Here I stand

By John Ellis

At the end of the Second World War, some members of churches that are now part of the United Reformed Church felt there was an urgent need to make enemies into friends. As a result various congregations from St Andrew’s in Leeds to Purley in South London twinned with churches in the Church of the Palatinate in south west Germany and have maintained relationships ever since.

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Synod in session

I was delighted to be able to embody the longstanding friendship between the URC and the Palatinate Church by visiting their Synod, equivalent to our General Assembly. They paid no attention to the centenary of the First World War but were very aware of the forthcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the 200th anniversary of the joining together of Lutheran and Reformed streams to form their Church in 1818.

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Speyer Cathedral

The Synod took place in Speyer. Situated on the Rhine, there has been an important settlement here since before Roman times. The town is indeed a microcosm of European history. In the silent, evocative crypt of their Cathedral lie local Kings contemporary with William the Conqueror. During the turmoil of the first generation of the Reformation they hosted the Diet of Speyer in 1529. The princes of various German states, assisted by their theologians, considered what to believe. Several were staunchly supportive of the Catholic Church and the Pope. Others, encouraged by Martin Luther himself, protested at this and acquired for the first time the name “Protestant”.

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The Memorial Church

In the nineteenth century it was felt Speyer should have some more visible monument to this historic moment. Sympathetic Protestant businessmen who had made their fortunes in Europe or America paid for a vast Memorial Church on a truly monumental scale. Its mood is set in the entrance porch dominated by a more than life-sized statue of Luther. His right foot tramples on a Papal Bull; his right hand is clenched in a determined fist; while his left hand presents an open Bible. Carved around the base of the statue are his words “Here I stand; I can do no other. So help me God.”

The mood is very different today. The speaker immediately after me in the Synod was a Roman Catholic priest. The major financial grants agreed by the Synod were towards supporting the churches’ work amongst refugees and migrants, not for building monuments. The vast Memorial Church is a mixed blessing for the modest congregation that worships there today. The railways offered one suggestion: Speyer’s fine Victorian station building has been abandoned for a cheap and utilitarian new one alongside. And the Christmas market along the main street was happy to make as much money as possible out of the cuddly side of Christmas.

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Martin Luther standing

But I was glad Martin Luther was still there: a reminder that authentic Christian discipleship will sometimes be neither utilitarian nor cuddly.

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