October 31, 2016
At its annual Fall conference, taking place this year September 23-25 at the Candler School of Theology outside of Atlanta, Georgia, the North American Academy of Ecumenists focused on “Commemorating the Reformation: Churches Looking Together Toward 2017—and Beyond.”
The keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. William Rusch, professor of Lutheran Studies at Yale University and a longtime national ecumenical leader, reflected on how “commemorate” means to honor the memory of a person or event and how this is more fitting language for the upcoming year of events on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation than is “celebrate,” which is to observe an event with joy.
Dr. Rusch noted how, historically, the Reformation has both supporters and detractors. For Protestants it restored the church; for Catholics it divided it. “This time around, however, we’re emphasizing not just the past, but the future,” he noted.
Is the Reformation anniversary to be seen as only a Lutheran-Roman Catholic event? Already other Reformed churches such as the Presbyterian and Methodist are objecting to what to them is “a Lutheran monopoly” of the Reformation anniversary events. They would have us all remember that there are some common, fundamental affirmations that point beyond Lutherans and Roman Catholics.
For starters, baptism is the basis of our unity. This is true for all Christians. Further, Jesus prayer for unity in John 17 (“that they all may be one”) and Paul’s words to the Ephesians to “be eager to maintain the spirit of unity in the bonds of peace” pertain to all Christians as well. In short, this commemoration of the Reformation encourages all Christians to give more visible expression to their unity in a hostile and fearful world.
A constant theme in the ecumenical movement that has marked the last century has been the visible unity of the Church of Jesus Christ. “It’s obvious that the Reformation split or severed the Church,” reflected Dr. Rusch, “but even Luther just before his death did not reject out of hand the possibility of a unified Church under the leadership of the pope.”
Pope Francis’ presence and participation in the prayer service in Lund, Sweden at the end of October for the kickoff of the year’s events is but one indication of the new and positive relations in this era between the Reformation churches and the Bishop of Rome. In the course of the year, Pope Francis will also be making a visit to Germany.
Until very recently it would have been unthinkable for a pope to join in an anniversary service of the Reformation. Past observances have been oppositional, at times leading to open hostility. This one was the first marked by a real desire on the part of Catholics, Lutherans, and Christians of all the Reformed traditions to come together and, yes, celebrate the progress made over the past 50 years of ecumenical dialogue.
“In the 15th century there was a Protestant trajectory and a conflicting Roman Catholic trajectory rejecting it,” said Dr. Rusch. “But in the last 50 years of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, both Protestants and Catholics have been able to see Luther in his historical context. Luther ceased to be an immoral character, and a theologian who brought some needed reforms in the Church.”
“The dialogues have produced thousands of pages of theological accord on questions once seen to be church-dividing,” observed Rusch. “Certain topics have lost their capacity to divide us. Unfortunately, the conclusions of the dialogues’ work have been neglected. With the exception of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which was jointly signed in 1999, they have not been formally accepted.
“The churches need to take official juridical action and own certain conclusions of the dialogues,” Dr. Rusch emphasized. “This is a process that happens on two levels. There is a reception that is juridical, and another that affects the life of the Church at local levels. The latter goes forward slowly and takes time.”
This anniversary is an unparalleled opportunity for both church leaders and laity to enter into the process of healing and reconciliation at both juridical and grassroots levels. It is important that we capitalize on this opportunity in our divided world to render more effective the mission and witness of a Christendom united.
Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Boston, MA.