by Martin Wharton
from Signs of the Times No. 68 - Jan 2018

David Osborne’s Reformation Pilgrimage describes and reflects upon his cycle ride through Germany in the summer of 2016.

His aim was to visit some key places of the Reformation, to reflect upon the significance of those major events and upheavals and to discern what some of the key players might have to say to the issues of our day.

Using the means of a long bike ride, Osborne weaves together his life story, including his own theological journey out of the evangelicalism of his younger days, his passionate commitment to the European ideal and his major concerns about the current state of politics, the growing inequality in our world and the environmental crisis. 

This book is not only the story of a bike ride but it is also the story of his own theological and spiritual journey. In a real sense, Osborne’s pilgrimage has been a lifetime in the making. He grew up in the UK shortly after World War Two, taught in secondary schools in England and Nigeria and was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England. He served in parishes in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Somerset before retirement.

Beginning in Basle, the author travels to Strasbourg, Leipzig, Worms, Eisenach, Wittenberg, Fulda, Buchenwald and Hamburg. While much of the book rightly concentrates on Martin Luther’s views, we are also given reflections on Martin Buber, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Jürgen Moltmann, among others. There is enough here to whet the appetite of the reader and a helpful list of recommended reading is provided for those who wish to go further. I was surprised and pleased to see a chapter devoted to Johan Sebastian Bach, Johan Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and others in the Romantic Movement.

Striking to me was the very solitary nature of Osborne’s pilgrimage experience. Staying on his own, mainly in youth hostels, occasionally and fleetingly interacting with other cyclists, made this a very different kind of pilgrimage to those undertaken on foot with fellow travellers. Yet he recognises the irony in making this pilgrimage at all, for Luther believed that all pilgrimages should be banned.

Nevertheless, he uses his bike ride to reflect upon the huge contributions of German culture, music and theology to society over these last five centuries, as he attempts to work out what the events of the Reformation might have to say to the issues of our present day.

Appropriately, perhaps, Osborne concluded his pilgrimage on the day of the European referendum in the United Kingdom. He is saddened and angered not only by the nature of the campaign, conducted almost entirely by slogans and soundbites, but particularly by the outcome. He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr with approval:

What is good in humanity makes democracy possible; what is bad in humanity makes democracy essential.

I am not a cyclist and have never visited the parts of Germany David Osborne covers. I only discovered a little sketch map at the back of the book after I had finished reading. It would have been helpful to me to have been given a good map at the start of each section. Some good photographs would have further enabled the reader to share the author’s journey.

This is a stimulating read, giving us a gentle introduction to the thinking and actions of the key players in the Reformation. Yet it is not an easy book to categorise. Travel diary? Theological reflection? Personal autobiography? Probably something of all three. But what Osborne gives us is much food for thought and prayer, and encouragement to become actively involved in the affairs of our world.

Martin Wharton is the former Bishop of Newcastle.