Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Should Protestants reunite with Rome? Some personal remarks

On 31 October 1517, a then obscure monk named Martin Luther reputedly nailed his now famous 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. This action sparked the Protestant Reformation. Some scholars doubt that he actually posted these theses on the church door, but there is no doubt about what happened later. To make a long story short, Luther was excommunicated, and a breach with the papacy became reality, a breach that has persisted for almost half a millennium.

Now, after the election of Pope Francis, more than one Protestant leader has raised the question whether Protestants should reunite with Rome? This question may seem premature, since most Protestants are not ready to address this contentious issue. Yet, sooner or later, this question must be dealt with openly and honestly.

To assume that the answer will always remain negative is to deny the fervent wish for unity that exists in many churches today and is shared by many individual believers. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to even raise the question, and certainly not all the leaders of these churches who have a stake in preserving the status quo.

In this blog I cannot begin to list the many issues that would need to be discussed, much less describe them in any detail, but as an ecumenist I do want to make a few personal remarks regarding this important, yet very controversial, question.

St. Cyprian of Carthage

Reunion with Rome will take a long time. Even to use the term reunion implies a return to the Roman fold, to the mother church of which Cyprian of Carthage famously wrote, "you cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother." Cyprian's concern was the unity of the church. In his time, that unity was expressed in the Catholic church which recognized the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

This unity is confessed by most Christians in the Nicene Creed: "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church." Catholic here does not necessarily mean the Roman Catholic Church, as many Protestants take great pains to point out, even substituting "universal" as a synonym for "catholic."

John Calvin similarly described the visible church as the mother of all believers. Such language is a healthy corrective to the individualistic spirituality that pervades much of evangelical Protestantism.

Luther and Calvin both emphasized the importance of the sacraments for the nourishment of believers. Thus Calvin wanted weekly communion, although the city council of Geneva did not permit him to institute that practice.

I could not agree more with the emphasis of the magisterial Reformers on the importance of sacraments and the need for frequent communion. For decades I have longed for weekly communion. When I was warden at St. Andrew's, the only Anglican church in Moscow and indeed in Russia (since any other worship groups were supervised by St. Andrew's), I attended several communion services every week. I thoroughly enjoyed that.

Now, here in Toronto, I will often seek out a church where I can have communion on a weekly basis, but I do not always manage to do that since I have to balance that desire with the need to have fellowship with my friends in the church where I am a member.

There is an Anglo-Catholic church not far from my house where I can indulge myself on occasion. There the mass is celebrated richly:with all the "bells and smell." Perhaps I need that type of spirituality, especially as I am growing older.

However, I admit that I have a few difficulties, especially the Angelus at the end of the service. Protestants tend to diminish the role of Mary, but her role in Catholic churches, or churches that lean that way, makes me uncomfortable. This may be due to my upbringing. But on a deeper level I question the theology that underlies the prayers that invoke Mary. Thus I cannot recite them.

What does this have to do with reunion with Rome? Much, in my opinion. Somehow I resonate especially with the sort of spirituality that is found in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as in those churches that also celebrate the sacraments as elaborately. I am not the only one who has this inclination. Nor am I alone in experiencing difficulties with some aspects of Catholic theology.

I admit that occasionally I have taken communion in a Catholic church, but only when there was no danger of being recognized, since I did not want to give offence to anyone. Canon law does not permit this, as I know very well, but there were times when no other church was available.

I would like to see reunion for many reasons, not only the sacramental or liturgical as important as they are. I recognize that the pope is not only the chief pastor for 1.2 billion Christians but to the outside world he also represents many other Christians. This universal leadership would be more understandable and acceptable if the bishop of Rome would become simply primus inter pares, a first among equals, and not claim primacy over all other bishops in the world.

The Basilica of St. John Lateran. Inscribed on the wall of the entrance are the claims
of this, the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, to be the head church in the world. 
"Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput."

This claim is central to the papacy. The pope bears many titles, including Vicar of Christ and Successor of St. Peter. Papal primacy is basic to the Catholic church. Moreover, the primacy of the Roman bishop is what makes that church Roman.  This claim is not likely to change soon, if ever.

Yet this does not mean that all Christian churches should therefore withdraw from all ecumenical efforts. On the contrary, these efforts should be redoubled, especially in the light of the (as yet small) signs of renewal that Pope Francis has already displayed.

If he would be willing to recognize that the bishop of Rome is only one bishop among many, this would go a long way to heal the schism with the Orthodox churches that became official in 1054, but had been brewing already for many centuries.

That schism might be healed sooner than that which the Protestant Reformation represents, largely because the Orthodox churches are united in their theology. The divisions that exist between them are based on ethnicity and jurisdiction. But they will insist that any reunion is a return to the Orthodox fold. In contrast, Protestant churches are divided extensively and continue to divide ad nauseam.

Aside from unification, which is still remote, churches can cooperate extensively on social justice and many other issues. Francis has described what he wants: "Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor."  Like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis has opted for the poor.That is something that many other churches can identify with and endorse. Unfortunately, on many theological issues the gap is almost unbridgeable.

Many Protestants are unaware of the ongoing dialogue on many contentious theological issues. On baptism and the eucharist, a large degree of consensus has already been achieved. My own denomination recently signed an agreement with the Catholic church involving the recognition of each other's baptisms. The chief bone of contention that remains, however, concerns ministry, especially the role of the bishop of Rome.

I wrote my dissertation on papal primacy, In it, I suggest some reforms that the Catholic church needs make. I will not rehearse them now, except to note that more than a few Catholics also promote such reforms. In fact, the time for such discussion is ripe.

What is sorely needed today is a willingness on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to discuss these reforms and to implement them. That is a tall order, but not impossible, since even the College of Cardinals is aware of the need for change. They discussed this need extensively before the election of the new pope, although they may not be ready to go as far as many Catholics and non-Catholics alike are demanding.

Yet the election of Francis can be interpreted as a signal that change is coming. Many observers had hoped for a more reform-minded pope. But I am old enough to remember the election of Pope John XXIII, who was initially dismissed as a transitional figure, but who proposed the game-changing Second Vatican Council.

Should Protestants reunite with Rome? My answer is not yet, but they should continue to ask this question to show their sincerity in promoting the unity of the Christian church. And they must continue to pray for unity.

I must not allow my desire for a richer way to celebrate communion to cloud my wish for a reunited church. But at the same time I hope that other Protestants do not question the need for unity simply because of their rejection of some aspects of Catholic theology and practice. One day reunification may be achieved. Then even Luther and Calvin might feel vindicated in their attempts to achieve reform.

Pope Francis has motivated me to pray more diligently for church reunion. I sincerely hope that I will not be disappointed in him and the signs of renewal that I have discerned.

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