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Reformation a tragedy that still divides us

All this week, the Belfast Telegraph will be carrying a series of articles to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Today, Alban Maginness, a former barrister, MLA and Lord Mayor of Belfast


Alban Maginness

Alban Maginness

Alban Maginness

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation provides us with a fresh opportunity to look critically on its religious and historical significance in a more reflective way than in the past.

This is immensely important in a Christian society like our own, that was divided primarily on religious grounds.

A society which, without the Reformation, might have had an entirely different history.

As a student in the 1960s at St Malachy's College, Belfast, I was taught from the Catholic Reference Encyclopedia (1968) that the "so called reformation was a tragedy for Christianity".

Perhaps surprisingly, there was no sense of Martin Luther being the villain of the piece. The Reformation was tragic, unfortunate and destructive of Christian unity, but not evil.

That is not to say that Luther was presented as a positive figure, because he was not. Luther was presented as gifted, but a neurotic and overly scrupulous priest, obsessively concerned about his own salvation.

Also, it was honestly and sadly accepted that the Church, and in particular the Papacy, was also responsible for the break up, being institutionally corrupt and in need of reform. It was accepted that Luther was frustrated in his appeal for that reform, but went too far and accidentally established his own Church, which was not his intention.

Looking now at contemporary scholarship on the history of the Reformation is both enlightening and intriguing. According to Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial book, Reformation: Europe's House Divided (2003), there were "very many reformations", including the Counter Reformation, nearly all of which would have said that they were simply aimed at recreating authentic Catholic Christianity.

Once one gets into the detail of the period from 1517 onwards the confusing complexity of what one calls the Reformation becomes self-evident. It was certainly not one event, but a series of events and an historic religious and political process that didn't end until at least 1648, with the Treaty of Westphalia and the end of the religiously inspired slaughter of the Thirty Years War.

Much Christian blood was perversely shed in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose mission on earth was to reconcile man to God and man to man. With Europe, exhausted and sickened by the war, Westphalia provided, albeit imperfectly, for the toleration of religious minorities.

The various theological disputes regarding the doctrine of justification by faith, the disputes over the nature of the Eucharist and the Mass, the centrality of the Bible, were all considered as steps too far by the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church.

But by today's thinking, much of the disputed issues are not considered that great a difference in Christian thinking.

In particular, a common understanding about the doctrine of justification by faith has now been reached between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Churches and others.

Some of those historic disputes now seem abstract and irrelevant today. That is not to say that these differences were not real 500 years ago, but rather that they have lost the passion and energy that they once inspired.

However, we still are living with the consequences of that division in 1517 and that is expressed in the continued confessional divide between Catholics and Protestants.

However, ecumenical growth over the past century has led to a healthy and mature reconsideration of the Reformation by all and an easing of the inter-Church tensions.

It is still my belief that the Reformation was a tragedy for all Christians. Sadly division remains a living reality today and scandalously defies Christ's own words in John 17:21-22: "May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the World may believe it was you who sent me."

This article is from a series of contributions on the Reformation curated by Evangelical Alliance which can be viewed at www.reimaginingfaith.com

Belfast Telegraph