Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Lutherans and Catholics Together: Is that a good thing?

Many of us were deeply moved by the joint Lutheran-Catholic observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation Monday in Lund, Sweden.
Bishop Munib Younan and Pope Francis

Since Christ prayed for unity, it is natural that we lament disunity, and celebrate whenever Christians find ways to signal and practice greater unity.

I have friends, however, who have legitimate questions about the significance of this event. I join them in their questioning.

They have some legitimate worries, and I have less worries. So let me suggest that the joint observance is reason for measured rejoicing.

Unity isn't same-ness, but rather gracious diversity. We are free to celebrate that each person in Christian community brings different gifts, while one Spirit unites us all (1 Corinthians 12). So too in terms of Christian communions, each communion brings unique gifts to the global ecumene. Differences are not erased, but become many gifts that strengthen and build up.

Keep an historical outlook on such observances. Ecumenism is always a back and forth. A church publishes a confession. Another side in the dialogue responds. Sometimes this pushes churches further from one another, even to the point of breaking. Sometimes such confessional give-and-take draws them closer to each other. They begin to meet more regularly, find places of agreement, and celebrate those agreements. This is what happened in 2000 with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

But just like in any family, one agreement doesn't signal perfect and static unity. It's a continuing relationship. So of course not everything on the doctrine of justification has been resolved by JDDJ. Of course it hasn't, and even the document itself recognizes that.

So, not surprisingly, Roman Catholics and Lutherans are able to find great unity in terms of service. Pope Francis has taught, "Let us meet each other in doing good." Lutherans are quite into doing good with others.

But each communion will have its own way of thinking about these joint observances. So, here's the Roman Catholic "take."

And there will remain some unresolved differences, some of them very significant. Like this one:

Which means we all have continuing work to do. Lutherans will need to push the Roman Catholics, and push them hard, to recognize that Scripture itself records women serving in preaching and leadership roles. And will need to make an argument that the ontological understanding of the priesthood with priests as in persona Christi doesn't ultimately work very well.

But that doesn't mean Lutherans have figured out ecclesiology all that well. Clearly we haven't. And Roman Catholics can choose their issues on which they legitimately can push the Lutherans.

So we'll keep dialoguing, and studying, and serving together.

I do have one legitimate worry. I believe the ELCA has made significant progress in full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the life of the church, something the Catholics can learn from. And I refuse to do anything that throws those gains under the bus under the guise of "ecumenism."

That being said, Roman Catholics do far better at ethnic diversity than American Lutherans... so we have much to learn from them.

In the meantime, I for one believe it is a tremendous gain, accomplished in just these past 100 years of ecumenical relationships, that two great communities that represent Christ in the world, have shifted from mutually anathematizing each other, to jointly worshipping together.

Because the witness of Christian unity is of great import to the world. It's why Jesus prayed for unity in the presence of others. It matters to Christ.

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