When LCA Bishop John Henderson planted a tree in Canberra last month, it was a simple, local act with global roots and international significance.
The tree planting at St Mark’s National Theological Centre in the Australian Capital Territory was part of the worldwide commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, stemming from the birthplace of that event: Wittenberg, Germany.
The tree is a quercus robur or ‘Luther Oak’ and is a ‘sister’ tree to one planted in the Luthergarten (Luther garden) in Wittenberg, by the LCA’s Rev Dr Stephen Pietsch in 2012. The original garden is on the grounds of the former town fortifications and contains 292 trees representing Lutheran churches from around the world. In connection with this project, a further 208 trees (totalling 500) are being planted at the two other Luthergarten sites in the city region. Each participating church is asked to plant a companion tree in their own country.
At the centre of the main elliptical garden in Wittenberg is a space in the shape of a Luther rose. Between the petals of the Luther rose, five linden trees have been planted by worldwide Christian communions. From that central place, seven paths symbolically lead into the world, including to Canberra. A main path, lined with linden trees, traces a heavenly bow through the garden. On other avenues, different tree species from five continents are mixed, emphasising the international character of the project. Between these avenues are meadows with local fruit trees.
The plaque to accompany the tree in Canberra tells the story of it being a companion tree and includes the Bible verse Romans 1:17 ‘The righteous shall live by faith’.
St Mark’s Director and event MC Rev Dr Andrew Cameron said the National Theological Centre, which has a Reformed Anglican heritage and an ecumenical ethos, was delighted to co-host the tree planting in Canberra with the LCA.
‘Today’s tree planting in our national capital of this companion tree signifies not only our important historical connections to the roots of the Reformation, but also the significant relationships and contributions made by Australian Christian churches on a worldwide basis’, he said.
‘Luther’s impact on our own church has been immeasurable since he alerted us again to God’s magnificent, forgiving love in Jesus Christ.’
Australian Lutheran College lecturer Rev Dr Pietsch said the image of a tree ‘is a powerful picture of God’s word at work’.
‘It is first planted, then grows, and then finally bears fruit’, he said. ‘This is one of Luther’s favourite pictures of how the gospel works in the church and the world. The word takes root and flourishes, even in the midst of difficulty and opposition, and then bears its fruit: new life and eternal hope. This is behind his famous saying that if the world was to end tomorrow, he would still plant an apple tree today.’
Bishop Henderson thanked St Mark’s, Charles Sturt University, and the Anglican Diocese of Canberra Goulburn for their partnership with the LCA for the tree planting and said the anniversary of the Reformation called on today’s Lutherans to ‘think deeply about the events of 500 years ago’.
‘Our joy and our grief are mixed’, he said. ‘The joy is the clarion call of the gospel, the free forgiveness of sins and justification by faith. The grief is the schism of the church, the fear and even hatred that developed between Christians, and the ensuing violence that caused thousands of deaths.
‘Yet whether we celebrate or commemorate this Reformation anniversary, the core message of justification by faith continues to be our strength and inspiration.’
Along with Bishop Henderson, Rev Dr Cameron, and Rev Dr Pietsch, other speakers were Anglican Bishop Diocesan of Canberra and Goulburn Anglican Community, the Right Rev Stuart Robinson; Charles Sturt University School of Theology Lecturer in European Reformations, Dr Michael Gladwin; and the German Embassy’s Head of Culture and Press, Susanne Körber.
LCA Secretary of the Church Rev Neville Otto said the tree planted in Canberra symbolised ‘the new season of growth in which we live, a season of ecumenical cooperation, respect and receptive listening’.
‘And we are reminded, profoundly, that all this was made possible by another tree, planted long, long ago, in the earth – the tree of pain on which Jesus Christ was crucified and the tree of glory. It is the wisdom of our miracle-making God, who still today creates from nothing and brings life from death and brings unity from conflict’, he said.