Bridging the gap

Catholics and Protestants mark Reformation’s anniversary with discussions over differences, similarities

Posted: October 28, 2017 at 2:12 a.m.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Bridging the gap Illustration

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Bridging the gap Illustration

Lutherans and Catholics will jointly commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at 6 p.m. Monday at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock.

The prayer service will last slightly longer than an hour, but that time acknowledges a centuries-old schism between the Lutheran and Catholic churches and a dialogue this year between Catholics and Protestants in central Arkansas to come closer to bridging that division.

In 1517, Roman Catholic priest and theologian Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, calling for reform in the church and leading to, among other things, the eventual formation of Lutheranism and a split between Catholicism and Protestantism that remains today.

Over the past 50 years Lutherans and Catholics have engaged in a number of conversations over points of agreement and continued differences. The most recent ecumenical text to arise is 2015's Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist, which contains 32 points concerning the three topics listed in the document's title on which members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have come to agreement.

Peter Kumpe, vice president of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was present in August 2016 at the churchwide assembly where Declaration on the Way was presented to "resounding approval" by the assembly with 99 percent of the vote before being sent to Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Catholic church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, for consideration by the Vatican.

"I was surprised by the enthusiasm of the response and became infected by it," said Kumpe, who reached out to Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock and with Erik Pohlmeier, director of the diocese's Faith Formation office, helped to initiate the ecumenical dialogue between faith representatives in central Arkansas.

HOW TO WORSHIP GOD

When Martin Luther's ideas about church reform began to gain momentum among Protestants in the 16th century, those who had separated from the Catholic church but did not agree among themselves on how to worship God formed different Protestant denominations. Reformers who came after Luther, such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, led to the deepening of the split in Western Christianity as the Anglican and Reformed (Calvinist) religions were established, among other developments.

Taylor said the Reformation, also known as the Protestant Reformation, is known as "a wound in the life of the Christian church."

"The wounds go all the way back to [Luther's time]," said Taylor, who said there was and always is a "great need for reform in the life of the church."

Among Luther's points of reform were calls for the abolishing of indulgences -- the practice of paying money to absolve one's sins (which the Catholic church has never condoned but was in practice) -- and the need for ordained clergy to give the Eucharist, a commemoration of the Lord's supper. Once Luther advocated for reform, the crack in the seams of the faiths became a split, which Taylor said "took on a life of its own" with the addition of disputes over doctrine and other issues.

"[The Reformation] was not only a matter of reforming abuses in the life of the church," Taylor said. "It was a matter of questioning and projecting differences in doctrines, in how we understand Christianity."

In central Arkansas, conversations were held by about a dozen representatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation's largest Lutheran church body; the Diocese of Little Rock; and area representatives from the Presbyterian Church of the United States and the Episcopal and United Methodist churches.

Shannon Johnson, deacon of Faith Lutheran Church in Little Rock, described the talks as a series of conversations "that happened on much higher levels in the church."

"We wanted to have something at the local level that's discussed, because those large conversations between our bodies happened at levels that rarely make it down into the people's pews," Johnson said. "So we just wanted to kind of study the books together and talk about it.

"As all of us got into the conversations, all of us knew we weren't going to solve the Reformation or the 500-year divide, but we wanted to get to know each other better."

Taryn Whittington, a prefect at the diocese's House of Formation, also participated in the dialogue. He thought back to the summer he spent as a chaplain at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, saying he'd felt nervous about speaking with patients and families of different denominations while wearing his clerical collar.

"Most of my patients ... were all very receptive [to the idea of a Catholic chaplain], so I don't get the impression that there's a lot of hostility [between the faiths]. There just isn't a lot of sustained conversation either," Whittington said. "People kind of live in their own separate communities and that's understandable. But this [dialogue] is an attempt to try to bridge some of those gaps."

The 1999 text Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is the product of ecumenical discussions that documents the Lutheran and Catholic church's agreement on justification by faith -- forgiveness of sins by God's grace alone, rather than by good works.

LANDMARK DOCUMENT

The landmark document of agreement for Lutherans and Catholics stands in contrast to one lasting point of difference discussed in one of the closing discussions: the Eucharist.

Catholics believe in a "closed" Eucharist -- one in which only other Catholics are allowed to partake -- while Lutheran Eucharists are open to participants of other faiths.

For those at the meeting, Whittington said, it was a time to recognize one of the continued points of difference between the two faiths and ask questions: What does Eucharist mean to different churches, and how does that reflect our understanding of church? What kind of authority does the church have, and how does that relate to Scripture and the Eucharist?

"We hit on some of the differences there, and I think we were pretty honest about that," Whittington said. "I don't think anyone tried to fudge the details."

Johnson said having lay members of the churches as part of the dialogue helped to ground the discussion "in the pews."

"One of the biggest gifts from these conversations was getting to the detailed points of where we understand things differently and how it's practiced and lived, not just how it's written theologically," Johnson said.

"In a lot of ways we found we had similarities, but where we had differences we were able to define them much more so that we could understand [them]. Even if we still felt differently, we could understand where that viewpoint came from."

CULMINATION OF DIALOGUE

While Monday's joint prayer service is the culmination of a monthslong dialogue, it's not the end of the conversation. Whittington and Johnson said other joint events such as community-oriented service projects and Bible studies are in the works to continue the dialogue between the faiths.

The service is open to the public and will consist of songs and readings, after which Taylor and Bishop Michael Girlinghouse of the Evangelical Lutheran Church's Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod will each give a reflection to mark the occasion.

Girlinghouse said he hopes the prayer service conveys a sense of unity in "the things we do that bind us as people of faith," while Kumpe said the prayer service will be a "reassuring, positive event."

"I think part of [the goal of the prayer service] is following the example set by the Pope and by Lutheran churches -- that it's possible to be on good terms with faith leaders of the churches and to recognize that there were, at the time of the Reformation ... legitimate complaints about the way the church conducted its business," Whittington said. "Acknowledging things like that can be a way of promoting greater fellowship between the churches.

"Just to be able to sit down and talk about things seems pretty significant to me, because there was a time when that wouldn't have been done ... and so that we're able to do that on the anniversary of the Reformation seems worth marking."

Religion on 10/28/2017