I do not regret the efforts of reformers over the centuries and millennia to work for changes to the church as an institution or to practices of piety when Christians have lost their way. I do not regret the church rejuvenating efforts of mystics or of theologians who call upon us to reflect upon what it means to be Christian. I do not regret Jan Hus, Martin Luther, John Wesley, or countless others who have pointed out the flaws in the church and called for us to do better. I do not even regret that sometimes the genuine call to growth in faith and piety can mean that institutions and power structures suffer divisions. What I would regret is if we made an idol of an institution of faith instead of being true to the faith itself.
499 years go, Martin Luther set in motion what we have come to call the Protestant Reformation. It was needed. A century before, Jan Hus said many of the same things; but circumstances did not work out in his favour and he perished in the flames as a heretic. Arguably, if the church of his day had paid attention to his criticisms and done something about them the divisions that occurred in the 16th century might have been avoided. But that is the ‘what if’ game that historians are taught not to play.
What the Reformation (and the Roman Catholic Reformation after it — hence, the Reformations) made possible was a rebirth of Christianity in parts of Europe where it had suffered corruption through a too-close association with the power of politics. That rebirth called upon Christians to reflect upon what is the essence of the faith; reaching back to the model of Jesus of Nazareth. Even in that rebirth, there was not a true ‘purification’ of the faith. Reformers were often not immune to political associations and appeals to the power of the state. But, the Reformations did lead to an improvement of sorts — pulling Christianity in Central and Western Europe back from the brink of losing its sense of self.
Roman Catholics benefitted from this call to self-reflection as much (maybe even more) than anyone. The Roman Catholic Church that emerged out of the 16th century was better and more faithful than the one that had existed right before the conflict.
Some lament the divisions that created the Reformations and Post-Reformations Churches (like my own Methodism). The laments too often point back to the disease, though — towards pining away for a time when there was one church institution. The monolithic institution, however, was at the root of the trouble. To me, the regrets over the creation of new religious traditions (born out of a fundamentally conservative impulse to model life and beliefs upon early Christianity) is like the sort of regret one hears when an ‘unwanted’ child is born. One can spend time criticizing how that child came into being; or one can love the child and give it a place in the broader reality of family life. The fact is that Reformations and Post-Reformations churches exist. They have existed for centuries. And they are part of the way that Christ Jesus is known in the world. Their birth helped the rebirth of Christianity in parts of the world where rebirth was needed. I do not regret — nor apologize — for my own tradition . . . nor anyone else’s way of being Christian.
The fact is that we are united when we follow Jesus. Institutional unity is no proof of faithfulness. Faithfulness is proved by the truthfulness of our love for God, our love for one another, and our love for the Creation God makes and all who live there. The light of Christ can sparkle from countless facets — each with a different hue or tint. Differences in how that light appears to our eyes do not change the fact that the light is that of God.
That light can be dimmed by the darkness of our own ambitions for control. But when our sin truly begins to choke the life-giving light from healing God’s Creation — God will break out of the boxes into which we would place the Divine. Nearly 500 years ago God moved and we were given a new chance. It was we who made murder of that opportunity. But that is not all that happened. For, we are all children of the Reformations. And I am glad for you and for all of us. I am glad Jesus calls us now — to live as he lives and love as he loves.