I sometimes wonder if the Anglican Communion was designed to confuse the rest of the world church. The Reformation in Europe divided the continent between what became known as Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. So, in retrospect it sounds a bit like the English decided not to choose between the two churches; instead, the Church of England became a self-defined reformed Catholic Church - still Catholic, but reformed. The best of both worlds?
One, but not the same
The church on the continent and in England
Well, ever since I agreed to be the Anglican co-chair of the Meissen Commission - the body that since 1988 has brought together the Church of England with the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland - I have enjoyed trying to explain what sort of animal the Church of England is. On the European mainland there is essentially a binary way of understanding the Christian church: you are either Protestant or Catholic. But, in England this doesn't work: to be Anglican is to be both.
This is why the English sometimes get confused by the term 'Reformation' and need to be more precise - referring, for example, to "the German Reformation". England's Reformation was shaped by a king's political needs and by people who gave their life for the sake of the Bible and the need (or right) for people to be able to read it for themselves. Naturally, this created a drive for ordinary people to be able to read, and the Scriptures were what they were supposed to read. This would break the power of the Church to control the mysteries of God, and set people free to know the grace of God for themselves.
And this is what lies at the heart of the so-called Protestant Reformation in Europe five hundred years ago. The grace of God, effective by faith, transforming the life and death of the person and the world. Power was challenged and the Bible released.
A church that tolerates fracture
Yet, this willingness to fracture the Church in one sense also created a church that tolerates fracture - often precisely over the question of how to read the Bible. It is impossible to know just how many Protestant denominations now exist worldwide. Individuals feel able to set up their own 'ecclesial communities' as the Roman Catholic Church has referred to churches of the Reformation such as the Church of England. The Reformation itself was never monochrome: Calvin, Zwingli, Luther and many others were clear about what divided them, and patience with one another was not a characteristic in plentiful evidence in either the sixteenth century or now.
So, what is there to say about Protestantism as it now exists around the world. Well, it offers the world a spectrum of theological and ecclesiological cultures and emphases. It allows for a menu of expressions of worship, biblical focus and interpretation, prophetic challenge in the public square, and engagement with social and political order in every context.
Challenges and chances
The most interesting development here in the last few years has been the decision by the World Lutheran Federation to now call itself a 'Communion' - as in the worldwide Anglican Communion. There is clearly a significant difference between a federation (which has to do with association and polity) and a communion (which has to do with theology and ecclesiological identity). Perhaps this is evidence that the tendency of churches in history to fragment along lines of ever-thinner theological difference is recognised to be destructive to Christian witness in an increasingly hostile world. (It is worth noting also that 'Gemeinschaft' in GEKE is translated as 'Communion' in English.)
It is here that both the challenge and the opportunity lies for the churches in Europe particularly. When I agreed in 2006 to be the Anglican co-chair of the Meissen Commission, I did so on the understanding that we should focus our joint attention on our common missional agenda in Europe. For it is in uniting our strength in this common mission - to remind Europe of its Christian origins and character, and to engage with our diverse societies at every level for the sake of (what in England we call) 'the common good' - that our future unity lies.
Every clergyperson in the Church of England promises before the bishop to "proclaim [the good news of Jesus Christ] afresh in each generation". Our common ecumenical task is to support each other in doing this - faithfully, creatively, boldly and with enthusiasm.
Nicholas Baines is a British Anglican bishop. He has been the Bishop of Leeds since 8 June 2014.
This text has appeared in the magazine for the theme year 2016 of the Luther Decade, "Reformation and One World", published by the Evangelical Church in Germany. The magazine is available for download (PDF).
Keywords: Reformation in Europe, Protestantism and Church, Church of England
Notes from One World
The anniversary of the Reformation is not a national, German or even a local event. Over the centuries, the Reformation has become a “citizen of the world”.
Annual Topic 2016
The Reformation spread from Wittenberg to the rest of the world. More than 400 million Protestants worldwide have spiritual links in their religious life with the events of the Reformation. On the eve of the Reformation’s anniversary our attention will be on the global power of its influence.