European, Ecumenical, Political

Berlin (epd). Since 2008, the EKD member churches have been preparing for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Since the beginning of the Reformation Decade they have discussed about how it is to be celebrated: proudly or also humbly, only among Protestants or interdenominationally, nationally or internationally? In five months, the curtain will rise on the anniversary year. It will start on Reformation Day this year, 31 October 2016.

On 9 May, the Evangelical Church in Germany and German Protestant Kirchentag presented their plans in Berlin. The course is now set: the anniversary will be European, ecumenical, and also political.

Not just a German affair

Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chair of the EKD Council, insisted that the Reformation was not just a German affair. The anniversary year had to be European, he explained, referring to the Reformers Jan Hus from Prague and Huldrych Zwingli and Jean Calvin representing Switzerland. Bedford-Strohm, who is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria, expects that when European Protestants come together they will also hold discussions on the current refugee situation, which is dividing rather than uniting Europe. He believes that celebrating 500 years of Reformation also means intervening in public life.

From November 2016, a European Reformation Roadmap will be traced out with successive highlights in 68 towns and cities in 19 countries which were shaped by the Reformation or drove it forward. The last way-station will be Wittenberg, where Martin Luther spent most of his working life. From 20 May to 10 September 2017, the World Reformation Exhibition "Gates of Freedom" will attract Protestants from all over the globe to Wittenberg and give them an opportunity to present themselves.

Highlight: festive open-air service in Wittenberg

A highlight on 28 May will be an open-air service in Wittenberg. The meadow by the River Elbe is large enough to hold 300,000 people, said Christina Aus der Au, who will preside at the 2017 Kirchentag. In the preceding week, the 36th German Protestant Kirchentag will take place in Berlin, likewise focusing on the Reformation. At the same time, there will be six regional programmes known as Kirchentag on the Way in Central German cities. Kirchentag visitors can take special trains from Berlin to Wittenberg, leaving every ten minutes.

Bedford-Strohm called the Reformation anniversary a sign of a new departure and reconciliation - and pointed to the ecumenical cooperation. "After all, the Reformers did not want to found a new church, they wanted to point to Jesus Christ," he said. Accordingly, there will be several high-level events with the Roman Catholic Church. The Lutheran World Federation is expecting Pope Francis on 31 October 2016 for an joint Lutheran-Catholic commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden. Will Francis also come to Germany? Bedford-Strohm did not want to rule this out, adding that he would wave joyfully to Lund when the EKD opens the anniversary year for Germany in Berlin.

In March 2017, the EKD and German Catholic Bishops Conference will hold a service of repentance and reconciliation in Hildesheim, to heal the wounds caused by church division. Representatives of both churches also intend to make a joint pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in autumn 2016, in order to be reminded of the sources and roots of their common faith.

"Reformation means a courageous departure"

As for the Kirchentag, the Swiss theologian Christina Aus der Au expects debates on the significance of the Reformation 500 years after Luther posted his 95 Theses. She also anticipates discussions on refugee policy and on the rise of right-wing populist currents in the run-up to the German federal elections. As its president, Aus der Au hopes the Kirchentag will send a "strong signal of welcome, respect and community feeling" - and stimulate new ideas in the church: "Reformation means a courageous departure and turning away from old customs that are no longer life-enhancing."

With the anniversary year, Protestants remember Martin Luther's legendary posting of his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther was mainly criticizing the sale of indulgences by the Church of Rome and calling for reforms. The publication of the 95 Theses is regarded as the starting point of the Reformation and the beginning of Protestantism.

Corinna Buschow (epd)