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Catholic and Lutheran leaders continue post-Reformation dialogue

Catholic Bishop William Skylstad and former bishop Martin Wells.  /  At the installation of ELCA Bishop Kristen Kuempel. 

From years as bishops in the Inland Northwest, working on ecumenical dialogue and sustaining the Columbia River Basin, Catholic Bishop Emeritus William (Bill) Skylstad and former Lutheran bishop, now Pastor Martin Wells, have a relationship that exemplifies what they teach churches about the need for ongoing dialogue and church unity.

Martin just completed 18 years as bishop of the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 

Bill returned to the Catholic Diocese of Spokane in 1989 and was apostolic administrator for a year.  He was appointed bishop in 1990 and retired in 2010.

Both continue to work with the encouragement and permission of their sitting bishops to promote use of the resource, “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.”

In addition, Lutherans recommended at their 2016 Churchwide Assembly that congregations study and receive “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist,” a summary of 50 years of Catholic-Lutheran conversations, dialogue and consensus.

“We come to the Reformation’s 500th commemoration with these documents,” said Martin. “The word ‘commemoration’ is used because the divisions are not something to celebrate.” 

“From Conflict to Communion,” developed by the Vatican and Lutheran World Federation since Vatican II, includes a study guide and common prayer.

The prayer was used for an October 2016 ecumenical service in Lund, Sweden, led by Pope Francis and Lutheran Bishop Antje Jackeline of Stockholm.

The Tri-Parish in Spokane Valley—Advent Lutheran, St. Mary’s Catholic and the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection—also used it in their joint 2016 Thanksgiving Worship Service.

Martin urges Lutheran pastors and members to read both documents. Both invite Lutheran and Catholic congregations and others to pair up for prayer and study.

“From Conflict to Communion” has five ecumenical imperatives:

• Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.

• Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.

• Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.

• Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for this time.

• Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

“Ecumenical dialogue, like any negotiation is nuanced but states goals clearly,” said Martin.

“It’s more than sitting around a table and talking. It’s about seeking, pushing forward, not staying in a maintenance mode,” said Bill.

“The documents focus on our agreements, not differences. This is a shift in focus from previous commemorations without ignoring substance,” said Martin.  “They look to the future based on where we are today.”

“Both view history honestly and realistically rather than through a lens of hostility or division,” said Bill.  “The Reformation was in a time of turmoil.  It was a difficult time for the Catholic Church, which needed re-evangelism. Martin Luther did not intend to leave the church, but the sides hardened and it evolved into that.”

Martin said actions spun out of control in a time of cultural shifts in a world on the verge of changes with the printing press and Columbus’ voyage to America.

“Luther is said to be the inspiration for the Western notion of individual conscience.  That thinking has had good and bad consequences,” he said.

Bill and Martin emphasize the imperatives in presentations.

“Wonderful relationships and dialogues continue on the local, regional, national and international levels,” they said. “We are a hopeful people.”

In 1995, before Bill was elected Bishop of Spokane,” Pope John Paul published Ut Unum Sint,” (That they may be one).  Bill said it “was a radical document, acknowledging that the office of Pope is a point of division on ministry, authority and sacraments.”

There was an ecumenical freeze after the World Council of Churches’ convergence on “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” was not “received” (adopted) by its members, Martin said.

He said Lutherans did not accept a three-fold order of ministry with deacons, presbyters (priests) and bishops.  New documents reflect two orders, lay and ordained.Martin was installed bishop, not ordained as Catholic bishops are.

“The seed of Ut Unum Sint now flowers,” said Bill. “Pope John Paul called leaders to keep working on unity, letting the Lord do the Lord’s work.”

Martin said Jesus’ prayer “That they may be one” (John 17) is a persistent challenge.

“When we formed the ELCA in 1988, our statement on ecumenism recognized Jesus’ prayer, giving our churches wings and voices,” he said.

“Some Lutherans say Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel are romanticized words,” he said. “I believe they are a prayer and a call. 

“In diplomacy, we set agreements in words, discuss where we differ and sort out issues in patient dialogue.  Jesus did not use those words as a romantic call to something unrealistic,” Martin said.

“These documents celebrate years of patient, responsible, theological, credible, sophisticated, intellectually defensible dialogue, not papering over differences,” he said. “They outline places dialogue needs to go, such as questions of authority, ministry and sacraments.”

Along with disagreements on the orders, Bill said Catholics need continued discussion on ordaining women as deacons and on the Lutheran emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, which Vatican II accepted. 

The question is what is possible on the grassroots level with food banks, with pastors meeting for text study to prepare sermons and with relationships over meals.

Martin and Bill gather the Octet to build relationships.  The Octet began as a group of eight bishops and executives—Catholic, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ (UCC), and American Baptist. The UCC and Baptists no longer have Spokane offices.  Four of the six leaders are now women. 

“We can look at commonalties and differences if we have trusting relationships,” Martin said.

Bill said they attend each other’s ordinations and installations.

“Much happens on the practical pastoral level,” Bill said.

Seeking to sustain the region’s natural resources, both have stood in solidarity with the region’s Native American Tribes to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty and on the apology of Northwest religious leaders to Northwest tribes.

“Part of our heritage,” Martin added, is Luther’s “eighth commandment that we are to fear and love God so we do not lie about our neighbors, betray or slander them or destroy their reputation.  Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

Both are dismayed how public discourse today is suffering.

“There is more that unites us than divides us when we look at life through the lens of faith,” said Bill. “The bottom line is we are brothers and sisters in God, united in Christ. Too often, politics, not faith, steers people.

“Immigrants are our brothers and sisters in Christ,” Martin said, noting the Christian call to welcome strangers and feed the poor.

“Renewal, re-evangelization and conversion need to be ongoing.  Change is exhausting.  We want to settle down, but are called to be followers on the way,” Bill said.  “A journey is a path, not a settled way.  An image of the disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus is on the cover of ‘Declaration on the Way.’”

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