I write this between trips – having just returned from a ‘Luther trip’ and will shortly leave for Plymouth and the anniversary service at St Peter’s. The number 500 is evident wherever one goes in Germany that is part of the Reformation story whether it is to do with Luther and 2017 or the Cranach exhibitions (Lucas Cranach the Younger was born in 1515). 500 years takes us back to the realm of imagination – and depending on one’s historical sources (number and accuracy) you will have a picture of the past. Art helps with the visuals of course – as does architecture and places.
For St Peter’s the special number of the moment is 50. That’s a much more ‘manageable’ number – a liveable number – and no doubt I will enjoy hearing the history told of our sister congregation in Plymouth from people who were there at the beginning. I’ll still be imagining the past but the photos and the place will help the past stay in focus for me. Meeting people will bring to the story of St Peter’s a vibrancy that is rarely found on the history page.
On the Luther trip I was asked some questions about Luther to which I had to say ‘I don’t know’. That might be because I haven’t read the right book that would answer the question (or suggest the answer) or because no one knows the answer. To have an unanswered question is like having a piece of a jigsaw missing. Nevertheless history is about having enough pieces to see a picture and so we might conjecture or hypothesise an answer – and hope that, later, people remember that the answer was conjecture rather than ‘fact’.
With St Peter’s I imagine that the story to be told is of God’s faithfulness to his people; of the desire by the ELCE and early missionary folk to tell people in Devon about Jesus Christ as Lutherans understand him. The 50th celebrations aren’t the last page of the story – just a pause to look back and then to look forward. St Peter’s – and indeed all of the ELCE – and indeed all of the Christian Church – want people to meet Jesus.
With the Reformation celebrations coming in 2017 I think we need to be accurate about the story – then and now – for this story has conflict in it and any reformation has come at the price of increased divisiveness and denominationalism. The wrestle today about the church, I think, is working out what it means in theological – and practical – terms when we say ‘I be-lieve in one holy …’ ah, that’s the issue isn’t it? What should we say now or according to his-tory? ‘Christian’ or ‘catholic’? ‘I believe in one holy Christian/catholic and apostolic Church’ (Nicene Creed). I suppose the answer to that does depend on how you see history!
Whatever the answer – and no matter the number when it comes to Church celebrations – I hope that we always have a sense that our history, our present, and our future are all about people meeting Jesus. We’re not the first to introduce him nor are we the only ones doing so and that aspect is part of our story too. Of course the best news of all is that while we are talk-ing about history, we’re also talking today’s news. After all, ‘Christ is risen!’ is the best bit of history and news around! — GS