Let’s reform Reformation Sunday

For decades Reformation Sunday has been on the annual calendar of many mainline Protestant churches in the United States. Held on a Sunday near Oct. 31, it commemorates Martin Luther's protest against the Roman Catholic Church. Often its observance has been a way in which Protestants distinguished themselves from Roman Catholics.

Statue of Martin Luther in Karlsplatz, Eisenach. Image by Robert Scarth.

Since Vatican II the acrimony between Catholics and mainline Protestants in the United States is largely passé. Lutherans and Roman Catholics have entered into an agreement on justification. There is even an Evangelical and Catholic dialogue. In such a climate, some of the older rationale for Reformation Sunday is fading.

Beyond that, the stereotype of a monolithic Reformation led by Luther and Calvin is being called into question. Last spring, Milan Opocensky of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches wrote, “Luther and Calvin did not just fall from Heaven, other people had worked the same field, and people at that time were aware of earlier reformers.”

By earlier reformers he was referring to Waldensians, Hussites, the Czech Brethren and others.

Building on these thoughts, here is a suggestion for reforming Reformation Sunday. Keep the late October date and name, but instead of dealing only with “The Reformation,” let’s focus on what Calvin called “the many resurrections of the church.” This would not exclude Luther and Calvin, but it would lead us to reflect on other examples of the Spirit’s rejuvenating work both within and beyond our own confessional boundaries.

With this reorientation we would be encouraged to lift up renewal movements from the whole sweep of Christian history and from all confessional bodies — Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal and other Protestants. Such an emphasis would encourage us, at least once a year, to rethink and reshape, with God’s help, who we are as Christians.

If Reformation Sunday is “reformed” in these ways, there will be three important outcomes:

1. The day will provide an occasion for ecumenical, not just Protestant, celebrations.

2. The day will provide opportunity for prayerful reflection on our perennial need for revitalization.

3. The day will provide Presbyterians an occasion for liturgical embodiment of the cherished saying, “The church reformed, and always reforming, according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.”

It’s time! Let’s reform Reformation Sunday! This reorientation could start in your congregation this year. If indeed it does, please send a note to The Outlook telling how you approached the day and what was learned.

JOHN R. ‘PETE’ HENDRICK is executive secretary, Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest, and professor emeritus, Austin Seminary.