Belfast Telegraph

We could use some latter-day Martin Luthers in our modern secular world

By Alf McCreary

Tomorrow marks Reformation Sunday throughout the main Protestant Churches, and this year it takes on a special significance with the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's dramatic initiative on October 31, 1517.

When Luther nailed or pasted his 95 theses on that door in Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints' Day he had little idea of the worldwide revolution that would unfold itself from "an idea whose time has come".

Even Pope Francis has declared that Luther did not intend to divide the Catholic Church, but to reform it.

Over the next decades and centuries the Protestant Reformation entirely re-shaped religious and national developments in one of the greatest revolutions the world has ever seen.

It took some time for the Reformation to reach Geneva, then Scotland and finally Ireland, but its repercussions have lasted for centuries, and the effects are still evident all around us today.

In Ireland religion and politics became inextricably mixed, and in Northern Ireland the churches, at their worst, became part of the problem.

In the bad old days a religious apartheid ruled supreme, and though Protestants and Catholics met in the workplace, or through sport or at various social events, there were two distinct communities.

In my native village of Bessbrook the nearest we ever approached what was later called ecumenism was when our Presbyterian minister stopped in the street to talk to the local Roman Catholic priest.

Luckily for me I played football with Catholic boys, one of whom remains a close friend to this day.

At one stage, things were so bad that Protestants who attended the funerals of Catholic friends and colleagues paid their respects by staying outside the church building while the funeral service continued inside, and vice versa. Thank God those days have gone and people of all religions and none take part in sharing such sad occasions.

During the Troubles the influence of bad religion was evident all over Northern Ireland, with death notices in newspapers for many loyalist and republican paramilitaries accompanied by the words 'For God and Ulster' or 'Mary, mother of Jesus pray for him'.

It took a long time for the churches to come to terms with the Troubles and to realise and admit to the part they had played in the segregation of the past.

Some courageous groups, as well as individual clerics and specific churches, worked hard to bridge the divides, and not without a significant degree of success.

This work continues and there are still visionary and brave people who work hard to cross the divides, despite the hard core of religious bigots on all sides.

Tragically there are still clerics and so-called Christians who refuse to take part in cross-community services due to 'conscience'.

What kind of conscience is that, in God's name?

On a structural level, the main churches have worked hard at promoting better understanding at the highest echelons, but they can only go so far.

The basic differences are still there and one of the greatest condemnations of the churches' failure to make progress is their lack of a shared communion service. As a Protestant I am still forbidden by the Catholic church to share in their communion, though any Catholic literally in good faith is free to take communion in a Protestant church.

There is a feeling that the great 16/17th centuries of Reformation is now over, but there is still an urgent need for a continuing reformation. Unless the Catholic church shows the courage to end the ban on celibacy, and also to give women more influence in the priesthood, it will slowly continue to decline.

Equally the main Protestant churches need to find new ways to attract people in this secular age, without giving up their core principles.

In short we need new Martin Luthers to bring in a new Reformation which will allow the Holy Spirit to do its work in the modern world, but where are they?

This religious penny has been a long time a-dropping.

Belfast Telegraph

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