This year (2017), and this month (October) marks the 500th anniversary, ‘officially’ of the Protestant Reformation. I was at a theological forum that commemorated this event, and looked at the original break event 1517 and subsequent years from a traditional Protestant viewpoint, a post-Vatican II Catholic viewpoint, and a Separatist viewpoint. A term that came up a few times was that the Reformation was a “Necessary Tragedy.” It was further noted, that Catholics have tended to look at it as a tragedy but not all that necessary, while Protestants tended to see it as necessary, but not all that tragic.
For me, I see it as necessary because the church of the West sought not only spiritual unity, but ecclesiastical unity, and they did not simply seek unity, but sought uniformity. Such an undesirable state needed to change. To ignore regional cultures and language, and have a governance that is not empowered locally certainly needed to go away. In the East, that happened much earlier (with 1054 AD being thought of as the pivotal year, although they could mark back time as far as they want). In Northern Europe, it started in 1517 with the “magisterial reformers” with separatist reformers both before and after. For the Philippines, one has to go to the American Occupation, as well as the Aglipayan movement. With the rest of the Catholic Church, Vatican II seems to be the pivotal time frame. Yes it was necessary, sooner or later. And it still is.
As far as tragic, I don’t see tragedy in Ecclesiastical disunity. Centralization of power— perhaps even more so Ecclesiastical Power— creates deep problems. So one religious governance seems to me to be something of which to be horrified. And it wasn’t tragedy for lack of uniformity. It seems like diversity was identified as a good thing in the first century church… but its goodness became more deeply questioned over time. There is no tragedy in diversity.
Where there is tragedy was that people on all sides of the unity/disunity, uniformity/diversity divides saw that it was appropriate to fight and kill each other over it. It is hard to appreciate diversity. At an ecumenical gathering recently to which I was invited, it began to be clear to me that even those who theoretically should embrace unity with diversity, struggle with appreciating some forms of diversity. Some forms of diversity are embraced, while others are squelched or castigated. The tragedy is that we identify people within our own ecclesiastical neighborhood as US, and those from other ecclesiastical neighborhoods as THEM… and we tend to see diversity as a problem to overcome, rather than something to embrace.
Centuries of fighting with words, laws and guns was needless. While it is easy to blame the Catholic church for this, as one from a Separatist tradition, I know that the Protestants also had blood on their hands. And, in fact, the Separatists have had their moments of shame as well. But it was not necessary. I am reminded of Paul and Barnabas having different visions for ministry. They could have supported each other and gone their separate ways in peace… but instead had to fight with each other, wound each other, and be an embarrassment to the church. And still they ended up going their separate ways anyway. I have come across people almost 2000 years later still arguing about who was right. They truly miss the point. BOTH WERE RIGHT— AND NEITHER.
So I guess the answer is that it may be correct that the Protestant Reformation was a Necessary Tragedy. It was indeed necessary, but it was not necessary that it was a tragedy.
The Lutheran Church invited the Pope to join in the celebration of the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant reformation on October 31st, 2016. The Catholic church asked if the term could be changed from “celebration” to “commemoration.” The Lutheran Church actually agreed to it, and they joined together to mark this important year. Perhaps commemoration is the better term. Let us all remember this together. It is a necessary date. It is a date that did not have to be tragic… and yet in some ways did become tragic. It is an important day of embracing Unity with Disunity and Diversity, and without Uniformity. Prayerfully, we will figure out how to actually do that.