Did the reformation succeed in the city where it began?

Today we attended the 10 am Sunday worship service at Castle Church, Wittenberg. The church building is massive. The congregation is tiny, at just over a hundred members, the majority of whom seem older than 50-years. The service was in German, but the liturgy was familiar.

The church is the resting place of the corpses of two pillars of the reformation of the church in Germany: Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.

Some who tell the story of the reformation begin their story in this church, which is also called All Saints Church.

Why do they begin the story here? Because it was on the doors of this church, over 500 years ago, that Martin Luther, professor of theology at Wittenberg University, nailed his 95 theses.

He did it on 31 October 1517. To this day, 31 October is a public holiday in Germany. It is designated Reformation Day.

We have to wonder if that will remain so. Because official statistics show that in 2021, the percentage of German citizens who claim to be Christians dropped below 50%. And of those who claim to be Christians, the majority are Catholics (source).

It’s even more ironic if you look at the percent of Christians in Wittenberg, the geographic centre of the Reformation.

At the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (counting from 31 October 1517), only 15% of residents were active Christians (link). Today we were told the number is less than ten percent. We asked why.

We were told it’s because the atheistic German Democratic Republic (East Germany) repressed Christians. They were disfavoured. They couldn’t expect their careers to progress. This arose partly from the fact that some churches became centres of criticism of the government.

An example is St Nicholas in Leipzig, pastored by Christian Fuhrer. He held prayer meetings for peace on Mondays. When each meeting ended, participants flowed into the nearby Karl Marx square and openly called on the police state to end repression (Monday Demonstrations, Wikipedia).

I’ve read little about the processes which led to reunification, so I treat what we were told as a matter requiring further study. I’m curious to know the extent of church attendance prior to reunification and the reasons for the drop.

Luther and Melanchthon were big on education. Melanchthon – whose house in Wittenberg we passed by – is known as the Teacher of Germany. Could it be that the substitution of Christian teaching by Marxism-Leninism led to the decline? How about in former West Germany?

How did the church allow that to happen? Why did God allow it? Who spoke for the church in East Germany? There’s lots to learn.

But what I learned from the interior decoration of the Castle church, and later the Town church (which is also known as St Mary’s[1]), is that the state is ever-present in the church.

Churches are peppered with the insignias of the independent states. Large statues of the electors (kings) are placed in prominent places within the worship areas. There are also statues of reformers within these areas. The electors’ statues are less prominent than those of the reformers.

Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with statues of people inside churches. On the positive side, it’s good to honour and remember stars in the constellation of kings, pastors, teachers which God has given to churches. But what about the common people? How are they represented?

I also saw, within the worship areas, posters depicting people in need in other countries and programs run by the churches to assist them. I was encouraged. But I wondered how the local people feel about it.

We visited Luther Garden, where trees were planted by representatives of Lutheran churches from around the world to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Getting the city and its atheistic citizens and leaders to undertake the project was a deep challenge. God intervened by placing men and women of faith in leading positions – and by sending a storm to knock down trees on the piece of land which then became available for the Luther Garden!

Another thing we saw is the Juden sow. This is a sculpture on an outside wall of the Town Church. Many reports give the impression the sculpture is above the entrance. But it is high above ground and hard to see from the ground. A report in Reuters describes the sculpture thus:

“The 13th century “Judensau” or “Jew Sow” on the town church depicts a caricature of a rabbi lifting the tail of a sow and two Jewish children suckling on the teats. Pigs are considered unclean in Judaism.”

The same article adds:

“The Wittenberg stone carving is one of about two dozen similar sculptures from the Middle Ages that still feature on churches around Germany and elsewhere in Europe.”

Happily, the sculpture is admitted as a true feature of the history of Christianity, and is kept there to remind Christians and others that truths must not be hidden, but must be admitted and used as teaching opportunities.

To this end, a new sculpture was commissioned, and has been installed at the foot of the wall on which the offensive sculpture is placed. This sculpture depicts an attempt to cover up an offence, but the offence seeps out through the cracks. I think this is a powerful response!

There is also a text placed there. It concludes:

The congregation of the Wittenberg Town Church dissociates itself from anti-Semitism and hatred against Jews. We ask God and the Jewish people for forgiveness of this blasphemy and the insult against all Jews. The Protestant Church acknowledges its responsibility to critically examine and give account of its contribution to the centuries-long history of violence against Jews and to stand actively against anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.

How do we measure success? Did the Reformation succeed in the city where it began?

End of Day 7.

[1] Martin Luther is said to have preached over 2,000 times in the Town Church.

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