500 Years of Reformation: Shaping Europe – Daring change!

Mairead McGuinness1214 views

Speech by the Vice President of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness
European Parliament, Brussels
Tuesday 7 March 2017

Vice-President Timmermans,
Colleagues, Members of the European Parliament
Your Graces, Archbishop and Bishops
Reverends, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am delighted to welcome you all here to the European Parliament, on behalf of President Tajani, to open this inspiring event: 500 Years of Reformation: Shaping Europe – Daring change!

This is a very special event for me – I have just recently been appointed by President Tajani as the Vice-President responsible for conducting the European Parliament’s dialogue with churches, under Article 17 of the Treaty.

So it is my first such public event that I have the pleasure to address. I expect it will be the first of many, and I am strongly convinced of the importance of this dialogue. If the European project is to retain the support of citizens, it must remain grounded in reality. Churches are very much part of that everyday reality, part of the fabric of our communities across the cities, towns, villages and our countryside.

This is a very appropriate event at which to launch myself into the whole world of dialogue with and between religions. In over 2000 years of Christianity shaping Europe, the events of 500 years ago being commemorated in 2017 were amongst the most significant in terms of re-shaping our European continent. A half a millennium later, the Reformation remains a period of great fascination to historians, theologians and whole swathes of society.

I am genuinely looking forward to hearing the diverse presentations that have been put together by the organisers of today’s conference, the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, and the Brussels office of the German Protestant Church.

These were difficult times for believers in Europe, and I believe that efforts to bring together Muslims, Jews and Christians to constructively reflect together on challenges such as radicalisation, terrorism and migration, represented an important contribution by the European Parliament to bringing about understanding between communities.

I am aware that Vice-President Timmermans, on behalf of the European Commission, has been a faithful partner in the Parliament’s initiatives, and I look forward to building on that cooperation and working closely with him on Article 17 dialogue over the next two years.

Ladies and Gentlemen. Last week in this building the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker presented the Commission’s White Paper on the Future of the European Union, in the plenary of the European Parliament. There have been many calls for reform of the EU from both within and without and, no doubt, some serious reforms are needed if we want to reconnect with citizens.

In the political context, the word reform is often seen as synonymous with improvement, changing things for the better. When it comes to reforming religion, the views might not be quite so unanimous! And when people hear the word Reformation, it can often conjure up very different images. These can be related to the kind of upbringing or education we have had, or the cultural context in which we live.

Growing up in the Republic of Ireland, a very Catholic place at the time, when we were told about the Reformation – if I am to be honest – it may not have always been so as to celebrate it as we are doing here today!

I grew up, and still live, very close to the border with Northern Ireland, where two very distinct communities drew their identities in part from the legacy of a battle in 1690 between the Catholic King James and the Protestant King William.

Happily, the terrible times of the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland have been put behind us, in no small part thanks to the role played by the European Union, Church and political leaders leaders. Since the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 we have entered into a period of peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. There is still a lot of pain and anger under the surface, and this will probably take generations to work through.

We also face the challenge of trying to work out what impact Brexit will have on the situation in Northern Ireland and we must ensure that the fragile and welcome peace is nurtured and not negatively impacted by the Brexit process.

While I speak from the Irish experience, we will hear today from church leaders from Germany, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, the UK and Finland. In many of these countries, the Reformation also meant wars, division and even persecution. The first wave of this terrible strife ended with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 and the famous ruling Cuius regio, eius religio. In other words – in a yet-imperfect form – the principle of religious freedom in Europe was established.

There would be other wars, with religion frequently being used as a tool by political powers to advance their own agendas. But there would be other peace treaties too and, over time, the wounds healed, the dust settled, and time passed.

Time, they say, heals everything. Putting time between ourselves and the turbulent events of the 16th and 17th centuries, allows us to examine at a distance the many very positive things that sprung from the Reformation period. Indeed, that is the purpose of today’s conference, to look back and to learn the lessons.

Many of the fundamentals of our free and democratic European societies – ones which it is too easy to take for granted today – have their roots in the time of the Reformation. Freedom of religion means the freedom to choose which path of faith to follow; but it is also the freedom not to believe. Because, at the heart of this freedom is basic human dignity, the idea that religion is a very personal calling between “Man and his Maker”. We are grateful to the Martin Luther for this insight.

Freedom, of course, comes with responsibility. Living in well-ordered societies means accepting limits on one’s own freedom for the sake of the whole community. It also means that those who can, need to work for what they get, sometimes referred to as the “Protestant work-ethic”; the notion of taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, but also in believing that each person can make a contribution to society. We are grateful to Martin Luther for this insight too.

This 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation offers us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the lasting impact the movement had in shaping our modern European societies. I am pleased to learn that the “Reformation 2017” project involves a sort of road-show, taking these discussions to cities across Europe. I know that a couple of weeks ago the Reformation Quincentenary came to Dublin in the shape of a theological symposium at Trinity College Dublin. The School of Religions, Peace Studies and Theology at Trinity has done tremendous work over the years in working to build peace and understanding between communities.

Today’s conference is about reflecting on the past, but it is also about looking to the future. There are very many lessons to be learned which can be applied to the myriad challenges facing the European Union in 2017:

  • The memory of earlier refugees from religious persecution should cause us to reflect on how we treat some of Europe’s newest immigrants.
  • The lesson of needing to respect diversity should help us address the strains of intolerant nationalism, sadly present in some of our countries.

I would like to conclude with the words of Pope Francis when he visited Sweden last year to commemorate the Reformation in that country. He said: “We Christians will be credible witnesses of mercy to the extent that forgiveness, renewal and reconciliation are daily experienced in our midst.”