Chaplaincy Lecture 2013

Common Visions - Divisive Histories


On July 22, 2010 an extraordinary event took place in the rather mundane setting of the Liederhalle Culture and Congress Centre in Stuttgart, Germany. The world leaders of the Lutheran Communion and the Mennonite World Conference shared the platform at the 11th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation; and a statement was read on behalf of worldwide Lutheranism.


„When Lutherans today realize the history of Lutheran - Anabaptist relationships in the sixteenth century and beyond as it is presented in the report of the Lutheran - Mennonite International Study Commission, they are filled with a deep sense of regret and pain over the persecution of Anabaptists by Lutheran authorities and especially over the fact that Lutheran reformers theologically supported this persecution.

Thus, The Lutheran World Federation, A Communion of Churches

wishes to express publicly its deep regret and sorrow.


Trusting in God who in Jesus Christ was reconciling the world to himself, we ask for forgiveness - from God and from our Mennonite sisters and brothers - for the harm that our forbears in the sixteenth century committed to Anabaptists, for forgetting or ignoring this persecution in the intervening centuries, and for all inappropriate, misleading and hurtful portraits of Anabaptists and Mennonites made by Lutheran authors, in both popular and scholarly forms, to the present day. We pray that God may grant to our communities a healing of our memories and reconciliation.”


The statement went on to make some specific commitments for future relationships and cooperation between Lutherans and Mennonites.  After this statement had been read,  Rev. Dr Danisa Ndlovu, President of the Mennonite World Conference, and Rev Dr Larry Miller, General Secretary, publicly expressed forgiveness for these hurts and persecutions; and the whole Assembly, almost a thousand people, went on to the Reithalle for a service of healing and reconciliation. Many of us wept, including Bishop Hanson, the then President of LWF.


LUTHERAN-MENNONITE HISTORY - mutual condemnations, splits, schisms and warfare


So what was all this about? Mennonites are not, of course, very well known in the UK: the latest statistics compiled by the Mennonite World Conference say that the United Kingdom is home to only 291 fully signed-up members. Worldwide, though, it is rather different: there are about 1.7 million Mennonites, many in the US, in Africa and Asia: in Europe, the greatest number are to be found in Germany. The World Conference describes itself as a community of Anabaptist related churches; they are part of the global family of Christian churches rooted in the 16th century Radical Reformation in Europe, particularly in the Anabaptist movement. For various reasons, the Lutheran Reformers in the 16th century were very opposed to the radical nature of this development of the original reformation; certainly they were convinced that this was a wrong turn in Christian development, and did not hesitate to say so in no uncertain terms. The Augsburg Confession, the primary confessional statement of Lutherans to this day, was written in 1530: and among the things it says about the Anabaptists is:

Article IX: Of Baptism.

Of Baptism they teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that through Baptism is offered the grace of God, and that children are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God's grace. They condemn the Anabaptists, who reject the baptism of children, and say that children are saved without Baptism.


Other condemnations in the Augsburg Confession include „They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works.” (Art V); They condemn the Anabaptists who forbid [these] civil offices to Christians. (Art XVI)


And Martin Luther himself did not just argue theologically against the followers of the Radical Reformation, but expressed himself in his usual colourful language: “Who does not see here in the Anabaptists, men not possessed with devils, but even devils themselves possessed with worse devils?”[1]  Both Martin Luther and his close friend and co-Reformer, Philip Melanchthon, signed a memorandum calling for Anabaptists to be executed for blasphemy, and argued that their refusal to baptise children was heretical.[2]


Of course it is difficult to understand clearly how people thought and behaved almost 500 years ago – the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there, as LP Hartley famously wrote. But undoubtedly the actions of 16th Century Lutherans led to the intense persecution that Anabaptist sects experienced. If any of you have ever visited the peaceful north German city of Muenster,  site of the most violent Anabaptist revolution of all, you may have seen the cages that still hang from the steeple of Sankt Lamberti or St Lambert’s Church. In these cages, the dead bodies of the leaders of the Anabaptist movement (Jan van Leyden, Krechting, Knipperdollinck) were put on display by the Catholic Archbishop after their execution on 22nd  January  1536, as an example to all. The cages were not taken down until the tower was demolished in the 1880s or 90s. They were put up again on the new tower which is still in place, this time without the bones, of course.[3]



So the history of Lutheran Mennonite relations is a difficult and painful one: and yet, the two churches were able to find a way to reconcile, to ask for and to grant forgiveness. What were the factors that made it possible?


1.      A mutual willingness to be open and to sit down at a table and talk. The whole reconciliation process started with the Lutheran Mennonite International Study Commission meeting for three years, between 2005 and 2008. Without dialogue, honesty and openness, nothing will happen at all.

2.      Perhaps in a perverse way the very extreme nature of this particular situation almost made it easier to find a solution. As the report of the Study Commission says in its introduction: Between Lutherans and Anabaptist-Mennonites, “the parting of ways has a particularly painful history. For half a millennium’s time, we have been separated not only by theological disagreements from the sixteenth century but also by the legacies of violence from that formative period. On the Lutheran side, there had been both persecution and theological justification for these violent actions. While Anabaptists did not return this persecution, they also have carried burdens from that era in their memories of what they had suffered.”[4] In other words, the Lutheran side was clearly at fault, not in disagreeing theologically with Anabaptists, but in the violence of their language and condemnations, which in turn led to violence and loss of life. The theological disagreements, of course, remain to a large extent; but, thank the Lord, we have realised that it is not right, and not Christian, to call for the execution of those with whom we disagree over points of doctrine, even ones that are as important as Baptism. So, given a readiness on the side of LWF to ask for forgiveness , there was every possibility that this particular reconciliation could work.

3.      There has been, in recent years, a growing feeling on the part of many Lutherans that the old condemnations no longer apply: and, while the theology of the Augsburg Confession, for instance, is still the bedrock of Lutheran thinking today, the language of the anathemas is very uncomfortable for us. To borrow a paragraph from a different ecumenical context, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification agreed  by  The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation, and signed on the symbolic date of October 31, 1999 in the significant setting of the town of Augsburg . "Like the dialogues themselves, this Joint Declaration rests on the conviction that in overcoming the earlier controversial questions and doctrinal condemnations, the churches neither take the condemnations lightly nor do they disavow their own past. On the contrary, this Declaration is shaped by the conviction that in their respective histories our churches have come to new insights. Developments have taken place which not only make possible, but also require the churches to examine the divisive questions and condemnations and see them in a new light." and "41.Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration. 42.Nothing is thereby taken away from the seriousness of the condemnations related to the doctrine of justification. Some were not simply pointless. They remain for us "salutary warnings" to which we must attend in our teaching and practice." In other words, while we remember the context in which the condemnations were uttered, and take seriously the issues which divided us then, we don't need to carry forward today the divisive and painful attitudes that we had to one another back in the 16th century .

4.      But perhaps the most important factor here, as in all reconciliations, was the willingness to take risks and be radical. In this particular case, apologising without reservation, albeit for sins that are old, was perhaps not so costly; but the willingness to do it so very publicly, and within the context of the largest gathering of Lutherans in the world, was really a thoroughly unreserved and unqualified act of confession, followed by forgiveness, absolution and reconciliation.


I apologise for speaking at some length about this one particular act of reconciliation and ecumenical rapprochement. However, I think that the factors and features which went to make up that remarkable event do have a lot to teach us in seeking greater co-operation between churches, and in moving towards that Holy Grail of ecumenism – visible church unity. We'll come back to that in a moment, but for now let us step back another century.


ECUMENICAL BEGINNINGS - healing old wounds and repairing ancient breaches

We can date the beginnings of the modern ecumenical movement to 100 years before our Mennonite moment. The 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference, also more ambitiously the World Missionary Conference, brought together major missionary organisations from many of the main Protestant denominations, although there had been interdenominational missionary conferences even during the 19th century.  The lists of those taking part in Edinburgh are impressive, including Anglicans and Episcopalians, Methodists of various kinds, Baptists, Free Churches, Reformed and Presbyterians, Lutherans and Moravians amongst others. This was a really major enterprise, involving careful study and preparation beforehand and very substantial content being laid before the conference by eight preparatory commissions. As the website of the centenary celebrations says,

'The World Missionary Conference of Edinburgh 1910 was an epoch-making event to which many different movements of mission and unity trace their roots.'[5] And Kenneth Scott Latourette's statement that “The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, was the birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement”  has not really been challenged[6].

However, neither  Catholics and Orthodox were invited to the conference, and the other great 20th century Christian movement, the rise of the Pentecostal churches, was only in its very early infancy, so this was an ecumenism that was very much limited by the circumstances of its time.  The Edinburgh report of the Commission on Co-operation and Unity says this: "The statements in the following pages do not include any reference to co-operation with Roman Catholics. The evidence before the Commission shows that, while in many mission fields personal relations with Roman Catholic missionaries are often of a friendly character, and individual acts of courtesy are not uncommon, the representatives of the Roman Catholic church hold themselves precluded from entering any agreement or taking part in any practical effort with the representatives of other Christian bodies."[7]



It is clear that over the last 103 years, the ecumenical space has changed beyond all recognition. In many ecumenical bodies and at a range of events, the Roman Catholic church is present and highly committed. Over the last years, Pentecostal churches have also (in some geographical and theological areas) joined the interchurch community.



For instance, the list of churches who are members of Churches Together in England, one of the successor bodies to the British Council of Churches, is extensive:

Member churches Churches together in England

1.      Antiochian Orthodox Church 

2.      Apostolic Pastoral Congress

3.      Assemblies of God 

4.      Baptist Union of Great Britain 

5.      Catholic Church 

6.      Cherubim and Seraphim Council of Churches 

7.      Church of England 

8.      Church of God of Prophecy 

9.      Church of Scotland (Presbytery of England) 

10.  Churches in Communities International 

11.  Congregational Federation 

12.  Coptic Orthodox Church 

13.  Council of Lutheran Churches 

14.  Council of African and Caribbean Churches UK 

15.  Council of Oriental Orthodox Christian Churches 

16.  Elim Pentecostal Church 

17.  Evangelical Lutheran Church of England 

18.  Evangelische Synode Deutscher Sprache in Großbritannien 

19.  Exarchate of Orthodox Parishes of the Russian Tradition (Ecumenical Patriarchate) 

20.  Free Church of England 

21.  Ground Level 

22.  Ichthus Christian Fellowship 

23.  Independent Methodist Churches 

24.  International Ministerial Council of Great Britain 

25.  Joint Council for Anglo-Caribbean Churches 

26.  Mar Thoma Church 

27.  Methodist Church 

28.  Moravian Church 

29.  New Testament Assembly 

30.  New Testament Church of God 

31.  Oecumenical Patriarchate 

32.  Pioneer

33.  Redeemed Christian Church of God 

34.  Religious Society of Friends 

35.  Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) 

36.  Salvation Army 

37.  Seventh-day Adventist Church (observer) 

38.  Transatlantic Pacific Alliance of Churches 

39.  United Reformed Church 

40.  Wesleyan Holiness Church 


So 40 churches and church bodies, with wide-ranging theologies, very different ways of being church, varied constituencies: but all able at least to do some things together, rather than separately

·          talk to one another

·          attend the CTE Forum

·         meet together locally

·         carry out local projects together – food banks, childcare, homelessness projects and so on

·         worship ecumenically in various settings

·         pray together

·         share work in various settings, including university chaplaincy


Much of this would have seemed absolutely impossible, indeed pie-in-the-sky, not so very long ago.


What has made it possible, to a large extent, has been the network of ecumenical dialogues and agreements that have been put in place since the two most important turning points of the last half century: the Second Vatican Council and the publication and reception of the World Council of Churches Faith and Order document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. Vatican II, of which we celebrate the 50th anniversary this year, began the process of opening the Roman Catholic church to ecumenical endeavour. After 1964, it would no longer be possible to say that Catholics "hold themselves precluded from entering any agreement or taking part in any practical effort with the representatives of other Christian bodies." The decree on ecumenism issued by Vatican II starts with a prophetically bold statement:


"The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature."[8]


The other fulcrum on which the seesaw tipped towards the restoration of unity was the 1982 publication of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, sometimes more prosaically known as the Faith and Order Document No 111 of the World Council of Churches, or the Lima Document.  The crucial point about BEM recognition that at least on Baptism, Eucharist and partly Ministry less divides us than we had thought. The WCC website says this:  "The most widely-distributed and studied ecumenical document, BEM has been a basis for many "mutual recognition" agreements among churches and remains a reference today."[9] We live today in a world where ecumenical agreements are part of the landscape: Porvoo, Meissen, Reuilly, Waterloo, Called to Common Worship ; the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,  Reformed-Roman Catholic  “Toward a Common Understanding of the Church”, Methodist-Roman Catholic “Toward a Statement on the Church” and so on.


In this year's material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we were reminded:

"In 1989 when the Churches committed themselves afresh to the ecumenical

vision of full visible unity, they stated clearly that they were to be “no longer

strangers but pilgrims together”. ­ The image of ‘pilgrimage’, which recurs

throughout Christian theology and spirituality, is a powerful and important

one for the ecumenical movement. Pilgrimage implies walking and for this

year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we are asked to reflect upon our

ecumenical pilgrimage: how we walk together and walk humbly with God."[10]


Clearly we have walked a long way since Edinburgh 2010, and equally clearly our paths have, at least to some extent, begun to converge and flow together.



Despite this, there are still many barriers and hurdles, and many failures to progress. For instance, the dialogue between Church of England and Methodists on full unity has run into the buffers (the Covenant signed between the two denominations in 2003 does represent a limited achievment, although not all that was hoped for).   The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed in 1999,  has not had the stimulus for continued growth towards understanding between Lutherans and Roman Catholics that was hoped; and in many cases, new fracture lines are developing between and indeed within churches, particularly on issues like human sexuality and women’s ordination. In some circles it has become common to say that ecumenism has lost its impetus, and that there is a sense of disillusion about the future of church relationships. It seems as though we might have achieved all there is to be achieved, and that the future is not as bright as we once hoped.



The World Council of Churches, recognising this and seeing its role as providing a new impetus to unity, has now produced a new document, called The Church: Towards a Common Vision. This is aimed as being another convergence document, like BEM – a paper that encourages churches not only to read it, but to discuss and to go through a process of reception, accepting and internalising the contents. Perhaps we are due another push: it seems a bit like Microsoft producing a new operating system every few years to encourage the computer market, but maybe there is a rationale behind the need to have new thought and new challenges to stop us from sliding into complacency and inertia.

Certainly this document tackles some of the remaining big questions, the issues which truly do divide us – questions of authority in the church, diversity of thought and belief, of the nature of ordained ministry and so on. We don't have time tonight to analyse the document, but here are just a couple of quotes, which give us an idea of the scope of what this document aims to do.

"Our aim is to offer a convergence text [my italics], that is, a text which while not expressing full consensus on all the issues considered, is much more than simply an instrument to stimulate further study [my italics]"[11]

And again:

"Visible unity requires that churches be able to recognize in one another the authentic presence of what the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople (381) calls "the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church". This recognition, in turn, may in some instances depend on changes in doctrine, practice and ministry within any given community [my italics]. This represents a significant challenge for churches in their journey toward unity."[12]


THE FUTURE - Is our vision realistic, rose-tinted or prophetic?


Clearly, in order to realise what Towards a Common Vision reminds us is ‘the Lord’s gift of unity’ we, as Christians and as churches, will have again to be radical and to take risks. We could choose to accept the status quo, the limited unity and partial reconciliations we have achieved. We could go on tinkering at the edges of ecumenical relationships for a good while longer. We definitely will find that local ecumenical initiatives will go on, whatever church leaders say or do amongst themselves: that particular Pandora's box has been opened, thank God, and it would take a great deal to shut it again.

That may well be the realistic vision – status quo, plus development of local initiatives.


But in this moment in history, when the Roman Catholic church is choosing/has chosen a new Pope, and there is widespread (but not universal) recognition that even the Vatican monolith has to change, when the Anglican Communion has a new leader, one who seems, at least, to be showing signs of beginning to break the mould; when the world around us is also in flux and facing  multiple and very serious challenges and threats; perhaps this is the time to be radical and visionary. The WCC are right to say that this provides a significant challenge to churches, and in order for us to progress towards more visible, more real unity, we will have to take risks. In the spirit of what is usually called 'receptive ecumenism', we will have to assess not only where we already agree with each other, or what the 'others' will have to do to allow us to accept them more closely, but also what we ourselves will have to change, to let go of, to modify, to accept as not absolutely essential to faith. That will hurt, and it will be difficult. We might almost call this 'sacrificial ecumenism'. This may be a rose-tinted ideal, obviously: and not for nothing did one (Anglican) colleague call this the 'Santa Document' (in other words, this may just be a wish-list which will and can never be fulfilled in its entirety). But just maybe we will have a prophetic moment, a time when we will see clearly where God's will lies, and we will have the courage to follow it.


Let us conclude with wise words associated with two major Christian figures of the 20th century.


"It should be repeated that, on the part of the Church and her members, dialogue, whatever form it takes (and these forms can be and are very diverse, since the very concept of dialogue has an analogical value) can never begin from an attitude of indifference to the truth. On the contrary, it must begin from a presentation of the truth, offered in a calm way, with respect for the intelligence and consciences of others. The dialogue of reconciliation can never replace or attenuate the proclamation of the truth of the Gospel, the precise goal of which is conversion from sin and communion with Christ and the Church. It must be at the service of the transmission and realization of that truth through the means left by Christ to the Church for the pastoral activity of reconciliation, namely catechesis and penance."[13] (Pope John Paul II)


And finally, words associated with the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero:


"It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a small fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well. It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own."[14]


[1] A Commentary on Saint Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, Martin Luther – CHECK edition! p30????

[2] See, for instance, Philip Melanchthon’s Adversus Anabaptistas Iudicium (1528)

[4] Healing Memories: Reconciling in Christ; Report of the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, published by the Lutheran World Federation and Mennonite World Conference, 2010

[5], accessed 5 March 2013

[6] Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings of the Missionary Movement and the International

Missionary Council”, chapter 8 in Rouse and Neill (ed), A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1517-1948, Vol. I, 4th ed.: WCC Geneva 1993, p. 362.

[7] Report of Commission VIII, Co-operation and the Promotion of Unity: published for the World Missionary Conference by Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, Edinburgh and London, and Fleming H. Revell, New York, Chicago and Toronto, 1910.

[8]Unitatis Redintegratio, 1

[9], accessed on 7 March 2013

[10] What does God require of us? Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2013, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland

[11] The Church: Towards a Common Vision, draft copy (WCC 2012), Introduction.

[12] ibid, para 9.

[13] Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 25

[14] This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included it in a reflection titled "The mystery of the Romero Prayer." The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him. On, accessed 11 March 2013.

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