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Martin Luther

Any sense of true catholicity has to begin with some sense of how the Church has lived through history; too often we hear resounding statements that such and such is ‘tradition’, only to discover that in is a tradition in one part of the church which once was not so, has been changed, and will be changed again: one example of that we had in a recent discussion over the RC practice of priests washing feet on Maundy Thursday. Dave Smith, as ever a formidable and articulate defender of his Church, deplored Pope Francis opening this practice to women and non-Christians; this was seen as a deplorable departure from tradition. Yet, before 1955, this practice was not part of the Mass, and it was not known in the Western Church before the late twelfth century; so yes, it was a tradition, but not one of great antiquity, and one which had been subject to change before. The Christian tradition has been diverse, and one of the many good things about Anglicanism is that it is open to learning from other traditions – how can real catholicity be defined as a narrowing of the vision to what has been done in, for example, the Latin Church of the West, or the Church of england? Have we really nothing to learn from the Orthodox, the Lutherans, the Baptists or others? We can claim the ‘fullness of the faith’ inheres only in our tradition, but saying something, however often we say it, does not make it true.

The last fifty years have seen some astonishing confessional rapprochements between Anglicans, Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and whilst we seem often to hear from loud voices that this is a deplorable development marking syncretism, I do wonder how far those voices have silenced themselves for long enough to read the various reports? I was looking recently at Archbishop Robert Runcie’s address to the Synod in 1983 when he spoke of our debt to ‘the living Luther of today’, which began the road leading to the 1992 Meissen agreement by which my church and the evangelical Church in Germany acknowledged that there were no serious obstacles to full communion with each other. IN 1996 the Porvoo Agreements with the Baltic and Nordic Lutheran Churches provided for full communion, and this was followed in 2000 by the Reuilly agreements with the French Lutheran and and Reformed Churches.

At the same time, via the ARCIC (Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission) process, relations between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church improved. Lutheran and Roman Catholic relations have also improved. In September the Pope will travel to Lund in Sweden to take part in a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; as I type these words I feel angry fingers typing on keyboards; perhaps I am wrong, and perhaps many of our RC commentators here will support their Pope – but I think not. The idea that Luther contributed nothing of value to the Christian tradition is held, I think, mainly by those who have never read him, and the same is true of Calvin. It is interesting to note that the best theologian ever to occupy the throne of St Peter, Benedict XVI, was not so dismissive – but then he had read Luther in the German. To those who spoke lightly of syncretism and wanted to refight old battles, Pope Benedict had wise words which ought to be heeded:

I would respond by saying that the first and most important thing for ecumenism is that we keep in view just how much we have in common, not losing sight of it amid the pressure towards secularization – everything that makes us Christian in the first place and continues to be our gift and our task. It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds. The great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground and that we acknowledge it as we pray and sing together, as we make our joint commitment to the Christian ethos in our dealings with the world, as we bear common witness to the God of Jesus Christ in this world as our undying foundation.

It is hard to know what the point is in being partisan about the reformation, all sides have a mixed history in the longer perspective of history – and it is not as though the Western paradigm actually encompasses the whole of Christendom. It means little to the great Orthodox Churches of the world, or to other ancient churches. The notion that we have nothing to learn from others is not, I think, often held by those with a wide knowledge of the global history of Christianity. One of the advantages of Anglicanism is that it has become a global communion without insisting that one model is the best one.

A real catholicity is hard to reach, but it is even harder if we know little about or despise other traditions. We are all children of God, we all celebrate (or will soon celebrate, for the Orthodox) Easter (or the Pasch), and if we occasionally stop insisting on hearing only our own voice, we may even find we learn something. If Benedict XVI thought we had something to learn from Luther, perhaps we should listen? I sadly noted that on a certain self-styled traditionalist site, many commentators thought that traditionalist Catholics such reject Benedict’s words. It must be wonderful (irony klaxon alert) to be so clever and learned and holy that one can reject Benedict XVI’s words so lightly. I am glad I am neither that clever, learned or holy. I have learnt a lot from him, as I am from reading Luther. I rejoice in having access to such minds. I am not sure I am ready to take on Calvin, but he’s next.