500 years after Reformation, it's time for reconciliation says Lutheran bishop

Celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation will begin this October.Stephen Brown/WCC

Catholics and Protestants should both celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, according to Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD).

"With this clear distinction from all other commemorations of past centuries, we are sending a signal of reconciliation and a new beginning," Bedford-Strohm said at a press conference in Berlin announcing events leading up to the anniversary on 31 October 2017.

The day chosen for the commemoration is the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 theses denouncing church abuses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

The Reformation that followed saw new Protestant Churches formed by Christians who split from the Roman Catholic Church in protest against what they said were its theological errors and moral corruption. A wave of warfare and persecution followed leading to religious and cultural divides which have persisted to this day.

However, in recent years Roman Catholics and Lutherans have reached agreement on the doctrine of justification, a key dividing issue between the papacy and Luther and his followers. Many doctrinal differences should no longer have a church-dividing character, said Bedford-Strohm.

The 500th anniversary celebrations will begin on October 31, 2016, with a service in Berlin. On the same day, Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), will celebrate an ecumenical service in Lund in Sweden, where the LWF was founded in 1947. They will pray for forgiveness and the healing of the wounds the confessions inflicted on each other over the centuries.

"We will celebrate with them in Berlin," said Bedford-Strohm. "What follows Lund, what kind of dynamic might be started there, nobody knows," he said.

This autumn, Protestant and Catholic leaders from Germany will undertake a common pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. This will be followed in March 2017 by a joint service of penitence and reconciliation by the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany.

One of the central events in Germany during the Reformation year will be a Kirchentag, or church convention, in Berlin in May 2017, gathering 100,000 people. Thousands more will join the Kirchentag participants for an open-air service on 28 May in Wittenberg, about 62 miles (100 kilometres) south of Berlin.

However, Bedford-Strohm stressed that the Reformation "is not just a German affair", pointing to the work of the 16th-century Reformers John Calvin in Geneva, Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, among others.

The European dimension of the Reformation will be marked by a storytelling journey beginning on November 3 in Geneva. A special truck will follow a European roadmap linking 68 towns and cities with a Reformation connection in 19 countries before arriving at Wittenberg on 20 May 2017 for the start of a four-month World Reformation Exhibition, 'Gates of Freedom'.