Church and political leaders have marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at a service in Wittenberg's Castle Church in Germany - the site where, on 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses denouncing church abuses to the door.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier were both at the service along with church leaders including Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairperson of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, and the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit.

In his sermon, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm described Luther's actions as an "act of liberation". “A spiritual renewal went out from Wittenberg, to people in Germany, Europe and worldwide. To men and women from all social classes,” he said.

While the events Luther set in motion eventually led to a separation of Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, Bishop Bedford Strohm said Luther's purpose was not to found a new church but "to call the Church of Jesus Christ back to its Lord".

He said Christians today must understand that the church must not be divided any longer. “No one should think that we can be induced to stray from the path towards visible unity in reconciled diversity."

The bishop presented Cardinal Marx with a cross of reconciliation during the service before they presented it to President Steinmeier as a mark of the commitment to the churces' reconciliation to society. The cross came from St Michael's Church in Hildesheim, Germany, where Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders had held an ecumenical service for “healing of memories” in March, 2017.

The WCC's Rev Dr Tveit, who was presented with a copy of the 95 Theses during the service to mark the contribution of Reformation churches to Christianity, said after the service that the commemoration was a sign of hope for the church and humanity. 

“For the first time in five centuries, we have been able to commemorate the Reformation ecumenically,” he said. “We have together offered repentance for the divisions of the past and affirmed what we have in common in Jesus Christ.

“This is a powerful symbol of our mutual accountability and one that has enormous potential for strengthening hope as we demonstrate a real willingness to repent, to change, to see what is wrong, and to contribute to changes and transformation toward just peace.”

The service was one of many held throughout the day at various churches in Wittenberg along with other celebratory and cultural events. Reformation Day was a public holiday in Germany this year in acknowledgement of the anniversary.

This article was written with the assistance of the World Council of Churches news service.