Martin Luther hammers his 95 theses on a church door, as depicted by Belgian painter Ferdinand Pauwels, an act that kickstarted the Reformation 500 years ago. (WikiCommons)
If Martin Luther’s Reformation taught us anything, it’s that unity isn’t something simiply nice to have. It’s essential to the church actually being the church.
On the plus side, Catholics and Lutherans now recognize their agreement on almost all of the substantive issues born from the Protestant Reformation, which began in October of 1517 with the 95 theses pinned to a church door by Luther.
But mere theological agreement isn’t the same as church unity.
“In the present context, there is a tremendous desire to find ways to give a common witness to the love and mercy of God in a deeply divided society,” Saint Paul University professor of ecumenical theology Catherine Clifford wrote in an email from Rome while she attended meetings of the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission. “We cannot confront the challenges of climate change, the refugee crisis or violence in our society in isolation from one another. The very credibility of the church is at stake. Together we can be a reconciling presence in the world.”
For Clifford, ecumenism isn’t just about repairing our past. It’s about finding our future.
“Our future will be shaped by the ways that Christians choose to walk together,” she said. “To move into the future together by doing all that our common faith compels us to do as one.”
The first step is to see divided, segmented Christianity as weird, said Archdiocese of Edmonton ecumenical and interfaith affairs officer Julien Hammond.
“In Canada, all we’ve ever known is a divided Christianity,” he said. “We think that’s normative, or God’s will. Part of the ecumenical task is to speak to our communities, or respective churches, saying that this is not Christ’s will or normative. . . . The mission of the church, which is making Christ known and present in the world, the mission of the church is impeded when we are divided.”
For most of the last 500 years, the wounds from the Reformation remained open. It has only been in the last 50 or so — since the Second Vatican Council’s decisive declaration in favour of ecumenism — that major healing has begun.
“It isn’t just a question of going back and repairing past theological problems,” said Hammond. “We have also a legacy of hurting one another for 500 years. . . . We carry the hurts — the cultural, social, psychological, historical hurts towards one another — and that adds to the complexity of repairing the wounds in the Body of Christ.”
Today, as the world commemorates the religious revolution sparked by Luther’s challenge to church practices, the question is whether the divisions between churches can ever be healed completely. That, theologians agree, is entirely up to us.
Picking apart the anathemas of the Council of Trent and apologizing for the wild insults Luther threw at the pope will never amount to the practice of Christianity.
“What’s more important is, ‘How do we act together?’ ” said Lutheran theologian and professor emeritus of public ethics at Waterloo-Lutheran Seminary David Pfrimmer. “How do we understand the world together? What do Christians contribute to the world that’s life-enhancing?”
For Pfrimmer, understanding what drove the Reformation helps us see what the church is called to do in our own time. In a world that was rapidly changing — from the rise of an urban middle class and breakdown of the feudal system to the expansion of Europe into the Americas and the perfection of the printing press — Luther’s world was experiencing a sort of epidemic of cognitive dissonance.
We also now live in an age of rapid change, the disintegration of old bonds and the disappearance of once assured ways of living. Pfrimmer would not be the first to call the 21st century an “age of anxiety.”
“Our life question is how we can have a right relation with each other and creation,” said Pfrimmer.
People have plenty of reasons to suffer anxiety — from climate change to the global economy — but they don’t seem to want to find a cure in a church.
“People are not hostile to religion or faith,” said Pfrimmer. “It’s just that people aren’t buying what’s on offer.”
The people who remain in the pews are often there searching for a sense of belonging.
“The answer that our world gives us — what this kind of globalized, post-modern, liberal world gives us — is that you are an individual, a radical individual all on your own. You’re a consumer and a taxpayer. That’s it,” said Pfrimmer. “Those (categories) don’t satisfy anybody’s needs for their sense of belonging.”
The divisions and divisiveness of the churches isn’t merely a function of Reformation-era competition between churches. It can also be found within churches, points out Faith Lutheran Church pastor Rev. Warren Hamp of Kitchener.
“I’ve had lunch with a few of the local (Catholic) priests,” Hamp said. “And at some point you almost say, ‘I don’t think they belong to the same denomination.’ Just as you are going to have a multiplicity of Lutherans, you certainly have a multiplicity of Catholics and lots of differing opinions.”
Hamp belongs to a conservative minority branch of Lutheranism that has historically been skeptical of ecumenism. However, he participates in a national dialogue between the Lutheran Church of Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and has come to count St. Catharines Bishop Gerard Bergie among his friends. The dialogue itself — twice-yearly deep and serious conversations about what Christians believe and how we understand one another — has been an experience of genuine Christianity for Hamp.
“Hey, you got to talk,” he said. “And it takes time. You can’t just make assumptions.”
When Pope Francis helped kick off the 500th year of the Reformation by visiting the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, last October, the very act drew attention to the “Lund Principle,” said Hammond.
The Lund Principle says that if conscience demands the churches must do something apart, then conscience rules. But everything else — the vast majority of Christian life — we must do together.
This applies especially to the commandments of Matthew 25 — to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit those in prison.
“In the whole ecumenical movement, our engagement has been driven by a desire to be faithful to Christ,” he said. “We made a commitment to that at the Second Vatican Council as Catholics. We recognized at the time of the Council that the divisions of the church are not just problematic but a deviation from Christ’s will, his prayer for unity — and a scandal.”