I confess that I have long disliked the celebration of Reformation Day. I get slightly irritated when people wish me a 'Happy Reformation Day!', or when my social media connections of the Protestant (and particularly evangelical) variety treat it as if it were the most significant day on the calendar.
Lest I sound too cynical, let me note that I am, indeed, very thankful for the Reformation. I believe that it was absolutely necessary to reform the Church, and I am glad for the good things that came out of it – a renewed emphasis on the authority of Scripture, theological discoveries that brought us to understand things like justification by faith alone (although many Protestants forget that we received far more from the reformers than just a renewed soteriology), the renewal of the Church's worship, a curtailment of the abuse of power by corrupt church leaders, and the fact that I do not have to fund building projects in the Vatican pay for my relatives to be sprung from purgatory.
But despite the things I am thankful for, I am not comfortable with the celebration of Reformation Day, for three reasons. First, the celebration is rooted in a distorted understanding of the Reformation era that is prevalent amongst many Protestants. Celebrations of Reformation Day focus on Martin Luther's act of nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and behind the commemoration of that event lies two assumptions. The first is that this was a monumental act of defiance by Luther against the Church; the second, that this was the event that sparked the Reformation as a whole. Both of these are simply not true. Whilst he wanted to see the Church reformed, Luther's only intention with the Theses was to raise a discussion with his academic peers about the things he believed needed reforming. Posting theses to be debated was a perfectly normal action in those days, and the only reason it precipitated the major events that followed was because someone grabbed the piece of paper off the door, translated it into German, and sent copies of it all throughout the country. And the only reason that had such drastic effect was because of the groundwork that had been laid in previous centuries as massive cultural changes swept across Europe – the increasing dissatisfaction amongst the populace with the corruption of the medieval Church, the extensive work of many other mostly unknown reformers within the Church (such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, whose influence deserves far more attention), and not least, the invention of the printing press.
Secondly, to set a day aside to celebrate this particular event fosters an unhealthy view of the history of the church. When Luther's actions in Wittenberg are celebrated as the singular event that sparked the Reformation, some Protestants end up with a view of church history that looks something like this:
What effectively ends up being said is that everything that went before Luther, with the exception of the Early Church, was wrong, and that it was good that he was able to cut us off from that awful medieval Church and recover the purity of the what had been lost for more than a millennia. History, though, is never that cut-and-dried. Luther was one cog in the wheel (albeit a very significant one), and he needs to be set in context. The history of the Church is far more nuanced than a bunch of high and low points on a chart. What's more, although much of what happened in the medieval era meant reform was necessary, there was also much good, and much that we actually owe to our medieval forebears.
The third and most important reason I dislike the celebration of Reformation Day is that it is simply a celebration of the disunity of the Church. For some reason, people seem to forget that although Luther was ultimately forced to break from the Roman Catholic Church, he did not do so immediately, nor did he do so willingly and joyfully. He spent years in agony deciding whether or not to leave the Church he knew as 'mother' and to go against Christ's call for unity in the body (John 17:20-26). For as long as he could, he fought to reform the Church from within, just as the many other reformers who went before him did, because they cherished unity and catholicity. And although some of them chose to break, in many cases it was Rome that excommunicated them (or burned them).
If separating from the Church was never the intention of these men, why do their valiant efforts to remain united go unheralded? Instead, we prefer to celebrate the second-most definitive and drastic split in the history of the church (the first being the Great Schism of 1054), which has left us with some massive collateral damage – just look at what it did to the tiny segment of the Church that is the American Presbyterians:
In no way am I advocating a return to Rome, as if that will solve the problem of disunity – indeed, Rome is as much to blame for our division as Protestants are. More, I think history makes it clear that the split at the time of the Reformation was largely inevitable, and I have to admit that I doubt we will see the full reunification of the Church on this side of Christ's return.
But I don't think this should stop us from trying. And so while I'm thankful for the Reformation and the heritage I stand in as an Anglican, I wonder if instead of celebrating Reformation Day, we ought to spend the day mourning our disunity and renewing our commitment to the unity Jesus prayed for, pledging ourselves to work where we are to continually reform our churches and traditions, earnestly praying that these efforts will coalesce and draw us together to ultimately re-establish the real and tangible unity of the body of Christ here on earth.
(Much of my thinking on this I owe to my former church history professor, Jim Payton, whose book, Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, deals with a lot of the misconceptions people have of the Reformation era, and which I commend to you.)