This morning I introduce my particular topic for the week that we will look at today and Thursday. You may have read the blurb on the Internet Monk Bulletin Board (right side of the page) and noticed that Roman Catholics and Lutherans have come together and produced a document that expresses their commitment to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in a spirit of unity.
The Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation released a joint document, “From Conflict to Communion,” in Geneva on Monday, June 17. (Here is a link to the document).
The heart of its message is expressed in the following paragraph:
Lutherans and Catholics have many reasons to retell their history in new ways. They have been brought closer together through family relations, through their service to the larger world mission, and through their common resistance to tyrannies in many places. These deepened contacts have changed mutual perceptions, bringing new urgency for ecumenical dialogue and further research. The ecumenical movement has altered the orientation of the churches’ perceptions of the Reformation: ecumenical theologians have decided not to pursue their confessional self-assertions at the expense of their dialogue partners but rather to search for that which is common within the differences, even within the oppositions, and thus work toward overcoming church-dividing differences.
“From Conflict to Communion” especially highlights the progress made by Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in the past 50 years, and suggests that we live in a new era, an age that enables Lutherans and Catholics to view each other differently. The mutual condemnations that grew out of Reformation schisms should no longer form the foundation of the relationship between the churches.
The document cites four important changes that have come about:
1. The work of ecumenism in the past century.
The year 2017 will see the first centennial commemoration of the Reformation to take place during the ecumenical age. It will also mark fifty years of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. As part of the ecumenical movement, praying together, worshipping together, and serving their communities together have enriched Catholics and Lutherans. They also face political, social, and economic challenges together. The spirituality evident in interconfessional marriages has brought forth new insights and questions. Lutherans and Catholics have been able to reinterpret their theological traditions and practices, recognizing the influences they have had on each other. Therefore, they long to commemorate 2017 together.
2. The globalization of the church that now finds the Global South taking on new importance in the Christian world.
In the last century, Christianity has become increasingly global. There are today Christians of various confessions throughout the whole world; the number of Christians in the South is growing, while the number of Christians in the North is shrinking. The churches of the South are continually assuming a greater importance within worldwide Christianity. These churches do not easily see the confessional conflicts of the sixteenth century as their own conflicts, even if they are connected to the churches of Europe and North America through various Christian world communions and share with them a common doctrinal basis. With regard to the year 2017, it will be very important to take seriously the contributions, questions, and perspectives of these churches.
3. The secularization of the world context in which Christian communities live and witness.
While the previous Reformation anniversaries took place in confessionally homogenous lands, or lands at least where a majority of the population was Christian, today Christians live worldwide in multi-religious environments. This pluralism poses a new challenge for ecumenism, making ecumenism not superfluous but, on the contrary, all the more urgent, since the animosity of confessional oppositions harms Christian credibility. How Christians deal with differences among themselves can reveal something about their faith to people of other religions. Because the question of how to handle inner-Christian conflict is especially acute on the occasion of remembering the beginning of the Reformation, this aspect of the changed situation deserves special attention in our reflections on the year 2017.
4. The contributions of 20th-21st century historical research.
Research has contributed much to changing the perception of the past in a number of ways. In the case of the Reformation, these include the Protestant as well as the Catholic accounts of church history, which have been able to correct previous confessional depictions of history through strict methodological guidelines and reflection on the conditions of their own points of view and presuppositions. On the Catholic side that applies especially to the newer research on Luther and Reformation and, on the Protestant side, to an altered picture of medieval theology and to a broader and more differentiated treatment of the late Middle Ages. In current depictions of the Reformation period, there is also new attention to a vast number of non-theological factors – political, economic, social, and cultural. The paradigm of “confessionalization” has made important corrections to the previous historiography of the period.
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I think sometimes we downplay the significance of statements like these, if only because they have been crafted by people we don’t know personally and because we don’t see any immediate changes resulting from them. I myself have had this attitude. However, that is one reason I want us to talk about this document this week.
If “From Conflict to Communion” simply remains an official statement by a couple of big organizations, then it certainly will have minimal impact. But if we can begin discussing the ideas on the grassroots level and changing our minds about the ways in which we have been set, then perhaps some actual progress in real life Christian unity can be made. The internet seems to me a perfect environment to start this discussion, and may God grant that it go “viral!”
A further challenge to all of us — especially on a personal level — is the simple fact that people approach matters like this from two basic perspectives. Forgive the simplistic nature of this, but I have often seen demonstrated that when groups talk about “unity” or “ecumenical” matters, there is a general divide between:
- Those who look first at our differences and make those the foundation of the way we relate to each other, and
- Those who look first at our commonalities and make them the basis of our relationship.
The statement emphasizes that both groups need to alter their perspective.
Ecumenical dialogue means being converted from patterns of thought that arise from and emphasize the differences between the confessions. Instead, in dialogue the partners look first for what they have in common and only then weigh the significance of their differences. These differences, however, are not overlooked or treated casually, for ecumenical dialogue is the common search for the truth of the Christian faith.
So then, we are not so different that we cannot rejoice together in what we hold in common and try to build a relationship on that. On the other hand, our differences are important enough that we must keep talking and coming to terms with what those differences will mean for the shape of our relationship.
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This afternoon: an overview of “From Conflict to Communion.” I encourage you to read it online or download a copy to keep for further reading and consideration.