Several hundred people gathered in Saint Columb’s Cathedral, in Londonderry, on Tuesday evening, for a Service of Thanksgiving to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. They included leaders of some of the main Christian churches in the North West and members of parishes right the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe, from Castlerock to South West Donegal.
The Service was organised by the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe’s Board of Mission and Unity. It was an appropriate church in which to mark the quincentenary: Saint Columb’s was the first cathedral built in these islands in the aftermath of the Reformation. The Preacher at the Service, Rt Rev Ferran Glenfield, Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh Diocese, described it as a great privilege and honour to be there.
Bishop Glenfield told the congregation that five hundred years ago the winds of change were sweeping across medieval Europe. Things were changing and changing fast. Europe was on the move and yet, ironically, Europe’s great thinkers and shapers looked back in order to go forward into the brave new world of the sixteenth century – “‘ad fontes’ – back to sources”.
“Justification by faith alone,” Bishop Glenfield said, “was an act by which God provides the righteousness required for salvation as a free, unmerited gift. God’s love is not conditional on our transformation; rather, personal transformation follows God’s acceptance and affirmation and reconciliation through the cross and resurrection of his son. Luther’s discovery was ‘dynamite’. And it undermined the consensus and world view of medieval Christianity. It’s about salvation through faith alone, in Christ alone.”
The preacher compared Luther to the early apostles, like St Peter, who were aware of the corruption around them. “Nothing has changed,” Bishop Glenfield said. “Our generation is corrupt. The Paradise Papers reveal once again that the rich corporations and super-rich individuals will always seek to sidestep their responsibilities to the countries that they reside and work in. The sexual harassment and abuse in the corridors of power, and in the tinsel-town of the art world and the movie world, confirm yet again that powerful individuals think they can get away with anything over the weak, the vulnerable and the impressionable.
“In our streets and in many of our homes, indebtedness, insecurity, addiction, violence and hate stalk the lives of so many people. It’s about salvation, God in Christ saving sinners: freeing, delivering, restoring, reconciling lives from the inside out – through faith alone, in Christ alone.”
The Reformation was about the Bible, the Bishop said, and scripture alone became the reformers principle guide. In reformed churches, life and belief were reshaped and aligned with the Bible.
“Since the sixteenth century,” he said, “enlightenment thinking has elevated reason above everything, and has eroded and emasculated the Bible in most reformed churches. The Bible has been taken apart like a dismantled car engine on a mechanic’s workbench and is powerless to drive our Church. And yet, the power of the Bible remains innate and awaits rediscovery.”
Bishop Glenfield described the Reformation as a ‘bottom-up’, not a ‘top-down’ movement; it came from outsiders rather than from insiders; it came from the periphery rather than from the centre; it was wrapped in the grace of God.
“In his life, on the cross and in his resurrection,” the Bishop said, “Jesus restored humanity, giving peace and forgiveness and acceptance and healing and wholeness to the common people. Grace alone. God for us. God with us. God in us. God’s grace freely given was a gift to be received by all and unwrapped in grace-filled lives. It’s about grace, a grace which gives people value and respect; a grace which says they matter – matter to God; which creates community; which lives in relationship and fellowship; and is fuelled by generosity and welcomes all.
“People today still seek love and acceptance in our loveless world which cares nothing about our souls,” Bishop Glenfield said. “People are looking – searching – for the very things that the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, came to bring and yet the Church of Jesus Christ is one of the very last places that people even bother to check out. And that challenges every one of us in the church of Jesus Christ in its various manifestations to the core. It’s about people. It’s about grace.”
Bishop Glenfield recalled the great theologian, Karl Barth’s image of Luther climbing the bell-tower of an ancient church in the dark, reaching out to take hold of the stair rope and grabbing a bell-rope instead. The bell sounds and wakens the church – wakens the whole of the surrounding countryside. “It’s our turn to go back, to go back to source, back to Jesus Christ and back to the early church, in order for us to go forward. May God the holy spirit wake us all up before it’s too late.”
The sacred music for Tuesday evening’s Service was performed by the Cathedral choir, under the guidance of Dr Derek Collins, and included hymns written by Martin Luther. The Bishop of Derry, Dr Donal McKeown, was among those who delivered the readings; the Superintendent of the Methodist Mission, Rev Peter Murray, led the Prayers of Intercession; and the Minister of Faughanvale Presbyterian Church, Rev Lindsay Blair, was in the congregation. As they made their way into the church, they passed a portrait of Luther painted by Coleraine artist, Bruce Robinson, who is a churchwarden in Killowen Parish Church.
Earlier, the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Ken Good, welcomed all those present in the Cathedral to the Service of Thanksgiving. “It is appropriate that we take time to reflect, to remember, to be reformed, to repent, to rejoice and to be reconciled,” Bishop Good said. He thanked the Board of Mission and Unity – and its chairman, Rev Paul Hoey – for “imaginatively combining words, music and scripture” to allow the congregation to do these things. Bishop Good also thanked Bishop Glenfield for preaching the sermon at the Service, representatives of other churches for their presence, and the Dean of Derry, Very Rev Raymond Stewart for allowing the Cathedral to be used for the occasion.