An Anglican priest who took part in a Reformation commemoration in Wittenberg, Germany this summer says she was deeply impressed by the way it combined contemporary expressions of the Gospel with a setting steeped in history.
“The Evangelical Church in Germany just did this incredible job of making Wittenberg into a real contemporary pilgrimage place,” says the Rev. Dawn Leger, pastor at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Toronto. (Leger is an ordained Anglican priest, but the full communion agreement between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada [ELCIC] allows clergy of each denomination to serve at the churches of the other.)
“What I really appreciated was, here’s this huge historical moment [being celebrated], with very little of what’s kind of traditionally historical—it was all very contemporary expressions of the influence of the Reformation today,” she says.
Leger was among five Canadian Lutheran clerics who spent a week this August in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther touched off the Reformation by (at least according to one account) nailing a copy of his defiant Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the city’s All Saint’s Church in 1517. The five were representing ELCIC at the German church’s Reformation Summer, which marked the 500th anniversary of that event. The commemoration, from May to September, featured delegations from three different churches around the world every week; ELCIC shared its week with Lutheran churches from South Africa and Spain.
Amid historic buildings including not only All Saint’s but another Wittenberg church where Luther actually served as pastor, were a range of exhibits that attracted the attention of commemoration participants and townspeople alike, Leger says: the world’s largest Bible side-by-side with a dime-sized “nano-Bible”; an exhibit dealing with the current refugee crisis, featuring wicker boats on a pond; a prison converted into an art space, its former cells filled with contemporary artworks dealing with Luther’s legacy; and an indoor space for re-creating the experience of baptism: first, a room with womb-like chairs that encouraged a fetal position; another room that, with the use of massive video screens, created an overwhelming impression of immersion in water; and a third room featuring an ancient baptismal font, where participants could be signed with the cross and blessed.
The Canadian delegation, Leger says, gave presentations showcasing the cultural diversity of the Canadian church and its full communion agreement with the Anglican Church of Canada; and also hosted the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, an activity meant to educate participants about the history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in Canada. Leger says she found giving the Blanket Exercise in Germany, with participants from around the world, a powerful experience. In discussions afterward, she says, parallels were drawn between the experience of children in Indian Residential Schools and Jews in the Holocaust, in that both were victims of dehumanizing social experiments.
Leger says one thing she’ll take away from the commemoration is the need for the church to express itself in modern ways even while remaining rooted in its tradition.
“We have these historic roots, and it’s important for us to always be rooted in that history,” she says. “It’s also important for us to always have contemporary expressions of our faith, in everything that we do, in order to share the Gospel.”