in that same decade the Baptists split along modernist-fundamentalist lines. There were discussions about bringing the Anglican and United Churches into one union in the 1960s, but that only got as far as producing a joint hymnal that pleased neither denomination.
What is needed is a new reformation that consists of more than protest and breaking away. The Church now needs a reformation that brings Christian churches together, focussing on what they hold in common rather than on their differences. The Christian church has a large enough canopy to hold different perspectives while achieving a unity of central theological tenets.
India may provide a model. Protestants are a small minority in southern India, and in 1947 the Anglican, Congregational and Methodist churches joined together as the Church of South India. In the 1960s, Presbyterians joined, and Baptists and Pentecostals followed in the 1990s. The service has an Anglican prayer-book feel, but with Methodist hymns, Baptist preaching and Pentecostal prayers; church offices are based on New Testament models of Deacons, Elders and Bishops. Somehow, it all holds together both liturgically and theologically. As Canadian Protestants shrink in number, perhaps the Indian model can provide a way to look forward, finding a form of unity that still incorporates diversity.
In the first centuries of the Reformation, church leaders struggled to comprehend the violence that swept Europe in the name of the Prince of Peace. As they sought ways to give expression to the desire for unity in a Church rent by schism, some attempted to find common ground in divisive theological perspectives. This desire for unity and peace found expression in a singular phrase which began to circulate in the early 17th century: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, freedom; in all things, love.” Attributed to Augustine, the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo, it was an affirmation that in Christian theology, there should be room for theological differences in matters of church structure, forms of worship, and even in areas of interpretation; there should be freedom to believe differently, although the essential doctrines of the faith were the same. They insisted that the central truths of the faith were of greater importance, and should be matters of agreement to all. And of course, the principle of love for neighbour should bind all believers and churches together despite differences in form. That sounds like a reformation that I could get behind, as I look out on a fractured Christendom, through stained glass.