(RNS) Catholic, Lutheran and United Methodist leaders will gather in Chicago on Thursday (Oct. 1) to commemorate the 10th anniversary of a milestone agreement on the long, slow and often painful road to Christian unity.
The celebration, held at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago, will pay tribute to the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation on Oct. 31, 1999. In 2006, the World Methodist Council affirmed the agreement as an expression of how Methodists, too, understand the character of salvation.
The declaration aimed at resolving a key Reformation-era doctrinal dispute between Roman Catholics and Martin Luther’s emerging Protestants on salvation, how human beings are made right with God and the role of grace and works.
The document declares: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”
At the same time, the two churches said some of the 16th-century condemnations they hurled at one another no longer applied.
“The 10th anniversary … provides a joyful occasion for thanking God for our level of agreement on this central doctrine of our Christian faith,” said the Rev. Mark Hanson, president of the LWF and presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who will join Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George at the anniversary event.
While the joint declaration represents a significant step in ecumenical efforts, the Chicago celebration also comes at a time when the ecumenical movement is in something of the doldrums, floundering — some would even say stagnating — as it searches for new methods to both broaden and deepen the quest.
Until now, the focus of unity efforts have been almost exclusively doctrinal — forging agreements through bilateral and multilateral theological discussions on such historic church-dividing “faith and order” issues as baptism, the Eucharist, ministry and, as the joint declaration, acknowledges, how salvation works. A host of these dialogues have generated shelves of agreed-upon statements, common understandings, and joint declarations.
Yet for all that progress, much remains undone.
For one, most ecumenical dialogues have been with more traditional church bodies — Roman Catholic, and those Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant that make up the World Council of Churches, which was founded a half-century ago with the elusive quest for unity as a paramount goal.
But that has left out much of the Christian world’s most vibrant and rapidly growing groups — evangelicals and Pentecostals in the global South.
As the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, noted in a recent issue of The Christian Century, today one in four Christians in the world is a Pentecostal — more than there are members of all the World Council of Churches’ members put together.
What’s more, there is not yet a viable global body that can bring these churches together with the unity-minded WCC, much less the Vatican. While efforts are underway to create new means of engaging these groups in theological discussions aimed at unity, they suffer from lack of resources and a sense of urgency.
Secondly, there is uncertainty and confusion as to the Vatican’s and Pope Benedict XVI’s vision of, and commitment to, ecumenism. In 2000, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) issued “Dominus Iesus,” a theological shot across that bow that seemed to reject Protestants as “ecclesial bodies” or “Christian communities” rather than legitimate “churches.” A clarification in 2007 said those churches suffer from “defects” but still have been used “as instruments of salvation.” At the same time, Benedict has said the Roman Catholic Church’s “commitment… to the search for Christian unity is irreversible.”
Third, even as the churches make bilateral and multilateral progress on doctrinal issues, a number of contentious practical issues — women and gays in the ministry, abortion and contraception, among others — make it difficult for the separated churches to forge any kind of life together on any but the most superficial liturgical level.
In the U.S., the fledgling Christian Churches Together in the USA has brought together Catholics, Protestants (black and white), evangelicals/Pentecostals and the Orthodox, but a lowest-common-denominator commitment to unity has kept the group from tackling the most sensitive of social or theological issues.
Finally, in the post-9/11 world, the urgency of interreligious and interfaith dialogue and encounters, especially with Islam, has taken much of the energy that might otherwise have been given over to ecumenical talks.
“This is a historic moment on the journey toward Christian unity,” said the Rev. James Massa, who directs the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
Indeed it is — a moment that underscores the hard-fought work of the past, and perhaps unintentionally, the daunting difficulties of the work still undone.
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