February 28 – Martin Bucer

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Martin Bucer, Reformer of the Church

Martin Bucer (1491-1551) is a sympathetic and somewhat neglected figure of the Reformation. Among the divisions that came so quickly to plague the Protestant movement, he was an advocate for reconciliation and dialogue. Born in Alsace, Bucer became a Dominican friar at an early age, but while studying in his twenties he was influenced by Erasmus and Martin Luther. He married a former nun and began preaching the new doctrines, was excommunicated, and was eventually received as a pastor in Strasbourg in 1524. He remained there for most of his life as a leader of the Reformed church. Changes in the political scene eventually forced him to flee to England, where he arrived in 1549. Before his death in 1551 he had come to have a significant influence on the English Reformation, including the second (1552) Prayer Book of Edward VI.


Bucer watched with dismay the dissipating factions of the early Reformation. Throughout his years in Strasbourg, he strove to foster dialogue between Lutheran and Swiss Protestants, and even with Anabaptists and Catholics, apparently believing in the possibility of a reunified church. In this sense, Bucer was a forerunner of the modern ecumenical movement. In the enduring conflict of interpretations over Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, Bucer maintained the unusual opinion that Zwingli and Luther were simply at cross-purposes. In his own thought, he had reconciled their differences—agreeing with Zwingli that Christ remained in heaven, he nevertheless believed that the Eucharistic elements really participated in Christ’s body and blood “after a heavenly manner”. Through the sanctification of their senses by the Holy Spirit, Christians apprehend heavenly things on earth. Unfortunately, the rival theologians were not persuaded that their disagreements were so illusory. Perhaps Bucer anticipated not just the zeal and goodwill of modern ecumenism but also its failures, in underestimating the depth of the differences to be overcome, and relying too readily on formulae of accord.


Bucer also placed a high value on pastoral discipline and the formation of mutually supportive Christian communities. This emphasis underpins the continuing importance he attached to Confirmation. He regarded it as a “personal ratification of the baptismal covenant”, a view which influenced many Protestant churches to retain a form of this rite. Ordination too, without being called a “sacrament” as such, retained a highly sacramental flavour in Bucer’s thought, reflecting both the centrality of ecclesial office in his understanding of the church, and his faith in the real effectiveness of the Holy Spirit through human words and actions in the liturgy. It is fitting that Bucer left us no church in his own name—his desire was for integration. But his influence was felt by those who more permanently shaped the young churches, especially Calvin, who had closely observed his work in Strasbourg, and Cranmer, a long-term correspondent and a friend in the last years of exile. Through such figures as these his legacy has been communicated to later Protestant generations.

Martin Wright