On July 5, 2017 in the Stadtkirche (Town Church) of Wittenberg, Germany, a church where Martin Luther preached, the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) joined together with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran World Federation and the World Methodist Council to associate with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). This celebratory service represents one more step on the path to Christian unity by affirming that one doctrine that was a source of division for centuries after the Reformation is no longer to be considered so.
The Rev. Mary Fontaine, Director of Hummingbird Ministries (Vancouver) of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, assisted in leading this historic service. The Presbyterian Church in Canada delegates to the General Council, which met from June 29 to July 8 in Leipzig, Germany were Hilary Hagar, Robert Murray and Stephen Kendall.
On October 31, 1999, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches stated that there is a consensus in basic truths between Lutheran and Catholics regarding a theological controversy that was the major cause of the split in the 16th century. This declaration was affirmed by the World Methodist Council on July 23, 2006 and further Reformed-Catholic dialogue has led to the affirmation of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) this July.
In signing on to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) indicating fundamental agreement, the WCRC noted areas of appreciation for the statement and marked areas where the Reformed expression of the faith would add nuance or emphasis to the statement, such as the essential link between justification and justice. The decision to sign on indicates that the door is open not just to better relationship and common cause with the Lutherans, but more than that, it opens the door to building connections with the Roman Catholics. It invites church leaders (nationally, in presbyteries and in congregations) to be much warmer in their views of the Roman Catholic Church, to not speak in derogatory ways about Roman Catholics, and to intentionally find common ground with Roman Catholic sisters and brothers.
As news of the JDDJ was released, the Moderator Rev. Peter Bush happened to be representing The Presbyterian Church in Canada at the Lutheran National Convention in Winnipeg. He found it a significant moment because sitting at his table were the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Winnipeg, the President of the Canadian Council of Churches, the United Church of Canada’s Moderator and three Lutheran Synod Bishops.
The Rev. Peter Bush provides comments on The World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) signing the statement of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justicfication
The gift of salvation (justification) invites a joyful response. The signing of this document, this moment, gives us an opportunity to celebrate anew the gift of salvation offered to all humanity in Jesus Christ. As Canadian Presbyterians study and reflect on the statement may we find our joy and wonder at God’s gift deepened.
Good theology aids in the resolution of divisions. Often theology is regarded as a problem, and theological statements are ridiculed as just being so many words. In this case, a centuries-old conflict finds its resolution through theological reflection and discussions about doctrine.
The WCRC statement offers both appreciation for the declaration on justification and highlights distinct Reformed (Presbyterian) insights into justification. These distinctions remind us that the Reformed/Presbyterian voice, along with the voices of the other expressions of Christianity, are needed if the universal church is going to have the fullest possible understanding of the extraordinary jewel of justification/salvation. Only through respectful discussion with people from the full range of the Christian Church will we be able to grasp how wide and long, high and deep, is the gift of God’s salvation.
Ultimately, ecumenism (Christians sharing their common commitments across denominational lines) is experienced locally. The WCRC statement will reach its goal in Canada, not in on-going discussions among theologians, but rather when the Presbyterian congregation reaches out to the Roman Catholic Church down the road, to work together in ways that proclaim the good news of the gospel and the salvation which has come to all humanity in Jesus Christ.
By Stephen Brown,
World Communion of Reformed Churches
July 5, 2017
The World Communion of Reformed Churches has formally joined an ecumenical statement with Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists aiming to overcome divisions between Protestants and Roman Catholics from the time of the Protestant Reformation.
“Today is a historic day,” said Jerry Pillay, president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), at a ceremony on 5 July in the eastern German town of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther lived and worked. “The documents we are signing today are significant and symbolic of the road we are to travel.”
Pillay was speaking as the WCRC, which groups more than 225 Protestant churches worldwide, formally associated itself with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, originally signed by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Roman Catholic Church on 31 October 1999.
“Catholics and Lutherans stated that a ‘consensus in basic truths exists between Lutherans and Catholics’ in regard to the theological controversy with was a major cause of the split in the Western church in the 16th century,” said Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity during in the ceremony.
The declaration stated that mutual condemnations pronounced by the two sides during the Reformation do not apply to their current teaching on justification.
The congregation at Wittenberg’s Stadtkirche (Town Church), broke into spontaneous applause as WCRC General Secretary Chris Ferguson and Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist representatives signed a statement confirming the WCRC’s association with the joint declaration.
“Today we are not only signing a statement, we are building a church together,” said the Rev. Najla Kassab from Lebanon in her sermon at the service in the Stadtkirche, where Luther used to preach.
The ceremony took place in the year marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s denunciation of church corruption in his 95 Theses, an event that helped set in motion the Reformation and centuries of division between Protestants and Catholics.
“The present achievement and commitment are viewed by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Reformed as part of their pursuit of the full communion and common witness to the world which is the will of Christ for all Christians,” said WMC president Jong Chun Park.
Pope Francis, in a message read by Bishop Farrell, described the ceremony as “an eloquent sign of our commitment to walking together, as brothers and sisters in Christ, on a journey from conflict to communion, from division to reconciliation.”
During the service, the LWF and the WCRC also signed a “Wittenberg Witness” pledging to strengthen cooperation and joint action.
“We commit ourselves to redouble our common efforts to embody our unity, together resisting the forces of injustice and exclusion,” said Martin Junge, LWF general secretary.
At the service there were prayers of repentance and lamentation for past divisions and wrongs, and commitments to work for unity and justice.
“The Reformation taught us accountability,” said Kassab in her sermon.
“Wherever we are in the church we are held accountable,” said Kassab, who was ordained in March as the second female minister in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. “Today we are reminded of Luther’s words from his pulpit, ‘A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.’”
All human beings are valuable in the eyes of God no matter what their colour or gender or race or passport, she said.
“Here I stand, a Middle Eastern women in the pulpit of Luther,” said Kassab, to spontaneous applause. “If only Luther had imagined this, this could have been his 96th question to the church. Not, ‘Why there is a women in this pulpit?’, but ‘Why did take so long?’”
The ceremony in Wittenberg took place during the WCRC General Council which has brought about 1000 participants to the eastern German city of Leipzig.
The WCRC groups more than 225 Protestant churches with a combined membership of about 80 million Christians in Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting and Waldensian churches in over 100 countries. Its offices are in Hannover, Germany.
Photo: WCRC General Secretary Chris Ferguson and Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist representatives signed a statement confirming
the WCRC’s association with the joint declaration (WCRC/Stephen Brown)