Split Christianity travelling together towards the future

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In Sweden Catholics and Lutherans have agreed that they want to take the opportunity presented by the anniversary of the Reformation to jointly reflect and examine themselves as they “express their joy at what they have in common, their penitence due to the damage created by their discord, and their firm intention to together, to the world, bear witness to the mercy of God, by working for reconciliation, peace and justice for the entire Creation.”

On 31 October this year Catholics and Lutherans from all over the world will gather in Lund to commemorate the approaching 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On that date, it will be 499 years since Luther published 95 theses opposing the church and theology of his time.

The Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation are jointly issuing the invitations to this special ecumenical ceremony in Lund. For me as Archbishop of the Church of Sweden it is a pleasure that we in cooperation with the Catholic Church in Sweden have been assigned the responsibility for hosting the event.

Martin Luther wanted to renew the church from within, not fragment it. History took a different path. The Reformation has had sweeping significance for developments in many areas, everything from the church and the state to education, the economy and culture. There are no reasons for having any triumphant celebrations of this anniversary. However, there are many good reasons for a commemoration that includes scope for reflection on what has been and the direction in which we want development to take – insofar as we can influence the future.

The meeting in Lund may gain historical significance. It has been preceded by 50 years of dialogue between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation. These talks have resulted in the publication titled From conflict to communion (2013). It is about 90 pages long and is now available in 12 languages. It is ground-breaking in several ways. The publication is based on what unites us, without ignoring what still separates us. For the first time in 500 years Lutherans and Catholics have now agreed on not just a joint description of history, but also on joint commitments for the future. This is new and it is important in the churches’ joint journey towards greater visible unity.

In Sweden Catholics and Lutherans have agreed that they want to take the opportunity presented by the anniversary of the Reformation to jointly reflect and examine themselves as they “express their joy at what they have in common, their penitence due to the damage created by their discord, and their firm intention to together, to the world, bear witness to the mercy of God, by working for reconciliation, peace and justice for the entire Creation.” 

The Reformation benefited literacy levels in terms of both reading and writing skills and by extension contributed to the development of democracy. The Protestant clerical family became a cultural factor, and the empowerment of each baptised person contributed to the modernisation. The Reformation became a foundation for a long period of political conflicts within and between nations in Europe. The Thirty Years’ War tore communities apart and led to tragedies in thousands of families. People suffered persecution for their faith. Monasticism was damaged. The one true doctrine, expressed and established by the secular power, has drawn up limits for faith and religious customs for several centuries. This order has affected Christian believers of different confessions as well as Jewish and Muslim believers.

The fact that the church in Sweden was not reformed from the bottom up is a clear starting point in modern historical research. In our country the anniversary of the Reformation was not celebrated in 1617 as it was in the rest of the Evangelical-Lutheran world. The year chosen was instead 1621 – to celebrate that Gustaf Vasa had been selected in the town of Mora 100 years earlier to be the “governor of the province of Dalarna and the people of the kingdom of Sweden”, which laid the foundation for his future role as the king of Sweden. Little mention was made of Luther at that time. It was more about gratitude for divine providence – that Sweden through Luther had received a new form of access to the Holy Word.

The heritage of the Reformation is in Sweden therefore problematically connected to the creation of the nation state and its politics. The Reformation was implemented from the top down, often contrary to the will of the general public. In some parts of the country, even weapons were used to defend the old tradition. Preserved sources show that in many places people held onto the old traditions far into the 17th century. For example it was common for parishioners to demonstratively enter the church after the sermon to receive the miracle of Holy Communion.

Despite this, the split was not as radical as it could seem. Church terminology such as mass, priest and ordination was retained unchanged, as in Sweden there was not the same pressure to create a clear profile vis à vis the Catholic Church as in Germany, for example. During Sweden’s era as a great power in the 17th and early 18th centuries, new spiritual literature also started to be read in wider circles. This included texts originally written in medieval monastery environments. Writings from the Ignatian tradition were also distributed. Lutheran theologian Johann Arndt, who become somewhat of the era’s best-selling author, partly based his work on texts by the Franciscan tertiary, Angela of Foligno. At the same time that Sweden took part in a bloody war on the Continent in order to, as it was said, defend the true doctrine, spiritual literature in Sweden was nevertheless highly open to ecumenical influences.

After 500 years it is perhaps easier than ever to achieve a balanced view of the Reformation that can commemorate both continuity and discord, benefits and oppression. What can be said from a Lutheran perspective about every Christian person also applies to the Reformation itself: simul iustus et peccator – at the same time both righteous and a sinner. 

The sins are severe. Luther’s appalling words about Jews have contributed to a devastating hate of Jews. It is painful to read about the hard-hitting propaganda machine against what was known as papism, anti-Catholic sentiment and the extreme orthodoxy’s witch hunt against people’s perceptions of faith, such as Sami drums (often called magic drums) or what was called the witchery of women from the province of Dalarna. Marriage between people of different confessions was counteracted, which led to personal tragedies. It was impossible for a Catholic and a Protestant who were married to each other to receive Holy Communion together. In the 19th century the Church of Sweden’s representatives tried to defend Lutheran heritage by demanding secular punishments. Free churches have had to fight against the state church monopoly.

We are right to acknowledge the mistakes that the successors of the Reformation were guilty of. At the same time we can be aware of how the ecumenical heritage and medieval spiritual traditions have continued to live on throughout all the centuries in the various parts of the Christian church – also in what became the Church of Sweden. It is obvious but still needs to be said: the story of Sweden’s religious history is bigger than that of the Church of Sweden. It also encompasses free churches, the Roman Catholic Church and increasingly also orthodox spiritual traditions.

When the anniversary of the Reformation is commemorated in our century it will take place at the same time that Christianity is experiencing a growth phase. But Europe no longer dominates the worldwide fellowship of churches. Secularisation in the northern hemisphere has occurred relatively quickly in the past few decades, while the number of Christians is growing substantially in the south. It is no coincidence that the Pope is Argentinian and that the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation is from Chile.

Discord between Catholics and Lutherans is not at all in the same way part of the historical heritage for Christians in other parts of the world. The challenge for the worldwide Christian fellowship does not primarily comprise confessional differences, but instead issues concerning social injustice, armed conflicts and poverty. The changes to the religious and political landscape have led to greater ecumenical openness than ever before and are characterised by globalisation and its consequences.

The meeting in Lund is a global one between Catholics and Lutherans, but it will not take place in a vacuum. Sweden is a country that has been affected by the Reformation more than most, regarding both religion and politics. We have reason to self-critically reflect on how we can tell the story of our Reformation history with mutual respect. We also have reason to commemorate the continuity ever since the time when our part of the world first became converted to Christianity. This continuity has contributed to the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation choosing to hold their joint meeting in Lund, where there is a cathedral that in itself bears witness to many hundreds of years of Christian presence.

The Lutheran World Federation has expressed that the anniversary of the Reformation should be commemorated in a spirit of ecumenical accountability, global awareness and a continued will to reform. From Catholics there have also been strong signals in recent months in favour of ecumenical openness and fellowship.

A Lutheran woman married to a Catholic recently asked Pope Francis how they can receive Holy Communion together rather than separately in their separate churches. The Pope reminded the woman that we have the same Baptism and that the spouses are walking on a joint path. “When you teach your children who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what Jesus did, you do the same, whether in Lutheran or Catholic terms, but it is the same”, he said. Concerning differences in perception of Holy Communion between Lutherans and Catholics the Pope said, “Life is greater than explanations and interpretations. Always refer to Baptism: ‘One faith, one baptism, one Lord’, as Paul tells us, and take the outcome from there…Speak with the Lord and go forward.”

The former leader of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, wrote the following about a month ago: “Since Jesus Christ also works in and through the other Churches…the complete realisation of Catholicity is only possible in ecumenical exchange and reciprocal enrichment. Catholic and ecumenical are therefore not opposites but two sides of the same coin.” He established that “So ecumenism does not involve the conversion of one Church into another; it involves the conversion of all to Jesus Christ.”

It is easy to agree with Cardinal Kasper that the anti-ecumenical self-satisfied attitude of the past sometimes resurfaces. This risk exists in all faith communities, which is why his reminder of what is required is also appropriate in preparation for the meeting in Lund in October and the 500th anniversary in 2017, in other words, “Healing of memories, an ecumenism of love, of encounter, listening and friendship are what is needed”.

Antje Jackelén, Archbishop
Church of Sweden

Published in Svenska Dagbladet 24 January 2016