In 2017 the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's posting of the Ninety-Five Theses will be commemorated throughout the world. To a considerable extent, this act triggered the movement that has become known as the Reformation. Lutheran churches in particular will reflect on this formative time in their history.


The word 'Lutheran' is correctly used today to describe those Christian churches that subscribe to the teachings contained in particular confessional documents, especially the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and Luther’s Small Catechism of 1529. First used in 1518 at an academic disputation in Heidelberg, it referred to those who sympathised with the theological standpoint of Dr Martin Luther (1483-1546), a monk and theologian in the University of Wittenberg, who had challenged some of the teachings of the contemporary (Roman Catholic) church in his 'Ninety-five Theses'. Initially used to describe anyone who was considered to be a reformist, it slowly came to be used in its more specific denominational sense. However, it would be quite inappropriate and misleading to use the term to describe, for example, the followers of the more radical reformers in Switzerland, such as Huldrych Zwingli or John Calvin, who were influential in the reforms of the Church of England and Church of Scotland.


According to tradition, the Ninety-five Theses were nailed by Dr Martin Luther to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints Day (31 October) 1517. Although the Theses, which were brief assertions, dealt with several different matters, they were particularly prompted by what Luther felt were the abuses prevalent in the sale of letters known as 'Indulgences', which were said to shorten the length of time spent by departed believers in purgatory. Luther was an Augustinian monk who lectured in biblical theology in the new university in Wittenberg, and who had wrestled with the twin problems of how to reconcile his growing understanding of the Bible’s teachings with the traditional teachings of the church, and a more personal struggle with his own spiritual standing in the eyes of God. At some point, he came to understand that human beings are reconciled to God by God’s grace, apprehended in faith, rather than by their good works. Within days, the Theses, which were written in Latin for use by theologians, had been translated into German and were being printed and widely distributed throughout the many different territories of Germany. Traditionally, the posting of the Theses on 31 October 1517 is seen as the date when 'The Reformation' started, although there had been movements towards reform also during the preceding centuries.


It is estimated that today there are about 80 million people around the world who, nominally at least, belong to Lutheran churches. The vast majority of Lutheran churches (145 churches in 98 countries, representing over 72 million members) belong to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), a communion of churches, established in 1947. Some Lutherans belong to the International Lutheran Council (ILC), which was founded in 1993 and brings together some 3.5 million people from 30 different churches that see themselves as conservative Lutherans. Other Lutherans are not affiliated to either the LWF or the ILC.

Not all Lutheran churches necessarily use the word 'Lutheran' in their titles. For example, the Churches of Sweden and Norway make no reference to the word 'Lutheran' in their names, but their near neighbour is The Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland. The Lutheran Church in Poland identifies strongly with its confessional basis and is The Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland. These differences in name do not affect the fact that such churches share a common understanding that they stand within the tradition that owes its origin to the Lutheran Reformation of the 16th century. For Lutherans the word ‘evangelical’ does not imply a particular worship style or piety, as is often the case in the UK, but it refers to the ‘good news’ (from the Greek “evangelos”) that is the heart of the Christian Gospel.

Lutheran churches tend to emphasise doctrine, rather than organisation. So, for example, some Lutheran churches have preserved a traditional style of worship and organisation that includes bishops and a very 'high' liturgy, whereas others may have a Church President or a Superintendent and might have a simpler liturgy. Many Lutheran clergy wear traditional vestments, similar to those of the Roman Catholics, and others prefer simpler robes. From Luther’s time onward, music has been very important in Lutheran churches. Liturgies are normally sung by the congregations and there have been many Lutheran composers, such as Bach and Mendelssohn, who wrote prolifically for the church. Many Lutheran church buildings, particularly in Europe and the Nordic countries, have religious images and art work as aids to devotion, sometimes dating from the pre-Reformation church. The iconoclasm that led to so much damage to churches in the UK was not so pronounced or widespread in many Lutheran areas. Lutheran worship is centred on the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments (which, for Lutherans, means Holy Communion and Baptism). Worship is congregational, involving the people through singing and praying, as well as listening. Most Lutherans treasure both the liturgy and the church's year, which together present, over and over again, the story of Jesus and his teaching.


There are close to 200,000 people in the UK who belong to Lutheran Churches. Lutherans arrived in the UK in several waves of immigration: the first, starting in the 16th Century, came amidst religious strife in Europe and was later driven by trade (particularly the Hanseatic League, and the need to reconstruct London after the Great Fire), consisting primarily of migrants from German and Nordic churches. The second, after World War II, consisted of Baltic and Eastern European Lutherans fleeing Soviet persecution. Later, Lutherans arrived from East Africa and Asian countries. The Second World War displaced many people of Lutheran background, who, with help from the newly founded (1947) Lutheran World Federation and Lutherans in Sweden and the United States of America, were assisted as refugees to establish congregations providing services in their own languages. In 1948 a collaborative council, the Lutheran Council of Great Britain, came into being in order to channel outside help and encourage co-operation. Now known as the Council of Lutheran Churches (CLC), it serves its members by regulatory, administrative, and pastoral support, and serves as a single point of contact for most Lutherans in the UK. CLC is a recognised council in the LWF and has 10 members: Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian Church Abroad, German Lutherans, and the Lutheran Church in Great Britain, which includes congregations worshipping in Polish, Swahili, Chinese and English as well as the Nordic languages. Some Lutherans belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England, a member of the ILC and not of CLC but with whom CLC collaborates frequently. Lutheran services are held regularly (often weekly) in Lutheran churches, other churches and halls all over the UK.

Since 1996 a number of Lutheran and Anglican Churches in Britain, Ireland, the Nordic and Baltic countries and Europe have come together through the Porvoo Agreement. This entails full communion, so that members of each church may worship and take communion in the others, and pastors and priests ordained in one church are accepted and may work in the others. In 1999 the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation agreed the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification, an important outcome of decades of dialogue between the two churches. The document articulates a common understanding of the doctrine (which concerns the basis of God's acceptance of us). The doctrine of justification was a fundamental issue at the time of the Reformation and led to mutual condemnations. The Joint Declaration agreed that the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century no longer apply in relation to this central doctrine.


Number of Lutherans in the World: about 80 million (similar to the Anglican Communion).

Number of countries with Lutheran Churches: 98.

Largest Lutheran Churches in the World: Church of Sweden (6.5m), Mekane Yesus (Ethiopia: 6.4m), Tanzania and Indonesia (5.8m each). Note: there are more Lutherans in Germany (12.2m) but divided into regional churches (Landeskirche).

Number of Lutherans in the UK: approximately 200,000.

Earliest Lutheran Church in the UK: Holy Trinity the Less in Trinity Lane, London dedicated on 21st December 1673 (and later known as the Hamburg Church), under Pastor Gerhard Martens who was installed in 1668 under the Swedish ambassador.


More information about the Reformation anniversary, its background and events planned, can be found at, and general information about CLC can be found at

Lutheran Churches websites are as follows:

The Lutheran Church in Great Britain (Chinese, English, Polish, Swahili, Nordic languages) (

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in England has a website at

The Lutheran World Federation has more information at


For more information about the 500th Anniversary (including Luther’s theology and views on particular issues), please contact Revd Susanne Freddin Skovhus ( and for general information, please also contact James Laing (, General Secretary of the Council of Lutheran Churches, on 020 7388 4044 or at 30 Thanet Street, London WC1H 9QH.