Last year, beating the 2017 rush, three Anglican friends and I decided to spend a week visiting a handful of historic Martin Luther tourist sites in eastern Germany. We made a merry pilgrim band, I like to think: my housemate Aidan, a burly, tattooed Alaskan, was at that time two weeks away from his ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church and was, with his wife Melanie, a happy convert to Anglicanism from a Wesleyan Holiness background; I was (and am still) a former Baptist teaching at an Episcopal/Anglican seminary and was just beginning to discern a call to Holy Orders; and Fr. Russell, rounding out our posse, was and is a priest serving an Anglican parish in Basel, Switzerland. We all met up in Berlin and, after a quick stroll through the cathedral there — whose nave is surveyed from on high by four imposing statues of Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Calvin — drove on to Wittenberg, whose castle church doors, on which Luther is said to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, mark the legendary birthplace of the Reformation. It was nightfall by the time we arrived at our hotel, but the atmosphere of tourist anticipation, not only among the four of us, was electric.
It’s perhaps not the most familiar narrative: four contented Anglicans, of the higher church variety, uninterested in theological or ecclesial conversion, walking in the footsteps of Luther, the man whose rending of Christendom Anglicans from Hooker to Newman to Ramsey came, each in their own way, to rue, if not repudiate. By now we’re used to hearing tales of “evangelicals on the Canterbury trail,” but stories — even if only temporary holiday stories — of “Anglicans on the Wittenberg trail” seem fewer and more curious.
This unusual trip was my idea. I’d been invited to lead a retreat at a church in Bonn, and I suggested to my housemates, and to my friend Fr. Russell, that we make a week of it. Since it was the eve of the 500-year anniversary of Luther’s Theses, we should, I proposed, at least make a quick stop in Wittenberg and snap a selfie at the church doors. But once we arrived in “Luther City,” as it’s now known, and found ourselves staring at all the tokens of the bombastic professor’s memory — the great Cranach altarpiece in the Stadtkirche, in view of which Luther preached 2,000 sermons; the room in his house where he held court at the famed “table talks”; the stone slabs his wife Katharina had installed outside the front door of their house so she could converse more often with her over-busy husband — we found ourselves more and more enthralled. Why, we wondered over dinners of schnitzel and beer, was Luther so fascinating to us?
From Wittenberg, we made our way south to Erfurt, where Luther had been priested at an Augustinian monastery. The church at which Luther said his first Mass is intact and still exudes a shadowy, disquieting beauty. Standing at the altar for the first time, Luther had very nearly absconded, overwhelmed by the sheer holiness of the act he was about to perform. To pray in this way, Luther later wrote, “cannot but cause one to tremble,” both from a sense of God’s transcendent otherness and from a concomitant awareness of one’s own unworthiness. Something of that same sentiment lingered in the little room in the cloister my friends and I found in which to receive Communion. We were staying at the monastery, and after settling in to our rooms, we reconvened for a quiet Eucharist, at which Fr. Russell presided and Aidan served as deacon. In lieu of a homily, I offered a meditation from Romans 5:6 (“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly”). This, I said, was the Pauline motif that utterly captivated Luther: the thought that God in Christ did not wait for us to show ourselves worthy of his love but rather gave his life for us in complete disregard for our lack of worth. As Luther memorably and beautifully put it in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” I closed in prayer, thanking God for Luther’s relentless emphasis on free grace but also asking forgiveness for the ecclesial division to which the Reformation had inexorably led.
In our rental car and at mealtimes and at the pub in the next few days, we talked about Anglicanism’s complicated relationship to Luther, not to mention our individual versions of that same relationship. From the time of the English Reformation to today, Luther and his theology have wended their way into Anglican liturgy, preaching, pastoral theology, and much else, and not just among those who identify strongly with Anglicanism’s Protestant face. Thomas Cranmer drank deeply from Lutheran wells, as did other predictable names: Reformation-era luminaries and martyrs like Coverdale, Ridley, Latimer, and Bilney. But even an Anglo-Catholic like Edwyn Hoskyns, the great 20th-century Cambridge New Testament scholar, absorbed a strong dose of Luther, mediated to him via the early Barth. It was Archbishop Michael Ramsey, of all people, who wrote that “Catholicism always stands before the Church door at Wittenberg to read the truth by which she is created and by which also she is judged.” And today one of the most popular movements in the Episcopal Church, Mockingbird, looks to Luther as its guiding light.
In an essay written to mark the proposal of the Concordat between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church, which was eventually ratified in 2000, the Lutheran theologian David Yeago reflected on the different approaches and cultures of Lutheranism and Anglicanism. If Anglicanism is in some sense gentle and tidy, exhibiting a “focus on the contingencies and particularities of ecclesial and believing life—liturgy, order, practice, and the textures of everyday life as infused by grace,” Lutheranism, by contrast, is caustic and combative, drunk on “a sense of the strangeness of the unexpected generosity of God in Christ, the jolting and liberating discontinuity between all worldly imaginings and expectations of the divine and the actual way in which God has come to us in the mortal flesh of his Son.” Assuming that way of putting the contrast is anywhere close to right, Anglicans continue to have much to learn from Luther. Orderly and beautiful liturgy is worth little if it doesn’t represent, enact, and communicate the singularly efficacious gift of God in Christ.
As my merry band of friends and I wrapped up our trip, we found ourselves reflecting on our strikingly similar travels on the Canterbury trail, years before our Wittenberg holiday. Each of us had grown up in more pietistic, revivalist traditions of Christianity. We each remembered praying the “Sinner’s Prayer” and then, subsequently, wondering whether it “took” and hence praying it a second, third, fourth — or 400th—time. As Aidan put it, we each were “born again again.” Although there is much about my conservative, moralistic upbringing that I wouldn’t trade for the world, my Christian life was dangerously oriented around my interior experience: I was taught, often by suggestion rather than overt instruction, to grade my standing before God on the basis of the strength of my felt affections. If those affections seemed lacking in some way, then it was time for me to “rededicate” my life by walking down the church’s center aisle and seeking some renewed feeling of devotion. Some people in the church of my youth, facing the ambiguity of their experience, opted for rebaptism; better to be sure one had done it right than to continue to vacillate in uncertainty. My friends on the Luther tour nodded as I recounted these stories. They understood the core danger of all forms of pietism — the danger of always remaining insecure, of always needing to be better and feel differently in order to enjoy a sense of God’s fatherly favor.
It’s no wonder, then, that each of us had found solace in Anglicanism. The Episcopal churches we had each found our way to in our young adulthood had centered on the Eucharist — a feast in which, to return to the words of David Yeago, Jesus puts himself in our actual, physical hands so we know exactly where to find him. Whatever its flaws, the Anglicanism we encountered was refreshingly tactile, concrete, corporeal: its scripted prayers, holy oils and waters and gestures, its audible readings and tangible symbols — all of these things, at their best, served as anchors outside of our psyches through which to encounter God’s word of absolution and comfort.
What makes me grateful for Luther, I said to my friends on our trip to Germany, was that he was the theologian who, more than any other, put into words the treasure I had found in Anglicanism. It was Luther who had taught me what I might have learned just as well from Augustine, Hooker, or Ramsey, but in God’s providence didn’t: that the point of my weekly cupping of my hands to receive the body of Christ and my opening my mouth to drink his blood was that I might receive a “visible word,” a palpable, edible reminder that my standing with God didn’t depend on some experience or attitude or posture I could drum up on my own but rather on God’s own unilateral gift. For that reason, Wittenberg, no less than Canterbury, feels like home.