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Archbishop Fisher: The Reformation and its relevance to religion and society today

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP shares a moment with Lutheran Bishop, Bishop Mark Lieschke. Both leaders delivered addresses at the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation Commemoration Inter-Religious Prayer Gathering on 11 October. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

At His Last Supper the Lord Jesus foresaw the division of His disciples, as in the ages to come some would be for Paul and some for Cephas (cf. 1Cor 1:12; 3:22; Gal 2:7-13), some for Arius and some for Athanasius, some for Luther and some for Cajetan, and so on again and again. Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel records His prayer:

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you… Now this is eternal life: to know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent… I have revealed you to those you gave me from this world… I pray for them, now that I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by your name… [and] consecrate them in the truth…

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they all be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – with me in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

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In simple yet profound ways Christ links His glorification with our faith in Him, our eternal and even temporal life with our abiding in the Father and being consecrated in the truth, and all of these things with our unity under God. We think also of the context of this prayer – washing the feet of His disciples and Eucharistising bread and wine, while awaiting betrayal and execution – powerfully enacting glorification through faithful service and serving faith, in truthful unity and uniting truth. On that last night Jesus believed Christian unity would testify to Him and so to the Father, but feared our disunity would be a scandal to the world.

Archbishop Fisher greets people at the inter-religious prayer gathering in St Mary’s Cathedral that concluded the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation event. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

On 26 January 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip disembarked at Sydney Cove and directed the raising the Union Jack. On 7th February, the 1030 colonists having been landed and assembled, Phillip “made a pointed and judicious speech, a very well delivered and energetick piece of oratory, the battalion was reviewed, a feu de joie was fired, the band played several pieces suited to the business, loyal toasts were drunk, and New South Wales was on its way”. But first the new Governor-in-Chief had to swear his oath of office before the Judge-Advocate.

In it he specified two very important matters: first, he promised that in governing the colony he would dutifully serve according to law “His Majesty George the Third, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, and so forth”; and secondly, he abjured before God the popish notion “that there was any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or in the Elements of Bread and Wine at or after the Consecration.”[i] In an irony probably lost on Phillip, colonial Australia was founded upon promise made to mad King George, still using the title “Fidei defensor ”given Henry VIII by the Pope for defending the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist and other sacraments against Luther,[ii] that his antipodean Governor would favour the Protestant view.

Indeed, the draft instructions of the Home Office to Phillip had provided that all persons in the new Territory were to enjoy “full liberty of Conscience and the free Exercise of all such modes of Religious Worship as are not prohibited by Law… provided they be contented with a quiet and peaceable enjoyment of the same.” This rather liberal provision was, however, struck out of the draft by the Privy Council Committee for Foreign Plantations (of which Lord Sydney was a member) and replaced with the words “It is further our Royal Will and Pleasure that you do, by all proper methods, enforce a due observance of Religion and good order among all the inhabitants of the new Settlement and that you so take such steps for the one celebration of publick Worship as circumstances will permit.”[iii] So much for other modes of worship: the Catholic, Presbyterian and Jewish first settlers were to attend Anglican services each Sunday!

PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Whatever of Governor Phillip’s personal views in such matters, it was clear state power was to favour one religious doctrine over another. Protestantism was so deeply interwoven into the fabric of the legal system and culture, and Jewish and Catholic faith behind that, that only the most extreme advocate of Enlightenment secularism would have dreamed of expunging all faith from law or custom. And though chauvinistic sectarianism and intolerant secularism have at times reared their ugly heads in our nation’s history, we have mostly been inclined to the Home Office view that people should be allowed quietly and peaceably to enjoy their religious freedom, with no established church, wars of religion, or attempts to exclude people from the public square for their faith – at least until recently.

Though we were not as self-consciously the paradise of dissent that our new world neighbours across the Pacific imagined (and still imagine) themselves, and we are still to this day to enact any meaningful legal protections of freedom of religion, Australia was nonetheless a nation with space for people of many faiths. The early Catholics in this country, for instance, enjoyed greater freedom even to celebrate their popish rites than did their counterparts in the British Isles; the first Lutherans found they could breathe a freer air in South Australia than they could in Prussia; and Jews and Muslims, though encountering some initial hostility like the Irish Catholics did, have over time found hospitality and respect here for believers of all kinds. Tonight we might pray that such hospitality and respect will endure in this land in the years ahead.

By the time of the British settlement of Australia, Europe had sadly suffered more than two centuries of inter-denominational rivalry between Christians, sometimes of the bloodiest kind. As a Dominican friar myself, I confess that my brother, Johann Tetzel, played a part at the very beginning of this, by so promoting indulgences as to incite Luther’s ire and his famous theses. Tetzel died soon after of a broken heart, fearing he had provoked an irreparable tear in the untorn robe of Christ. But as he lay dying, he received a comforting message from Martin Luther himself, bidding him “not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father.”[iv]

Another Dominican brother of mine, Cardinal Thomas de Vio Cajetan, was sent in 1518 as papal legate to the Diet of Augsburg and, at the wish of the Saxon elector, entrusted with examining Luther’s teachings and restoring unity. The encounter between aristocratic theologian and plain-speaking polemicist was doomed from the start. Instead of acknowledging Luther’s just complaints, Cajetan only exacerbated the tension and then helped seal it by drawing up the 1519 bull of excommunication.[v] Only later did Cajetan come to recommend certain concessions to the Lutherans, including a married clergy and communion under both kinds, but by then attitudes had hardened on all sides.

PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

A third member of my Dominican family with close relations to Luther was Martin Bucer. His encounter with Luther had a very different effect to that of heart-broken Tetzel and hard-hearted Cajetan: Bucer was immediately converted to the Reform. He abandoned the Dominicans and ended up more radical than the Lutherans on some matters. He tried to mediate between Luther and Zwingli, worked with Melanchthon on achieving the Wittenberg Concord, and served under Cranmer in revising the Book of Common Prayer. Having been associated with so many evolving traditions of Christianity, he is surely the most ecumenical of Dominicans![vi] But in those decades and following there was little enthusiasm for Bucerite compromise and soon states were at war with each other or with their own citizens, friends became foes, neighbour turned on neighbour. “That they might be one, Father, as you and I are one,” was no longer the aspiration and it took centuries for real dialogue to begin again. We might pray tonight in the silence of our hearts in repentance for past hatreds and for a spirit in the years ahead not merely of mutual tolerance but of genuine fraternal embrace in that Godly unity for which Christ prayed between Christian sisters and brothers. And given those helping us to reflect today and to pray Psalm 85 tonight, we pray likewise for forgiveness and familial embrace from our fathers and mothers the Jews, and for greater friendship between all people of faith.

One German who certainly had that aspiration was Pope Benedict XVI. In his address to the Lutheran Church in Erfurt in 2011 he said he had always been deeply impressed by Luther’s passion for the question of God and that relation to Him we call ‘grace’. His question “How do I stand before God?” was the right one to ask, as was his next one, “What promotes the cause of Christ?” The irony of the battles over the Reformation, Benedict suggested, was that those very questions were de-emphasised; “the great ecumenical step forward” in recent decades had been to recover them as “our common gift and task”. He thought we acknowledge this best “as we pray and sing together, as we make our joint commitment to the Christian ethos in our dealings with the world, as we bear common witness to the God of Jesus Christ in this world as our inalienable, shared foundation.”

In secularising societies like our own, the temptation is probably less to go to war over faith than it is to water it down. Now the key ecumenical task, Pope Benedict suggested, will be “to help one another develop a deeper and livelier faith. It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith – thought out and lived afresh; through such faith, Christ enters this world of ours, and with Him, the living God.”[vii] With Benedict, we might tonight pray together for a spirit of encouragement – of giving each other courage to profess faith in a culture increasingly intolerant of it – and of engagement in common projects living that faith out in our contemporary world; in this way, we may join with faithful throughout the ages and of all the traditions represented here tonight in insisting that the question of God not be pushed to the peripheries. We might think of the very fruitful recent collaboration between us regarding the meaning of human sexuality, marriage and family in our society, and other examples of that Godly consecration to the truth commended by Christ.

PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Speaking from the Catholic side of this relationship, I thank God for the encouragement and engagement of my Protestant sisters and brothers in teaching and living the Gospel, in promoting love of Scripture and the civilisation of humanity these five centuries past, in pressing to the fore questions of God, faith, grace, repentance, the cross; for provoking necessary reforms in the old Church and promoting the theological and political freedoms outlined by Lutheran Bishop Mark Lieschke this morning; in painstaking and objective scholarship regarding our history and future together;[viii] and in honestly exploring differences and building upon common ground in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification of the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church[ix] and the series of bi-lateral dialogues and joint statements in Australia regarding Baptism, Eucharist as Sacrament and Sacrifice, Ministry of Pastor and Priest, Church as Communion and Mission, Justification, The Office of Bishop, and Word and Tradition.

In October last year, Pope Francis thanked God “for the efforts of our many brothers and sisters from different ecclesial communities who [in the past] refused to be resigned to division, but instead kept alive the hope of reconciliation among all who believe in the one Lord.” He then called on this generation to “look with love and honesty at our past, recognising error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge. We ought to recognise, with the same honesty and love,” he thought, that our division distanced us from God and God’s people, closed us in on ourselves “out of fear or bias”, and caused immense “suffering and misunderstanding”. Haunted like Luther by the question of how to be right again with God, we must recognise that it is God who takes the initiative in our healing, “prior to any human response, even as He seeks to awaken that response. The doctrine of justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God.” Such our mutual forgiveness and new-found unity witness persuasively to the reconciling power of God. “We Christians will be credible witnesses of mercy,” the Holy Father said, “to the extent that forgiveness, renewal and reconciliation are daily experienced in our midst.”[x]

As we give thanks for past heroes of our faith, for more recent efforts at mutual understanding and reconciliation, we rededicate ourselves to a future of living in that divine grace by which alone we are saved and without which no real progress between us can be achieved. And so tonight we might pray, not just for a spirit of mutual tolerance and fraternal embrace, a spirit of consecration to divine truth and engagement with the world, but also for a spirit of ever-greater witness to the God of mercy who would heal our past memories and reconcile present divisions.

This is an edited version of the address that Archbishop Fisher gave at the Interfaith Prayer Gathering, St Mary’s Cathedral, 11 October 2017.


[i]         Historical Record of Australia, 4, A vol. 1, p. 21; Enid Campbell, “Oaths and Affirmations of Public Office,” Monash University Law Review 25 (1) (1999), 132-165, at 134.

[ii]        The title was granted by Pope Leo X to King Henry VII on 11 October 1521 in recognition of Henry’s book Assertio Septem Sacramentorum.

[iii]       Governor Phillip’s Instructions were drawn up by the Home Office on 20 April 1787 but revised by the Privy Council Committee for Trade and Foreign Plantations (of which Lord Sydney was a member) on 25 April 1787. See: (emphasis added).

[iv]       W.M.L. de Wette and J.K. Seidemann (eds), Luthers Brief, Band vi., 18 (shortly before 11 August 1519). The letter is lost, but this quotation is preserved in Emser’s, Auf des Stieres zu Wittenberg wiettende replica:

[v]        A recent interesting analysis of the meeting is Adam Cooper, “Cajetan and Luther: Revisiting the Roots of a Schism”

[vi]       Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).

[vii]      Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Erfurt, 23 September 2011.

[viii]     E.g. Carlos Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World 1450-1650 (Yale University Press, 2016); Thomas Howard and Mark Noll (eds), Protestantism after 500 Years (Oxford University Press, 2016); Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010); Diarmaid MacCulloch, All Things Made New: The Reformationand Its Legacy (Oxford University Press, 2016); Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction(Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (Random House, 2017); Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason(New York: Random House, 2005).

[ix] See also Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration of
the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification:

[x]        Pope Francis, Homily at Common Ecumenical Prayer, Lund, Sweden, 31 October 2016.

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