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The Jubilee of the Reformation – ecumenical?

Speech by WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit on 27 October 2016, at the Peterskirche, the University Church of Heidelberg.

27 October 2016

27 October 2016, Peterskirche, the University Church of Heidelberg.

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit – WCC General Secretary

 

1.    Mutual accountability – A Common Agenda of the Reformation and the Ecumenical Movement Today?

Mutual accountability must be a central attitude for commemorating the Reformation. Celebrating an institution or an ideology in a one-dimensional self-sufficient and self-affirming way cannot bring the world forward beyond the pride of success and power of those identifying with it. Such jubilees, however, can be really valuable when they reflect an attitude of accountability. This means asking openly and self-critically:

-       What have we learned?

-       What was important and significant in this particular history?

-       How has it been diverted or even abused? and

-       How can we bring the best of it forward into the future of our life together?

The most effective and appropriate approach is for Christians and the Church to look at past and present in accountability to God, whatever has happened. To stand before God is to stand at the same time in accountability to all of God’s creation, and particularly to those created in the image of God, human beings and the one humanity. The best way of celebrating a jubilee so that we really learn from it is to do so in mutual accountability to others in God’s world from whom we learn both through affirmations of the gifts we have received and shared - and through constructive critique.

Mutual accountability is a central attitude that has brought the ecumenical movement to life as a fellowship of churches. I have demonstrated this in my book The truth we owe each other. Mutual accountability in the ecumenical movement.[1] Mutual accountability is exercised when we are asking and answering each other in a transparent, open, humble, and constructive way what we have done with our common legacy as churches, the Gospel and the One Tradition of the Church. Mutual accountability involves dialogue about how we deal with the differences and divisions that have developed and how we are stewards of this legacy. We need to ask, too, how we are mutually accountable to the values and learnings that we affirm and share together and how we, therefore, engage each other in finding the way forward together. We must show that we are accountable, reliable, and honest. In all of this, we are mutually accountable to how the Gospel is shared so that those to whom the Gospel is addressed can receive it as the word of liberation, transformation, and hope that the Holy Scripture brings to the church and the world in every generation and in every context.

The Gospel of last Sunday, telling the story of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18:9-14, shows clearly the difference between self-centredness and pride and standing in full accountability for who we are as sinners before God. This is so that we rely fully on God’s grace alone. This Gospel shows the link between God’s gift of grace, accountability and repentance.

My thesis is that a sense of accountability, even mutual accountability, was at the heart of the matter that caused Martin Luther to open a dispute about the real meaning of penitence, in his theses of October 31, 1517. The openness in his approach was an academic prerogative, searching for a better way for how the Church could be accountable to Scripture and the Gospel, so that the accountability of the believer could be given proper expression. This was certainly meant to be serving the Church and believers, including him. Remembering this event, we can explore in an open discourse the value of penitence as a power of real liberation and transformation. We can discern how to avoid it being distorted to something that makes neither the Church nor the believer really accountable to God and others.

2.    The need for Accountability and Reformation in Church and World

Many of the ecumenical discussions today regarding the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year are looking back at the church-dividing events in the 16th century and the theological, political and cultural divisions and conflicts that followed. The perspective has questioned what we can learn from what we call Reformation, and the potential for change today as seen through the lens of the Reformation.[2] The best of ecumenical dialogue on the reformation applies the approach of the “healing of memories” that has been an important dimension of the peacebuilding work of member churches of the WCC in Northern Ireland, South Africa and many other countries. I would like to congratulate Reinhard Cardinal Marx and Landesbischof Dr. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm for the joint publication of the German Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) with the title Erinnerungen heilen[3] that they presented to the public recently.

Others have been developing inter-disciplinary research like the project on “Radicalizing Reformation” which demonstrates that the reformation has been part of an era of profound changes and transformations in world history, leading to the modern world with important threat’s to life for our and future generations. One of those initiating this project was Ulrich Duchrow (here from Heidelberg).

I would like to go one step further, combining the understanding of the word “ecumenical” as the “house of the living stones”, which is the fellowship of Christian churches, and as “God’s household of life”, which embraces the whole of creation. Remembering the impulse the reformation gave for the transformation of church and society at its time, my question is: what kind of renewal of churches and theology is required in view of the threats to life and survival humankind is facing today? My ecumenical experience tells me that there is no one single answer and ready-made solution at hand. No one alone has the full picture. Indeed, we urgently need to understand what it requires to be on the way of justice and peace as a diverse community in mutual accountability and what the core of our Christian faith can contribute to respond to the main challenges we are facing together as human beings on the way.

In other words: What does it mean and require today to be together on the way

-       following Christ,

-       looking for signs of Gods reign to come, and

-       discerning the way guided by the Holy Spirit

and to do all this in mutual accountability? What does this mean in a multi-cultural and multi-religious context where strong self-interests of individuals, groups and even nations block the necessary change and fuel conflict and war to the detriment of human communities and all life on planet Earth?

In short: What does it mean to be on a pilgrimage of justice and peace in today’s world together with people of good will of different cultures and faith communities? I have asked myself this question every day as General Secretary of the WCC since the tenth assembly that gathered 2013 in Busan, Republic of Korea, called churches and all people of good will to join in transformative action on a pilgrimage of justice and peace.

Before trying to address these questions, let me recall some of the learnings of the more recent past. The title “the jubilee of the Reformation- ecumenically?” reminds us that there have been difficulties to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation ecumenically. Kurt Cardinal Koch and others pointed to the fact that the Reformation led to a schism of the Western Church and in consequence to conflict and war in Europe. These realities would stand in the way of a jubilee celebration.

My first participation about the 500 years of Reformation was in the committee for ecumenism in the Lutheran World Federation more than 10 years ago. I urged that the results of the extensive ecumenical dialogues should be the basis for the commemoration. The ambiguity of marking the 500 years as a jubilee celebrating all we give thanks for, and the critical scrutiny of all the negative and dramatic consequences of the schisms that occurred in and after the period of Reformation, were in my mind to be addressed through a common celebration of the Gospel. Was not this the central point in the critical questions and the best initiatives from Luther and other reformers? And was this not recognized as appropriate and necessary in view of the reality of the Church at the time of Martin Luther by all throughout the theological dialogues?

I am glad to see that the phase of discussing the profile and the purpose of the commemoration of the 500 years is clearly behind us. The churches will celebrate together a feast with the Gospel of Christ at the centre – “ein Christusfest”. It is remarkable that both Protestants and Catholics together are taking responsibility for the conflicts and wars that followed the reformation. Both of the joint publications From Conflict to Communion[4] of the Lutheran World Federation and Erinnerungen heilen of the German churches show how the churches receive and own together the progress made in ecumenical dialogue since the Second Vatican Council.

It is the same spirit that prevails in the preparations for the joint celebration of Pope Francis and the representatives of the Lutheran World Federation on 31 October in Lund. I look forward to being there representing the whole fellowship of the World Council of Churches. This event has relevance and will be significant for the whole ecumenical movement. As part of the event in Lund, Caritas Internationalis and the Lutheran World Service will sign a memorandum of understanding for work they will undertake together. All these are promising signs of new energy for ecumenical cooperation in mutual accountability. We are indeed harvesting some of the fruits of the dialogues that were pursued in the past.

It is also required that the Reformation was and is not to be seen either in the perspective of the Church or of the World. The scope of mutual accountability needs to include the religious dimension, but it cannot be reduced to it. We are to be accountable also beyond the church to our fellow human beings in all dimensions of life. The insights of social, economic, political and cultural research contribute to a more holistic understanding of the Reformation in both spheres. The Reformation was part of a broader historic process that led towards colonialism and modernity. Inter-disciplinary cooperation demonstrates clearly that a theology and church-centred approach alone is never enough to understand the dynamics of change in history.

In the German Catholic and Lutheran perspective for instance, it seems to be evident to look at 31 October 1517 as the date when Martin Luther publicized his 95 theses on the matter of indulgences. Therefore, the date is recognized as starting point of the Lutheran Reformation. Looking at the events, however, in a broader European and worldwide perspective, it becomes obvious that we are not to forget Zwingli and Calvin and Hus, also catalysts for change that preceded the Lutheran Reformation and developed in parallel. Further, the formation of the Anglican Church and new Protestant churches in the English speaking world need to be taken into consideration. Historical actors like Luther, Cajetan, Frederik the Wise, the Emperor Charles V or the Fugger family, others like King Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I, or rich merchants in Amsterdam and Antwerp, Hamburg and London who supported the new theological orientation were fully aware of their own context. This context included the beginning colonial conquest of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, with new opportunities for global trade, but also with the advance of the Ottoman Empire. The German Martin Behaim presented already in 1492 a globe to demonstrate to the Welsers and other rich banking and trading houses in Nürnberg the new realities in a radically changing world. Reformation is intertwined with a long lasting process of globalization that accelerated with colonialism and neo-colonialism.

We see the emergence of the modern world with a worldwide, but divided Christianity and with global competition for economic and political power coupled with important technological advances. This is the historic background of growing inequalities, economic injustice, claims to hegemonic political and military power as an environment for mutually re-enforcing economic, ecological and social-cultural crises in our days. Not that the reformation is at the origin of all this, but it unfolds in the context of these trends.

The Reformation has given many impulses to the developments of modernity and democracy, and also been followed by a globalization of Christianity with its many forms through mission. Konrad Raiser has explored these dimensions of Reformation in his newly published study about these issues, seen in the perspective of the life of the churches worldwide today and their relations through the ecumenical movement.[5] We find ourselves today in a situation that requires developing new forms of sharing, cooperation and ecologically sound lifestyles, but in which - quite to the contrary - the capacity and the will to do so is weakened by reactions against global trends and powers often amplifying cultural and religious particularities. This is a common feature of populist political movements, religious fundamentalism and other justifications of violence that affect also groups in the churches. They all refuse to be held accountable by others who do not belong to their particular group.

3.    The relevance of Luther’s 95 theses for the ecumenical movement as pilgrimage of justice and peace today

Speaking here in Heidelberg, I am aware that first perceptions of the challenges we are confronted with today were already identified by personalities like Georg Picht, Heinz Eduard Tödt, Günther Howe and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. The work of the FEST, the Forschungsstätte der Evangelischen Studiengemeinschaft, has been addressing key questions for the future of humanity in inter-disciplinary approaches and continues to do so. Stirred up by the experience of two world wars, the Holocaust and the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the founding generation of the FEST understood that our times require new forms of cooperation worldwide in scope and in all dimensions of life. This has had a significant impact also on how the agenda of the World Council of Churches has been shaped through its nearly 70 years.

Peace, as they said - and I would add justice for people and the Earth – is a necessary condition for the survival of humankind. There is only one common future and hope for all or there is no hope for the future at all.

This generation of the founders of the FEST realized that none of the existing cultures and religions was fully prepared for the kind of social and cultural changes that were required for justice at a global scale and lasting peace. In fact, some of them identified exactly this as a, if not the, major underlying problem. Neither post-modern relativism nor the attempts to foster agreements based on a minimal number of shared principles are enough. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights and subsequent human rights covenants have shown a way forward, but they are still vulnerable to the fact that their origins are in the northern hemisphere with its Christian roots. The opposition of “us” and “them” is dominating thinking and action at a time when we need to speak of “we” as planetary community in recognition of difference and the otherness of the other.

In theological terms, the lack of capacity to relate to the other or the neighbour in responsible ways reflects the brokenness of community with the other and with God. Such brokenness of the most basic set of relationships is called sin in the Biblical tradition. Sin is a reality that disrupts and diminishes human relationships and destroys the life given to us as human beings in God’s creation. It is a destructive reality in our own lives. To build up our lives and new relationships, a kind of conversion towards the other is needed – a new more inclusive understanding of identity that includes the material, moral and spiritual dimensions of life.

It makes good sense to me to address this underlying dimension of contemporary challenges using categories of the Reformation. In view of the deep conversion that is needed, I would like to emphasize one single dimension, referring to Luther’s first thesis on the door of the church in Wittenberg:

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (Mt 4:17)

Sin is real. There is only real sin that undermines life of individuals and communities. There is no way to avoid the reality of sin through money, power, ignorance, pious practices, church doctrines, offices, or through any other means. There is no way to get around the need for repentance, conversion and the renewal of life.

Repentance is the way to receive justification by grace and to be liberated from the shackles of sin. Repentance leads to a conversion that involves all dimensions of our identity. Its horizon is the renewal of life in the death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Luther argues that the notion of repentance is not a once-for-all action or word. It is an attitude, a way of being representing alertness to the critical voice, an understanding of the dimension of tragedy, and willingness to acknowledge the reality of what is wrong. It is also the attitude of hearing carefully the voice of God’s total forgiveness, not as accepting a deal, but as openness to change the direction of life in order to focus on the needs of the other. Especially this is true for the poor, those in need of safety, of justice, of having their rights and dignity recognized. The way towards justice and peace is a way of repentance, conversion and renewal. Anticipating the goal that qualifies already the way, our way becomes indeed a pilgrimage of justice and peace.

In other words, true repentance means real accountability to our past, as individuals and as fellowship, in the churches and as peoples (confession). True repentance means a real willingness to change, listening well to the other and particularly to the less privileged and the victims of what we have done – past and present (contritio). True repentance means real actions of transformation, and an ongoing willingness to be in a process of transformation that focuses on how the other - the other human beings as well as the whole of creation - are affected constructively or destructively by my and our attitudes and actions. Transformation is the essence of a pilgrimage of justice and peace that leads to addressing the needs of the poor, in a wide sense of the term, including the less privileged, the victims, the oppressed – according to the expression “the preferential option for the poor”.

In this way, I am unfolding the meaning of mutual accountability as attitude and as form for our life together, trusting the power of the Gospel to address the needs we all have of liberation from the powers of sin and for the transformation into the life and the values of the Kingdom of God.

4.    Migration and the need for repentance

To be realistic we need to acknowledge there is never a time in the life of a human being, a nation, or a culture when the need for the attitude of repentance can be considered obsolete. The continuing existence of injustice, racism, war, killings, persecution and despair driving people to flee from their dear homes and families reminds us that these are not just matters of history but remain a reality for Europe and the world today.

We recall the refugee conventions that were established after World War II particularly to respond to the needs for protection of so many European refugees, Germans, Polish, Hungarians, Czechs – and many others suffering from the brutal realities after the disaster and the later effects of the division of Europe and the Cold War. The problems did not stop. Today there are many from our neighbouring regions in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa who have the same needs for protection and for another place to call home. For those who come to your country, you have shown through your political decisions and your humanitarian actions that you remember your own history. As active participants in civil society, in churches and other communities, you have shown the clear conviction that this engagement for the other is about being human and being Christian. [6]

Such responses reflect a serious commitment to Luther’s idea of repentance. All of us, Germans and other Europeans alike, must forever be conscious of the temptation to be complicit with the reality of sin in all its forms, old and new. Indeed, as Europeans we are all vulnerable to such temptation and therefore must guard against the tendency to ignore the need for critical self-assessment.

Many in the United States of America discuss racism these days as “America’s original sin.” They face the dimensions and expressions of racism that permeate their society, and which have been exposed to the world most publicly these last few years. As Europeans, we should see ourselves in that mirror: What is our original sin? Actually, we have to admit that what is seen in the USA is a consequence of European immigration policy rooted in Eurocentric ideas of white superiority and privilege.

Many of us today struggle to understand how we could allow such destructive notions of ”Übermensch” to take hold in our past, and to continue to exist today - to the extent that even now as I speak, racist and xenophobic rhetoric have become acceptable and respectable in the public space not just in North America but right here in Europe.

How can we dismantle and resist the seemingly normal reaction of self-preservation and self-protection manifested in suspicion towards the stranger and those of different faiths? How do we arrive at a modus of real and constructive repentance opening to the way forward in mutual accountability?

This is about making the best values of the Reformation a living reality today. We protect our values best by using them as the basis and source for serving the lives of other human beings. Our present realities must be shaped by and rooted in a vision of how we shall live together as One Humanity tomorrow. Values are of no worth if they are solely about the past. That is also true about our understanding of sin and repentance. As my colleague Martin Junge in the LWF said: “Those who want to protect Christian values by closing the borders to Europe do not know what Christian values are.”

I am confronted with these realities again and again in my work and during my travels. This experience shows me that it makes a lot of sense to consider the challenges we face today as One Humanity in the light of the legacy of the Reformation. This is not as a general pessimism or condemnation of everything that is human, but in alertness to the reality of sin and the reality of the need of others. It rather gives me hope. There is a sign of hope in every repentance and conversion that follows.

The Reformation brought a new sense of the accountability to God as sovereign, as the one who is not at the same level as we human beings in all our failures and weaknesses. This accountability did not mean that we are accountable to powers of authority in the world or in the Church that claim to have the final word about our relationship to the Almighty God. The Reformation rather emphasized that we are called to be accountable in our humanity, called to be free and responsible to find our ways to serve God and the fellow human being. This freedom is also a call to seek the company of all people of good will with whom we can share a sense of mutual accountability for what we are and what we can do together. This includes that which is beyond the realities that are separating us or putting us against each other as “us” and “them”. The Reformation’s call to repentance is not a call to despair, pessimism or misconceptions of the possibilities of human life and efforts. Rather to the contrary, it is a call to take these opportunities to serve more seriously and be inspired by the liberating word of the Gospel to do so.

5.    Israel and Palestine – a test case for both theological and moral attitudes of accountability and repentance

Following this understanding of repentance, we can trace the trajectory from the Reformation to openness, freedom, accountability, and the search for unity on a common ground of grace, justice and peace. However, the Reformation has also brought divisions and even discrimination of others. There can be no excuse. We have already spoken about the divisions between the churches and the need to make more visible what we have in common and share as Christians and churches today. These contributions of honesty and repentance show their relevance in many of the conflicts of today’s world.

We also have to acknowledge and understand the implication of one particular conflict in the world that also leads back to the teachings of Luther and requires particular care and analysis of what repentance means. I refer here to Luther’s writings about the Jews. This has to be a matter of our accountability at a milestone like this. Luther’s attacks against the Jews cannot be justified especially, because he argues theologically against the validity of God’s blessings as descendants of Abraham. His later writings were used as pretexts for anti-Semitism in many forms, particularly in Europe, and subsequently the murder of millions of Jews. The Shoah remains one of the darkest chapters of European and human history. The first Assembly of the WCC declared unambiguously that anti-Semitism is a sin against human beings and against God.

Until today we have seen clear expressions of repentance for what happened particularly from the German people in whose name the crime was committed. These have been real expressions of confession, contrition, and satisfaction, saying “never again.” Unfortunately, circumstances in the world require a constant need to continue to underline that anti-Semitism is a sin against God and other human beings. It is a fact that discrimination, exclusion, attacks and violence are continuing against the Jewish people and against many others because they belong to a particular people or a group of a society. Some additional communities were targeted by the Nazi regime as well, such as homosexuals, gypsies, disabled, political dissidents and others.

One of the great efforts and achievements of the post-war international society was to establish a new order of international law and conventions of human rights. There was the commitment that what happened to the Jews and others should never happen again. The WCC was very much involved in building up the ethos and value basis for these expressions of new international relationships in affirmation of mutual accountability to the one humanity. Another expression of such repentance after WWII was the recognition of Israel as a state to be established as home for Jews. It was stated too that the Palestinian people should also have their state in the same area of Palestine. The WCC supported both dimensions of this decision in the UN General Assembly.

As history unfolds, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people developed. It remains unsettled today and has become even more difficult in view of settlements and the Israeli occupation of territory outside of the internationally recognized borders of Israel. This situation provokes a number of questions:

-       What does repentance mean in this conflict today?

-       What is the meaning of accountability for what happened in the past, before 1948 and also after 1948?

-       How can a shared understanding of what justice and peace require be established with accountability to past and present dimensions of the conflict?

-       How can the churches - and here I would like to mention especially the German churches - contribute to a new approach of the healing of memories and reconciliation grounded in repentance so that both sides can expresses the truth in a mutually accountable way and are open for transformation in the same spirit?

The conflict has at its core important theological concerns and positions. It is, therefore, indeed a particular responsibility for the churches of the Reformation to address the issues at stake that require repentance and transformation and not to deny that action is necessary. This would be a sign for the continuing relevance of the heritage of the Reformation in a very concrete way and an important contribution towards peace in the region.

6.    Semper reformanda in mutual accountability – another expression of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace

Dear friends of the Reformation, I am convinced that the commemoration of the 500 years since 31 October 1517 has an enormous potential for strengthening our hope. Hope is nurtured when there is a real willingness to repent, to change, to see what is wrong and to contribute to changes and transformation towards just peace.

The Pilgrimage is a metaphor and a way of living our Christian faith in our daily lives. It implies being open and accountable for what we are and what we do, but also listening and learning from one another so that we can find a better way into the future.

Creation and the human family need a sense of mutual accountability that has no limits as to whom we are accountable to. We cannot reserve this attitude to some particular groups, confessions and people. Of course, we have to start with ourselves and where we are, and ask for God’s guidance to find our common way forward towards the broader horizon of justice and peace for all. This has been the best common approach of the Reformation and the ecumenical movement: being honest, humble, and hopeful. The Gospel of the grace of God is the same today as 500 years ago. 

 

[1] Olav Fykse Tveit, The truth we owe each other. Mutual accountability in the ecumenical movement, Geneva: WCC 2016

[2] One example is the presentations at the congress in Zürich October 2013, organised by EKD and FSPC, and the succeeding publication: Reformation. Legacy and Future. Ed.: Petra Bosse-Huber, Serge Fornerod, Thies Gundlach, Gottfried Locher, WCC Publications, Geneva 2015. My own contribution was “The Legacy of the Ecumenical Movement and Its Significance for The Ecumenical Movement Today”, 86-97.

[3] Errinnerungen heilen – Jesus Christus bezengen: Gemenisane Texte. Ein Gemeinsanes Wort Zum Jahr 2017. Deutsche Bischopskonferenz./EKD

[4] From Conflict to Communion, LWF/PCPCU, 2014

[5] Konrad Raiser: 500 Jahre Reformation weltweit. Luther-Verlag, Bielefeld 2016.

[6] The recent inspiring statement on the current refugee situation by Leaders of the Protestant Regional Churches in Germany is one important example of this.