Today is Oct 31, celebrated by Protestants as Reformation Day. It is the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of Wittenburg Church. That event is said to be the start of the Protestant Reformation. Luther, however, was not trying to start a movement in the Church. He did not intend for his action to lead to the events that followed. He was actually following a common practice. If a professor at the university where he taught had a subject he wanted debated, he would go and post a set of theses on the subject for debate. It's just that by that time, there was a lot debate throughout Germany going on about the subjects he covered, and there was the printing press. Someone removed his 95 these, printed them, and one thing lead to another.
The Reformation was, of course, a very complicated event that spread over many years. The result was a split in Western Christendom between the Roman Catholics and those called Protestants, of which there were and have been since, many flavours. It is still debated today whether or not to say the Protestant Reformation was a good thing or a bad thing. Those who are especially concerned for the unity of the church do look ill upon it, and there is no question that a split is generally not a good thing.
One person has said - and I tend to think he is right - that if the circumstances had simply been different, there would have been no split, but we may have been left with a Lutheran Order, to add to the Franciscan, the Dominican and so forth. Luther, after all, started out thinking he was just trying to help solve an obvious problem; he had no intention of starting a new denomination at all. But sadly, the Vatican had gotten too worldly, and church affairs were too tied up with political and national issues. It seems the church was at that time in no position to be able to peacefully debate anything, even though people everywhere knew the Roman Church needed reforms. And when reforms were made, people were glad. Multitudes of people found liberation from the errors of Rome and a new assurance of their salvation in the preaching of the grace of the gospel. For those people, the Reformation was a good thing indeed.
It is common for Protestants to be characterized as people who wanted to get rid of all the church traditions that had accrued and get back to the Bible and the days of the apostles; and granted some Protestants thought that way. Sadly, today, many evangelicals think that that was the only opinion, and they discount everything that had been believed and done between the early church and the 16th century, so that today - thinking they are being good Protestants - they don't pay any attention to the intervening period. It's as if it was all just a Dark Age. Truth be told, the Reformers would be appalled, especially those who reformed the Church of England.
The Church of England did have her own version of the Reformation, but at the same time, while making changes, she kept in her memory what she had been before. This is the reason why Anglicans consider themselves not merely Protestants, but a Reformed Catholic church. She is Reformed, but she has not lost the catholic connection. This means that she maintains her connection with her past, while appreciating the reforms made in the 16th Century; the Anglican Church is a Protestant Church, but as such, she is still a continuation of what was good about her pre-Protestant days.
Why this manner of reform? The history of Christianity in England goes all the way back to the first century. Eusebius - the Church historian - says that the apostles and disciples preached the gospel throughout the whole Empire; and it is almost certain that there were Christian soldiers in Britannia in the first century. She has her own claim of apostolic originality. She was never dependent upon Rome for her existence. There were even bishops from England at the Council of Nicaea, which gave us the Nicene Creed. Christians were worshipping our Lord in England long before the first Roman Catholic monk set foot on her shores. It is certainly not the case that the Church of England began when Henry VIII separated the British Church from Rome.
But changes did result from this separation and the accompanying reform, and they resulted in the foundation documents of our Church: The Book of Common Prayer, The Thirty-Nine Articles, The Ordinal, and we should include The Homilies. If you read these documents - as we do portions of them every Sunday - what do we find? We find they are Reformed: in the true Protestant spirit, they are full of Scripture. All the Reformers, including those in England, believed that the Bible itself teaches us that it is the supreme authority for all that we as Christians are to believe and practice. The Bible is the judge of our traditions, the judge of our culture, and the judge of all our hearts, not vice versa. It is the Word of God that gives us life, faith, and the saving knowledge of God. As St. Paul says to Timothy:
14 But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (in other words, it gives us everything that we need).
But continuing the point made earlier about keeping what was good from the past, the English theologians, did not ignore the writings of the Church Fathers - which the Roman Catholics looked to so much; the men who had written during the centuries following the age of the apostles. Nor did they forget the worship practices of both Rome and England that had been used for centuries. It’s just that they would only use works or practices that they could square up with Scripture. E.g., Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer, wrote: "We consider that the authority of the orthodox fathers is by no means to be despised, for they have many useful and excellent observations. But that the Holy Scriptures should be interpreted by their decisions we do not allow.” By thus respecting and remembering and preserving aspects of the Church which had preceded them, the Reformers retained the catholic nature of the Church of England.
You may not realize it, but many of the collects and other prayers we pray in our services come from prayers composed centuries before the Reformation and long loved by the Church. The collects we have been using this month were not composed by Cranmer but they come from either the Gelasian Sacramentary, which was a liturgy composed by Pope Gelasius I - who was pope from AD 492-496 - and the Gregorian Sacramentary, which was a revision of the Roman Catholic liturgy executed by Pope Gregory the Great (AD 590-604). This liturgy was first brought by Benedictine monks to England when the pope sent them as missionaries to the people of that island - that's a thousand years before the Reformation!
In such manner, the leaders of the Reformation in England proved themselves to be catholic and Reformed.
The question is understandably asked, "Will we ever reunite with the Roman Church?" If there is time, it's possible. While there are still some important differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants; there has been a good bit of rapprochement among the Roman Catholics toward Reformed Protestants. On October 31, 1999, officials from both the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in which Pope Benedict said that Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is correct if ‘faith is not opposed to charity.’ which, of course, it is not. A lot of Roman Catholics don't like it, but there it is anyway. Vatican II made several overtures to the Protestants. Bishop Robert Barron - popular on Youtube - said that the Reformation made a great contribution to the Church at that time, by renewing an emphasis on the principle of the primacy of grace; an emphasis that needed renewing.
At the same time evangelicals, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, are finding common ground in the "mere Christianity" ideal of C. S. Lewis. The cultural pressures we also share together have led us to be much more cooperative and respectful of each other as well. After all, no Anglican today is going to say - as some used to! - that the pope is the Antichrist. Those days are past.
There have been many in the Anglican Communion who have argued that we should adjust beliefs and practices in the Anglican Church to be closer to them and maybe even someday return to them. There are some in the ACNA who have this persuasion. I however agree with the evangelical Roman Catholic philosopher, Peter Kreeft, that the answer to our division is not for the two parties to deny who they are, but to be who they are while continuing to seek the Truth, and in God's good time, He will bring about the reunion that - whatever it may look like - we know would be ideal. In the meantime, let us give thanks for our own communion, for "...our Church's history demonstrates that there is a strength, a vitality, a light that shines from traditional, evangelical Anglicanism that is lovely, and renews that salty savour of the Church, which our Lord declared as so necessary for her calling in this world." So let us keep praying for the prosperity of a Reformed Catholic Christianity such as we enjoy in the Anglican Communion.