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Father of the Reformation: Lutheran church

I usually attend Mass on Saturday evenings so when I was invited by a friend to accompany her to a Lutheran service last Sunday morning, I was delighted to be able to accept. It took place in St Finian’s Church in Adelaide Road which has been a permanent place of worship for the Lutheran congregation since 1961.

The Lutheran Church in Ireland is a very small church with a presence on the island of Ireland since the late seventeenth century when it was founded by a pastor from Hamburg, who had come to this country as military chaplain to a Hessian battalion in the army of William of Orange.

When you get a chance to participate in a celebration outside of your own religion you are very aware of the similarities and the differences. The Church is much smaller than the one in my parish but with comparable stained-glass windows of great beauty.  On the altar, again much smaller the centerpiece is a small and simple wooden cross. The organ was at the top of the nave and there were no statues.  However, the most immediate difference was the fact that the person who led the proceedings was a woman.

Position of Women

She is one of the Elders of the Church and was standing in for the Pastor who was unavailable on that day.  She explained to us (twelve in all) that because she is not ordained there would be no Communion available.

Martin Luther had insisted that all Christians, share by faith in the same spiritual priesthood. This came to include women, but it is still an issue of debate as to how far this inclusion can go.

However, the Lutheran church within the Evangelical Church in Germany does ordain women and has women bishops.  This does not mean that the ordination of women happens in all Lutheran branches.  Seventy-seven percent of the church bodies in the Lutheran World Federation ordain women.  But women in these countries report that female pastors often do not have equal access to decision-making roles or to higher education opportunities beyond a theological diploma.

In preparation for writing this blog, I looked up some facts about the Lutheran religion and realised I had made two assumptions that turned out to be erroneous.  The first was my belief that every Lutheran Church ordained women; the second was to do with the Eucharist.

The Mass

At the center of Roman, Catholic worship is the Mass.  During the celebration, the actual presence of Christ is manifested mystically in the elements of bread and wine.  When they are blessed by the priest (who can only be male) they transubstantiate into the actual body and blood of Christ. This is consumed by the people present; the outward appearance of bread and wine remains.  Thus, the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary is again made manifest.

Lutherans reject this doctrine of transubstantiation although they do believe in the real presence of Christ.  I had mistakenly thought that they regarded it only as a memorial.  In the language of Martin Luther, Christ is in, above, behind and beside the elements.  Therefore, Christians enjoy the presence of Christ without bringing his sacrifice into the present for renewal.

In Luther’s eyes the mass was simply an expression of God’s promise of forgiveness.  Still, although Christ’s sacrifice was a historical, unrepeatable event, his was not a voice echoing across the centuries but the incarnate word speaking now to the assembly of believers.  But Luther’s focus was on the word, rather than the mystical body of the risen Christ.

Luther’s Significance

Martin Luther’s relevance to religious history begins with the fact that in his attempt to remedy what he saw to be corruption in the Catholic Church he unintentionally unleashed forces which left Christian society ruptured and prone to continual divisions.  Would there have been a Reformation if young Martin had followed his father’s wishes and become a lawyer instead of a monk?  We do not know, but the Reformation as it happened is unimaginable without him.

Everything for Luther began with God’s grace.  The flood of his grace swept everything away leaving only the twin principles faith alone and Scripture alone. Their power lay in the word ‘alone’.  There is nothing and no one else other than God incarnate in Jesus Christ worth attending to.   Luther’s themes were all familiar ones, either ancient or newly fashionable.  St Augustine had emphasized God’s grace, the late medievals had stressed God’s absolute sovereignty and Erasmus had called for simplicity.  What Luther did was to combine those themes as never before.

Not in my Name

Luther who considered himself the worst of sinners had begged his followers to call themselves Christians, not “Lutherans”:

“What is Luther?  The teaching is not mine.  Neither was I crucified for anyone…How then should I, poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am, come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name?”

He denied that his movement’s success was his own doing.  His Reformation neither transformed the Church nor was crushed by it.   As a revolution, it had failed but it had created a new world.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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1 thought on “Father of the Reformation: Lutheran church

  1. Very intelligently written piece . It’s obvious the writer knows her stuff. She takes a balanced view .

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