Lutherans Take Over Washington, DC

Today, Lutherans everywhere are commemorating Reformation Day — the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, kicking off the Protestant Reformation. I’m in Washington, DC, and I’ve been celebrating since Sunday.

Washington National Cathedral interior

Whenever a big church event is held here, it’s likely to be at the Washington National Cathedral, a must-see attraction when visiting our capital. On Reformation Sunday, thousands of Lutherans filled the place. It was High Church at its best — lots of bishops, red scarves and ties everywhere, a celebration of many cultures, and amazing music. Being among so many Lutherans singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (our “fight song”) made it particularly unforgettable. And I got to enjoy a few lighthearted moments before the service with my friend, David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World (an organization we’ve supported for decades through our work at Rick Steves’ Europe).

David Beckmann and Rick Steves

After the service, I partied at the Mayflower Hotel with our wonderful Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, and church leaders from far and wide. For the first time in my life, I wore a bowtie — thanks to some thoughtful friends who saw I was a bit underdressed and had neglected to wear the color of the day: red. Wearing a fancy little bowtie at the Mayflower Hotel…it just made perfect sense.

Rick Steves with bowtie

Together with Bishop Eaton, we celebrated diversity. We raised a glass to Elizabeth Platz, who became the first female Lutheran pastor in 1970, and we honored guests from around the world. Of course, my Lutheran heritage is as white as can be, but there are far higher proportions of Lutherans in several African countries — including Tanzania and Namibia —than there are in the USA. I’m also proud that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was a leader in welcoming gay members and clergy — even though that caused hundreds of congregations to leave, in search of less open churches.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Rick Steves

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Today, we’re in the midst of an impressive capital campaign to make both our foundation and our reach stronger. And, while Luther managed to split the “one catholic and universal Church,” a big part of our 500th-anniversary joy is how, after five centuries — with leadership from both Pope Francis and Bishop Eaton — the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church have never been closer and healthier in their shared mission.

Yesterday, our group visited the delightful Folger Shakespeare Library (just a block behind the Capitol). The library has one of the world’s top collections of books and documents from the Reformation and the 16th century. They welcomed us with an amazing literary treat: a table of precious works from the age of Luther, including an actual papal indulgence — one of the things that riled Luther the most. These were coupons, printed up en masse and sold by the Roman Church, promising forgiveness and a quicker ride to Heaven.

Folger Shakespeare Library interior papal indulgence


What about you? I’d love to hear about how you are celebrating the the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.