Why I Don’t Believe in Reformation Sunday

It is customary in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), as well as other Protestant denominations, to observe Reformation Day on October 31, the day that Martin Luther made public his 95 theses about the church. This year, Reformation Day falls on a Wednesday, which means that churches will celebrate it on the last Sunday of October.

2017 marked 500 years after the Reformation, and Protestant churches around the country—perhaps around the world—marked the date with celebrations. I think it’s time to let it go.

My own denomination’s website included these words as the church prepared for the 500th anniversary:

As Christians, our faith began with the followers of Jesus. But the beginning of our Christian faith as Presbyterian is in the Reformation. The Reformation marks something significant for us in this part of the universal church: the coalescence of our focus on the Holy Spirit’s ongoing reform of us as a church and as individuals. Martin Luther helps us to understand and acknowledge that the institution of the church is not equal to God. We are called to worship the triune God alone, to claim Jesus Christ as Lord of the church, and to seek the ongoing sanctification of the Holy Spirit.

I don’t disagree with those sentiments; in fact, I wholeheartedly agree. But in this, my last post as a regular contributor to Pray Tell (at least for a season!) I must say that the focus on the Holy Spirit’s ongoing reform of the church is something I believe my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers share. We are all called, Protestant and Catholic alike, “to worship the triune God alone, to claim Jesus Christ as the Lord of the church, and to seek the ongoing sanctification of the Holy Spirit.”

I am proud of my Presbyterian heritage. I’m a Presbyterian all the way down, with strong convictions about the sovereignty of God, Scripture as the ultimate authority, and the priesthood of all believers. I affirm the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacraments and in preaching. I understand baptism as the entry into the body of Christ, a dying and rising with Christ that does not take place only on one day, but is a lifelong endeavor, complete only in death and resurrection on the last day. I am convinced that Word and Sacrament are two parts of one whole, both essential for the proclaiming, hearing, and living of the gospel. I also believe that women are called to all ministries of the church and that God’s call to ministry in all its forms is not limited by human understandings of gender or sexual identity.

Even while I fully embrace my own Reformed heritage, I give thanks for all that I have learned, and continue to learn, from my Roman Catholic siblings in Christ. I pray for the unity of the church, that we may be one in faith and ministry even if we may never agree on certain theological convictions. In a world torn apart by greed and the thirst for power, we need one another.

I realize that this is an especially painful time for the Roman Catholic church, that the truth-telling around sexual abuse is necessary and erodes trust in the church. I have some sense of the theological battles being waged between those who strive to reclaim certain traditions and those who seek to embrace new ways of being the church. Whatever corner of the church we inhabit, Roman Catholic or Protestant, the challenges are plenty. To my way of thinking, that only strengthens our need to seek unity, to learn from one another, and to discern, together, where God is leading the church of Jesus Christ.

This is the problem with Reformation Sunday. To highlight the Protestant reformation keeps the focus on our differences, rather than our similarities. It not only ignores what we call the “Counter-Reformation” but implies that the Catholic church is not itself reforming over time. We Presbyterians love the phrase semper reformanda and claim that our church is always being reformed; little do we know that Catholic reformers have used the phrase, too!

That is why I won’t be celebrating Reformation Sunday this year, or any year. I may sing “A Mighty Fortress,” but I’ll do so while giving thanks for the universal church into which I have been baptized, the church which God is continually reforming.

Share:

6 comments

  1. Amen.

    There’s a lot of tribalism happening today. Christ always and everywhere reached out beyond social boundaries to impart his healing and grace. And still does! I would think that Christians are called to imitate this.

  2. One thing that should always stand true to anyone who stands true to the Reformed truths is Solo Scriptura. No matter what you do as a Reformer your balance is always the scripture. From leadership to teaching it has to be done by God’s word. If it is done by man it is done outside of scripture and it will not glorify man. What is mans chief end? From the Westminster Confession of faith…to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

  3. An ecumenical ritual for the occasion could be simple: a proclamation of the Final Discourse of the Gospel of St John (the whole thing), where our Lord in a sense foreshadows the division of his disciples and his prayers regarding them, followed by washing of feet accompanied by music from the Psalter. No sermon/homily.

  4. A memory from the late 1960s, when I was in grammar school: Our Catholic parish in a northeastern Maine paper mill town celebrated Mass in a four-hymn style (entrance, offertory, communion, closing), using the J.S. Pauluch pulp-paper monthly missalettes. I was learning to play the piano and (nascent liturgy geek) enjoyed cite-reading melodies of the hymns in the back of the misallete (monthly copy always in our living room, as my Dad was one of the first lectors for Mass in our parish). One day, as I pecked out “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” my Mom, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, called out from the kitchen, “Now I’ve heard it all! Are Catholics singing “A Mighty Fortress”? Naive kid as I was, I replied that, well, there it was in the misalette, so what could the big deal be? Mom just chuckled.

    Over the 1970s several Wesleyan hymns (texts and/or tunes) became staples in parishes around the Bangor, Maine, deanery. I grew up a devout Catholic kid nurtured in an ecumenical environment, with our pastor (no “liberal” by a long shot, but a “man of the church” ready to follow the lead of the Bishop of Portland) readily involving his parish in cooperative ventures. Fr. Harvey delighted in co-officiating at wedding ceremonies at the Congregational Church.

    Thank you, Kimberly, for this post and, moreover, for all your contributions to Pray Tell these years.

    1. Thank you, Bruce, for your sharing these memories and for your kind words. Please know how grateful I am for your work; you have been an important influence on this Protestant liturgy geek!

  5. At the UCC church where I am Director of Music, on Reformation Sunday we are focusing on women’s stories (nevertheless, she persisted), including the first woman not to be believed, Mary Magdalene, and the way in which our Christian faith originates in its own way with her. Though I am usually an advocate of observing the calendar and lectionary, this seems like a good way to celebrate the spirit of the Reformation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *