by Stephen Brown
The World Council of Churches has welcomed the signing of two ecumenical statements by the World Communion of Reformed Churches in which it seeks to overcome divisions of the past and to work with other Christian communions for unity and common witness.
“Today is a historic day,” said Jerry Pillay, president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) at the beginning of the ceremony on 5 July in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther once lived and worked.
At the ceremony, the WCRC formally associated itself with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, originally signed in 1999 by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Roman Catholic Church. The World Methodist Council (WMC) affirmed the declaration in 2006.
The WCRC also signed a “Wittenberg Witness” with the LWF pledging to strengthen cooperation and joint action.
“These declarations are two concrete expressions of the pursuit of full communion and common witness to the world, which is the will of Christ for all Christians,” said the Rev. Dr Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel, the WCC president for Africa, following the signing of the two documents at the service in Wittenberg’s Stadtkirche (Town Church). Orthodox and Mennonite representatives offered their support.
The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification stated that mutual condemnations pronounced by Lutherans and Catholics during the Reformation do not apply to their current teaching on justification.
“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 Wittenberg Witness builds on decades of theological dialogue and on steps taken by LWF and WCRC member churches around the world. It expresses the common call of churches to witness in the world.
The congregation at Wittenberg’s Stadtkirche (Town Church), broke into spontaneous applause as Reformed, Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist representatives signed a statement confirming the WCRC association’s 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.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Pope Francis sent messages of encouragement to the ceremony.
At the service there were prayers of repentance and lamentation for past divisions and wrongs, and commitments to work for unity and justice.
“We commit ourselves to redouble our common efforts to embody our unity, together resisting the forces of injustice and exclusion,” said Rev. Dr Martin Junge, LWF general secretary.
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.
Stephen Brown, Editor for the Ecumenical Review at the World Council of Churches