Over the last six weeks, we’ve looked at the agreements in the Declaration on the Way and its assessment of how far we have come. During this time, there have been many events commemorating the Reformation and bringing Christians into conversation with each other. But – where do we go from here? We have not yet reached the goal of our journey towards unity. DW recommends four major ways that for the churches continue to move forward together.
First, the theological task. The JDDJ was an important step forward, but it only relates to one area of theological difference, even if it that area is the “article by which the church stands or falls.” The dialogue calls the churches to work towards a process by which the 32 agreements that they have found on Church, Ministry, and Eucharist can be officially received by the churches in a manner like the JDDJ does. This moves the task from one of theology and theologians to public teaching and magisterial authority. Of course, doing such a thing will also require a theological process whereby the remaining differences can be discussed further, along with issues not directly addressed under the topics of church, ministry, and eucharist. But the onus rests on the churches to speak authoritatively in their own name.
Second, the task of prayer. While Catholics and Lutherans are doing a better job of praying together, there is still room for growing closer. In particular, the document suggests that
local Catholic and Lutheran clergy to gather regularly for common prayer and study. Our agreements on ministry indicate that that Catholic priests and Lutheran ministers are in real, if imperfect, communion with each other. This communion might manifest itself in regular prayer together, in study of the ecumenical documents listed above, and in regular spiritual retreats.
What might this look like in your context? Unlike the first task, here, growing closer in Christ does not require any further permissions from ecclesiastical authority than we already have. What it takes is commitment and practice, and gatherings between Christians are a good start. How can you foster these kinds of gatherings in your area?
Third, there is the task of education. This task can feel pretty daunting. I’m teaching a course on the Reformation this term. My students, although many of them have been in Catholic school their entire lives, crossed the threshold knowing little, if anything about the Reformation. For a real reception of the gifts of the ecumenical movement, we need to work hard at this one, in schools and universities, in parishes and congregations, and in seminaries. Ecumenism requires both catechesis that introduces people to the actual relationships between Christians, and theology that teaches them how to navigate these questions in their situations.
Finally, there is the task of collaboration. The DW suggests a 4-prong strategy: First, bishops establish permanent working groups between their dioceses and synods to foster education, common prayer, and mutual support in ministry. Second, for the churches to join together in the work of diakonia, caring for the “spiritual, emotional, and physical needs” of our communities. The world-wide churches have set us a good example with the covenant between Caritas International and Lutheran World Service. Third, they ask bishops to support and encourage the kinds of local collaborations named above, and finally, they suggest that Lutheran and Catholic parishes enter into covenants of mutual prayer, work for the community, and support.
Of course, these are all good things, and without them, it’s difficult to imagine any progress along the ecumenical way. Finally, however, none of this is going to happen unless Christians of all kinds learn again to feel the pain of separation, to be confused by the absurdity of a divided church. We’ve gotten very used to being amputated from one another, and we’ve even relished how being separate makes us ‘special.’ Ecumenism grows from the realization that the church is Christ’s body, and that the Kingdom we seek is God’s kingdom. Our common task it to work at being ever more united to Christ, and that is not the only path towards unity, but it absolutely leads us there together.