The Oxford Student Long Read: As the Reformation turns 500, Ecumenism is more vital than ever


Popular wisdom has it that on October 1517 an Augustinian monk nailed a series of propositions to a door of a church in Wittenberg (Germany). His name was Martin Luther, and he was presenting his ninety-five arguments against the presumed power of Catholic-sold indulgences to save unshriven souls from the pains of Purgatory, that ‘place’ contemporaries understood as ‘a Hell of limited duration’. It was with this broad stroke that the ‘official’ Reformation began. Thereafter, it swept through Europe like a tidal wave. We now celebrate the quincentenary of such momentous event in Christian history.

The rest of the story after Luther’s attack on Catholicism is well-known and hardly needs explanation. As time passed, Christians became progressively more and more divided. On the one hand, it caused internal rifts within Protestants and new denominations sprang up. As if this were not enough, there was a religious counter reaction on the part of the Catholicam Ecclesiam which later came to be known as ‘the Counterreformation’, lasting a century from the 1540s. In our country, several Reformations ensued immediately after Luther: Henry VIII’s ‘Catholicism without the Pope’, Edward VI’s ‘evangelical regime’, Mary I’s ‘Erasmian Catholicism’ and the Elizabethan ‘middle way’. As in the rest of Europe, such a quick succession of reformations had no other result than impractical and unprofitable division, hatred, and death.

With one broad stroke, the ‘official’ Reformation began. Thereafter it swept through Europe

Perhaps most importantly of all, there were no substantial (or effective) attempts at rapprochement amongst Christians until the mid-twentieth century. For their part, Protestants found it too frivolous either to compromise with each other’s views on specific issues or to establish a common denominator of belief to endow divided Protestants with internal cohesion. In its case, the Roman Catholic Church pursued traditionalist policies (see the nineteenth-century dogma of “papal infallibility”). This was the primary result of the combination of the Catholic Church’s relentless opposition to recognise Protestants as a legitimate body of believers and the effects of the papacy’s progressive defeat in and reaction against political conflicts, materialism, and secularism.

All this changed in the context of a catastrophic century of world wars and humanitarian disasters, which provided a common existential need for all Christians. A source of comfort against human loss caused by armed conflict, the Christian faith was expected to provide relief to all those who were experiencing periods of physical or psychological hardship. It was thus in this period when the first conciliatory attitudes appeared. To that intent, after the First World War Germanos, the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, proposed ‘to the Churches of Christ everywhere’ a ‘fellowship of churches’ akin to the contemporary League of Nations. After the Second World War the first meeting of the World Council of Churches took place in 1948 in Amsterdam.

Nonetheless, it must be remembered that ecumenism is not a product of the twentieth century alone. Ecumenism is defended by the Bible itself. In fact, it was in his prayer to God during the Last Supper that Jesus Christ expressed his wish that ‘[…] they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee […]’ (John, 17:21). Moreover, there is no possibility of claiming this prayer was never fulfilled and that, as a consequence, ecumenism is non-viable.  In fact, the Bible gives evidence of unity among the first Christians immediately after the death of Jesus; we are told that all Christians ‘were of one heart and one soul’ at Pentecost and immediately after (Acts 4:32).

Certainly, from the late twentieth-century onwards the complicated theological issues around which the Reformation revolved started to be resolved at several points by church officials. 1999 saw the solution of the most controversial issue at the centre of the Reformation: the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. By claiming that Christian works were unnecessary to grant the remission of sins because the latter was only granted by the believer’s faith in Christ, Luther had unleashed a storm that took great pain to resolve many centuries after. Before the second millennium Catholics and Lutherans agreed on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The signatories agreed that Lutheran teachings were exempted from previous Catholic excommunications and vice versa in the condemnations set forth by Lutherans regarding Catholic doctrine. This accord was extremely popular, judging by its adoption in the World Methodist Council (2006), the Anglican Consultative Council (2016), and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (2017). Other similar actions such as these demonstrate that the official policy of Christianity shifted in the late twentieth century in order to work towards the fulfilment of Christ’s wish of unity.

The main reason why all these resolutions have been (and are) pursued is because Christians are united with regards to the supreme status of the Bible as a book of guidance. Christ was explicit when he expressed his desire for unity in the Last Supper. The actions of the different churches make sense when we consider that Biblical authority does not accept arguments against efforts of inter-Christian unity. If an individual chose otherwise (something perfectly valid), they would be going against the precepts set out in Holy Scripture. In fact, the aforementioned biblical precedent of Christian unity can be read as the most important reason why Christ’s wish needs to be fulfilled. Moreover, it highlights that it is not impossible for Christians to unite. The main additional implication of this is that it disqualifies ultra conservative religious policies. According to the Bible alone ecumenism must direct the actions of Christians. The practice of dialogue is at the heart of the Christian message: exclusionary religious zealots go against all of this.

Christian participation in ecumenical action will engender a spirit of toleration

I am not isolated in this view. The last Catholic Ecumenical Council expressed resolutions the same consideration in its resolutions. In accordance with Christ’s petition, the beginning of Unitatis Redintegratio, the ecumenical decree of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1968) underlined that ‘Christ the Lord founded one Church, and one Church only’. Christians, Church teaching holds, whatever their denomination, are inexorably bound together as members of the mystical body of Christ. This transcends all barriers. In fact, this is so strong that, as the Son was in the Father, all Christians are one in Christ. Denying and rejecting ecumenism will go against such fundamental of unity in Christ that defines all those following him. Unity, hence, is part of being a Christian and, as such, it cannot be concealed. Actions striving towards interdenominational harmony need to be performed at all levels. Ecumenism alone can ensure the achievement of Christ’s clearly-expressed wish for a united faith.

The success of the Second Vatican Council or the Joint Declaration and its subsequent adoption by many Protestant churches highlight that we are in the heyday of ecumenism. The anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation must remind us of the benefits derived from interdenominational dialogue. The celebration is encouraging enough to express one’s determination of furthering the last fifty years’ official ecumenical efforts. Indeed, as Pope Francis said in a homily he delivered in 2016 to celebrate the Zwinglian Reformation in Switzerland, ‘[…] in the context of the Reformation of 1517, we have an opportunity to accept a common path.’ It is precisely this ‘common path’ that the new generations of Christians need to appreciate and walk through. The Lutheran anniversary is a great moment to do so.

The anniversary of the reformation may provide a vital catalyst torenew ecumenical efforts

You may argue that the Reformation was highly divisive and that Luther’s actions were far from beneficial, or that as a consequence they an unconvincing example of to appeal to ecumenism. I must allow two arguments in ecumenism’s defence. Firstly, I am neither defending Luther nor criticising him. This commentary is neither an endorsement nor criticism of Lutheranism. In fact, celebrating or condemning it is an entirely different matter subject to each individual’s conscience.  Secondly, I am favouring the anniversary of Luther as a catalyst to renew ecumenical efforts at an individual level. Luther’s quincentenary must be a fresh reminder of consequences of the entire Reformation (and, by extension, of the Counterreformation). By remembering their deeply divisive outcomes this ‘common path’ Pope Francis spoke about will become much clearer for the younger generations.

Christian churches are making their best to unify Christianity after the bitter division of the Reformation. Justin Welby, The Archbishop of Canterbury, pointed out in the World Council of Churches last February that most ecumenical efforts go unnoticed because there is a spontaneous ecumenical engagement at a local level, far from the reaches of the official organs of the Church’s authority. I support this wholeheartedly because ultimately, ecumenism in its most powerful state is between individual Christians. The spiritual union of each individual is stronger than any diplomatic treaty or accord.

In the light of the ‘common path’ highlighted by the Reformation, Christian students need to engage with each other as ecumenical individuals. After all, they are all Christians because we are all little parts of the whole body of Christ. With this in mind, Christian Unions should continue to promote an ecumenical vision of Christianity. Moreover, university students who profess Christianity must strive to the same goal in their own capacities. Most importantly, it is necessary that Christian students attend church together and respect the denomination of the other. In my personal case, I am a Christian Roman Catholic who goes to Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches because I believe that there should be no boundaries or borders within Christianity. Apostasy is not to be used as an excuse against this.

Action is also vital to ecumenism. Protestant and Catholic students should engage in sharing the Gospel of reconciliation to their friends. Christians at a university level need to sit down and read the Bible together. I did this with an Anglican friend as an undergraduate and it was so useful and conciliatory that it inspired us to share the good news of the Gospel with our other friends. We felt we were leaving aside our differences by working in the service of Christ. It was precisely this missionary cooperative work of spreading the Gospel that Pope Saint John Paul II claimed in Ut Unum Sint to make the other ‘less a stranger and more a Christian brother or sister’.

Hence, in reflecting on the anniversary of the Reformation, Christians must engage with the followers of other denominations in spreading the good news of the Gospel. This will aid and supplement the immense efforts ecclesiastics are making at an official level to join Christians together once more. The rapprochement between Christians will also allow the broadening of Christian horizons and the achievement of a fuller understanding and respect for those who follow other religions or none at all. How can we respect our neighbours when we cannot even respect and engage in dialogue with our Christian sisters and brothers living under the same roof? Christian participation in ecumenical action at an individual level will engender a spirit of toleration and understanding which extends beyond the church itself. The renewed ecumenical outlook springing up from the anniversary of the Reformation can be used to work towards the achievement of a more tolerant world. In a world of religious extremist terrorism, political division, and prejudice, cooperation and understanding at an individual level is more necessary than ever.  We must speak, understand, and unite.