2017-11-03 / Front Page

Church opens the door to mark 500th anniversary of Protestant Reformation

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Lynne Lanctot of South Portland adds her thoughts on the state of the church and what it can do better to the reformation door outside First Congregational Church United Church of Christ on Meeting House Hill prior to services Oct. 29. (Duke Harrington photo) Lynne Lanctot of South Portland adds her thoughts on the state of the church and what it can do better to the reformation door outside First Congregational Church United Church of Christ on Meeting House Hill prior to services Oct. 29. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — During services Oct. 29 at the First Congregational Church United Church of Christ, located atop Meeting House Hill in South Portland, Senior Minister the Rev. Cindy Maddox gathered the youngest members of her flock and asked them what they knew about Martin Luther. Several of the children shot hands up with a ready answer from school, to which Maddox replied, “Well, that’s Martin Luther King Jr., but he was named for Martin Luther.”

Maddox then told the children about the namesake of the famous civil rights pioneer, and of the Protestant Reformation, which Luther launched 500 years ago, on Oct. 31, 1517, by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, denouncing common practices of the church he found to be abusive and unhelpful to the moral salvation of the common person. That act prompted a schism within the Catholic church, resulting in the many splintered denominations of the christian faith we know today.

Maddox then asked the children if, like Martin Luther, they had ideas for what their own church could do better. The unanimous affirmation: “More cookies!”

The cookie demand notwithstanding, congregants of South Portland’s oldest church now have at the front of their sanctuary a very visible reminder of everything they can do better – as individuals, as members of their church, and as residents of the greater South Portland community. That reminder, carried in and laid before the altar after “children’s time” by ushers Chris Mills and Terry Dallaire, is an actual door, marked with thoughts not unlike those once written by Luther, penned by anyone who wished to do so to mark the observance of Reformation Sunday.

“The 95 theses were his ideas of the reformations that needed to happen within the church,” Maddox explained prior to the service, as those entering the chapel on Cottage Road lined up to sign the door propped up against one side of the entryway. “He was not trying to start a new branch of christianity, he was trying to reform what already was, and to do away with the practices such as selling of indulgences, which he felt were wrong and interfered with our relationship with God.”

“By the way, we use the term ‘commemorating’ the 500th anniversary, rather than ‘celebrating’ the reformation, because of the division that resulted in the Catholic church and the Protestant church,” Maddox said. “We don’t really ‘celebrate’ that division. And also, because of some bad things that came out of the Protestant Reformation, including a lot of anti-semitism and that sort of thing. So, commemorate is our chosen word, rather than celebrate.”

That bad was noted in the sermon message, given during Sunday’s service by Maddox’ wife, Jackie McNeil. A former history professor, McNeil noted that Luther was, in fact, “both hero and villain.”

“When I used to teach history, I struggled to get my students the ‘and,’ McNeil said. “The puritans came here for religious freedom, and passed laws that catholic priests could be shot on sight. Thomas Jefferson believed that all men are created equal, and owned slaves until his death, including his own children. The revolutionaries demanded direct representation, and had no qualms denying that same right to woman, poor whites and non-whites.

“In general, I see the ‘and’ as being the central tension among historians,” McNeil said. “Traditionalists tend to glorify certain historical figures, while reformists often villainize the same.”

In that regard, McNeil pointed to Christopher Columbus, who, she noted, “did not actually discover anything except the trade winds.” Still, his famous voyages set in motion a sea change in human history, for both good and ill, largely as a result of things that happened which “were out of his control and which he could not have foreseen.”

The same was true of Luther, McNeil said. The simple act of posting his arguments for a direct relationship between the people and their God based on faith alone, a relationship that did not require a priestly class to act as a go-between, led in a more or less direct line to a worldwide drive for literacy, humanistic trends that resulted in the Age of Eligntmentment, and the democratization of both church and state. But Luthor’s words and ideas also gave rise to vicious wars over class and religion, while also fueling genocide and The Holocaust.

“The problem is, both of those statements are true,” McNeil said. “And that makes it hard to understand Luther and his rightful place in the history and theology of the christian church.”

But in truth, the act which would go on to shatter christianity into hundreds of fragments was not as overt and radical as we think of it today. In Luther’s day, the church door was basically Medevial Facebook. It was a community message board, to which dozens of notes would have been hung – considering the size of the door, maybe even hundreds. Walk up to the All Saints Church in 1517 and you’d have found messages advertising dogs for sale and rooms for let, along with missed connections, such “to the brunette in the blue dress carrying the pail of turnips at the market on Monday,” right beside Luther’s, “Oh, by the way, you don’t know how to church right.”

Luther wasn’t even the first person to wag his finger at the church over how, for a few gold pieces and other considerations, priests would wave away transgressions and guarantee continued entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. As McNeil noted, at one time, the church controlled every aspect of private and public life.

“Before we had any explanation for the movement of the stars, or the spread of disease, or the cause of a hurricane, the only answers people had was because God was angry with YOU, or because God was happy with you,” McNeil said. “And the voice of God on Earth was the pope, and through him all the officials of the Catholic church, and they had the power to send you to hell through excommunication, or to ease your time in purgatory in return for a modest donation.”

A century before Luther, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus attempted similar reviews of corruption within the clerical class. But Hus was executed, Wycliffe excommunicated, and their movements squashed by the holy fist of the church. Luther’s great fortune was that he came along after the invention of the Guttenberg printing press, which helped spread his reformist fire faster and further than the power of the pope and all his bishops to snuff it out.

“This made Luther a greater threat to the church than any of his predecessors,” McNeil said. “More than that, he translated (the Bible, from Latin) into the vernacular, so it could be read by non-scholars among the nobility and merchant class.”

These minor princes and middling peddlers protected Luther when he, too was excommunicated, and helped spread his revolutionary ideas across Europe.

“So, what started as one not-so-revolutionary act quickly became a huge split within the Christian church, and then more and more fractures on the protestant side, and what started as an academic discourse soon led to all-out wars across the continent, and, from there, around the globe.”

And, as it turns out, Luther was not quite so egalitarian has he seemed, responding to a peasants protest in his name by calling the rabble “the devil’s work” and urging the nobility to destroy them.

Still, the example of how one person’s incorporeal thoughts can drive bodily action – what McNeil referred to as the interplay between “faith, and works” – inspired Maddox recreate Luther’s simple, but ultimately courageous act.

For two weeks prior to Reformation Sunday, a door stood outside First Congregational Church, with colored markers taped to it in a plastic bag. Social media postings were made, and press releases circulated, inviting anyone who cared to do so to write down on the door their thoughts about the modern church, and what it can do better to positively impact the lives of all, both those who stop in to worship and those who only pass by on their way to other things.

Many took Maddox up on the invitation, including SOME who wrote on the door virtually, by emailing comments, or posting to the church’s Facebook page.

“If many of the comments (on the door) appear to be in the same handwriting, that’s me, transcribing all of those messages,” Maddox said.

Among those who signed the door just prior to services on Reformation Sunday was Alex Ratta, a 20-year resident of South Portland. His thought: “It’s okay to believe in science as well as to believe that we were created to BE God’s children.”

“In school, you’re taught about evolution, but that does not have to conflict with the Bible, because of what it is trying to teach in a metaphorical sense, that we deserve as a species were are meant to love and respect each other,” he said, adding, “This is really an amazing idea and I’m glad people, in and out of our church, have had this chance to be heard on what it does.”

“We have a minister that is just phenomenal and she comes up with ways to get us and the community more involved, and I love it,” agreed Lynne Lanctot of South Portland. Her message: “Be more inclusive of all generations and mindsets.”

“I think Christian values of openness and kindness and tolerance need to be brought into our culture more overtly, so I like that they are rethinking how best to actively do that, and asking for opinions,” said Rebecca Booth, who travels from Scarborough, she said, because South Portland’s First Congregational Church “has an inclusiveness and welcoming attitude that we appreciate.”

That, she noted, was reflected in most of the entreaties written on the door, a mix of old and new that amounted to a physical manifestation of that internet phenomenon known as crowdsourcing.

Later, after Booth and her daughter entered the church, another Scarborough resident, Kathy Warner, said the same thing.

“We looked at a lot of churches and found this one very open and very welcoming,” she said. “I’m a lesbian and I’m completely accepted here, but not in any kind of weird way (that makes a special point of recognizing my sexuality.) Here, I’m just another congregant. I find it very respectful here, and warm.

Her message: “Open our hearts and minds to those who are ‘different.’”

And in similar fashion to how Luther’s ideas spread, Warner said she intended to share the door concept with her former church in Belfast, in hopes it would conduct a similar ritual for Reformation Sunday next year.

After the door was brought inside the church, Rev. Maddox reflected on its words of advice and commentary. And the exercise was no one-off stunt, she said. The door will remain where the usher’s set it, next to the pulpit for the indefinite future.

“It will be right here next to me as I speak as reminder of who we want to be and what the church is and can be in the United States, she said, “because we continue to be reformed, and transformed.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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