By The Rev. Eric C. Shafer
Many of us know something about the Protestant Reformation, how, beginning in Germany with Martin Luther in 1517, various groups, “protesting” then policies and activities of the Roman Catholic Church, left that church to form what we now know as the modern “Protestant” churches – Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, among many others.
What is less well known are the more recent efforts to heal these nearly 500-year-old divisions.
Recently, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), meeting under the theme “Freed and Renewed in Christ – 500 Years of God’s Grace in Action” in their triennial assembly (national gathering) in New Orleans, took an important step toward this healing.
By a vote of 931 to 9, the assembly overwhelmingly accepted the “Declaration on the Way,” a new ecumenical document that marks a path toward greater unity between Roman Catholics and Lutherans. The document includes 32 “Statements of Agreement” that state where Lutherans and Roman Catholics agree on topics about church, ministry and the Holy Communion. The document also explores differences that remain which include full sharing of Holy Communion and the ordination of women.
“Dear sisters and brothers, let us pause to honor this historic moment,” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton addressing the assembly following the vote. “Though we have not yet arrived, we have claimed that we are, in fact, on the way to unity.”
“This ‘Declaration on the Way’ helps us to realize more fully our unity in Christ with our Catholic partners, but it also serves to embolden our commitment to unity with all Christians,” said Eaton.
To honor the occasion, Eaton presented a gift of communion ware made especially for the assembly to Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, and co-chair of the ‘Declaration on the Way’ task force.
“I feel so privileged and so grateful to have spent these few days with you. Speaking with you, sharing time with you, and praying with you,” Madden said. “I thank you for allowing me and my colleagues to join you in the Eucharist celebrations which have been a great joy and always a remembrance that soon we will be celebrating these together as one body.” Madden later added, “I so look forward to that day” (of full sharing of Holy Communion together). “We are on the way to unity – we are moving in that direction.”
Madden added that an immediate next step will be to get the ELCA assembly-approved document into the hands of all Roman Catholic bishops in the United States. Eaton noted that one of the ELCA’s next steps would be sharing it with partner churches throughout the world through the Lutheran World Federation. However, both indicated that the “success” of any movement toward unity would need to happen at a local level with ELCA and Roman Catholic congregations studying, serving, working and worshipping together. And, that any movement for healing of the divisions between Lutherans and Roman Catholics must begin with “friendships and relationships” among pastors and priest and members.
The assembly expressed gratitude for this pioneering ecumenical text and commended the declaration as a resource “for the common life of the church as we approach (the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in) 2017 and beyond.” Concerning the Statement of Agreements, the assembly’s action to receive the 32 common affirmations “recognized that there are no longer church dividing issues’ between Lutherans and Catholics with respect to these statements.
The full document can be downloaded at http://www.elca.org/Declaration-on-the-Way.
The Rev. Eric C. Shafer is the Senior Pastor of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica. He attended the recent ELCA national gathering in New Orleans. The other Santa Monica ELCA congregation is St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and there are a number of other ELCA congregations in the West L.A. area.