In 2010 you walked from Erfurt to Rome on an “ecumenical pilgrimage.” Why? What were you hoping to accomplish?
The idea was born a number of years ago with a simple, “Gee, wouldn’t it be cool to walk through Europe following in Luther’s footsteps?” The old country still has that kind of pull on young Americans. But we (my husband Andrew and I) didn’t really have any way to make it happen until we moved to Strasbourg. Then, through my work in ecumenism, we both started thinking about the figure of Luther differently and realized that we had an intriguing chance to connect a seminal figure from the past with the ecumenical and theological concerns of the present. We imagined that the line of connection Luther had made in walking from Erfurt to Rome as a friar, long before he became a reformer, had been snapped by the 1521 bull of excommunication against him, and we wanted to reconnect the dots, so to speak, with our own feet. The social media component followed naturally (and our blog is still up: www.hereiwalk.org).
What do you think you accomplished? How have people on both the Protestant and Catholic sides reacted?
The response to our pilgrimage was overwhelmingly positive. We were most moved by the comments or messages from “mixed marriages” (such a horrible expression), i.e. people who live ecumenism within their own families. They are the real pioneers. Interestingly, addressing such concerns was the very first step in ecumenism. I think we also gave people, both Protestant and Catholic, a way of looking at Luther that was less ideological. I don’t think ecumenism can make any progress at all until all parties are willing to give up their convenient half-truths about both the past and the present. It’s ultimately an exercise in relentless honesty, carried on in a spirit of deep love.
You are currently assistant research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France. Tell us about the Institute, and your work there.
The Institute was founded in 1965 in response to the Second Vatican Council. The Lutheran World Federation thought it necessary to have a house of studies devoted entirely to the question of the Lutheran churches’ relationship to other churches of the world. Our scholars pioneered the concept of “differentiated consensus” and were key drafters of the Leuenberg Agreement (1973) and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999). I serve as a consultant to the International Lutheran-Orthodox Joint Commission—a role I was given after writing a dissertation on Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, an Orthodox theologian who argued in favor of the ordination of women to the priesthood—and have been involved in preparatory conversations between Lutherans and Pentecostals.
What do you see when you survey the ecumenical landscape? Is it dead, or living differently than it did in the heady postwar days?
It’s not dead; it’s changing. Everyone I’ve met working in ecumenism realizes this and is striving to grasp what the new form will be. Ecumenism was chiefly about multilateral friendship-building and joint service during its first fifty years, and that was only among Protestants and Orthodox. The next fifty years, following Vatican II, focused on bilateral dialogue on theological topics. At this point, we all know that we’re in doctrinal spitting distance of each other, but that hasn’t translated into greater structural unity, and we still have a great deal of uninformed bigotry against other Christians within our ranks. The best guess right now is that the next phase of ecumenism will be a result of the entry into it of Evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals, who have been fairly suspicious of ecumenism up until now. The Global Christian Forum is facilitating some really exciting conversations between them and “experienced” ecumenists. That’s where I’d stake my money for the future.
What would Christian unity look like today? Is Christian unity possible this side of the Eschaton?
I imagine Christian unity as something like this: picture a Venn diagram, except 3D (so spheres instead of circles), bobbing along through space and time. Each church family is one of those spheres, and there is always overlap of some kind or another—doctrinal, spiritual, diaconal—though never a complete identity of the two. Which means some parts of each church family are in some kind of communion with another church family, while members of that same church family are not, or are perhaps in some kind of communion with another church family altogether. But even this is not quite right, because the more I learn of the various churches, the clearer it becomes the members of each are not fully in communion with each other, either. On what grounds can we defend non-communion with members of other church families when we tolerate all kinds of non-communion within our church families? How do we account for a fuller degree of unity and communion between members of separated churches that between those within one church? I don’t know the secret of Christian unity, but I’ve at least figured out that “unity” is a far more complex prospect than I’d ever imagined.
As a Catholic, I doubt very much we Catholics would surrender the papacy as we see the Petrine Office as an instrument of Christian unity, not an obstacle. As a Protestant, what would you like to see Rome do? As a Lutheran, what do you think Lutherans should do?
Your choice of words is interesting: “surrender.” The unfortunately widespread notion of ecumenism is that it’s some kind of barter—if you’ll give up this, I’ll give up that. Such an approach could only be mutually impoverishing, assuming it would even work, which it wouldn’t. I have no clearer idea than anyone else how to shape the papacy in a way that would truly be uniting and not dividing for the Orthodox and Protestant families, but one of the most exciting things I’ve heard about lately is the recent opening of an office in Rome that unites concerns of mission and ecumenism, so that the task of evangelization will not be undertaken under the shadow of competition between Christians. Since ecumenism originated in the mission field, I think its future lies in mission too, and if ecumenism is suffering or slowing down right now, it’s because it got severed from its missional roots—both “externally” to the nations and “internally” to the baptized (who are often further advanced in their paganism than non-Christians!).
Many people assume Christian faith is dead in Europe, what with advancing secularization and low levels of church attendance. How does the situation of Christian faith in Europe look to you from your vantage point in France?
It’s certainly pretty dreary to visit the gorgeous old church buildings of Europe on a Sunday morning and find them virtually empty. The disdain for the church was one of the most shocking things we found while on the Italy portion of our pilgrimage. But I think this is all a bit misleading. The “oldline” churches are indeed empty and withering. But every city of any size has multiple thriving churches built around immigrants, or new communities forming around Pentecostal/charismatic renewal. They are not public the way the oldline churches are, so they are somewhat invisible. But sooner or later the homogenous oldliners are going to realize that their future lies in extending the right hand of fellowship to the new arrivals, and perhaps in that partnership their own people will be revitalized in faith.
It seems those forms of Christianity that are thriving around the world are pentecostal and charismatic. Pope Benedict had some words of concern regarding that when he visited Germany last year. Should these forms of Christianity be a concern, or should we simply rejoice that the gospel is being spread?
That’s very true—and it’s also true of the oldline churches themselves. 11% of the world’s Catholics are charismatic (that’s a staggering 110 million!). The Lutheran church of Ethiopia had 200,000 members in 1980 and has nearly 5 million today—and the astronomical growth is due to its explicit decision to incorporate charismatic practice into its Lutheran commitments. Still, far more of the Pentecostals and charismatics are found outside the oldline churches, and they seem to grow faster the more they divide, which is a bit alarming if you are committed to the unity of the church! My hunch at this point is that Pentecostal success derives from two principal factors. First, instead of giving lip service to the idea that all power and holiness comes from God—but in reality trying to flog ourselves into it by our own efforts—Pentecostals really believe it and act on it, and God responds generously. Second, Pentecostals have shed the old Christendom mentality far more effectively than older churches, perhaps because they were never accepted by the Christendom establishment in the first place. Thus their missions are not exercises in cultural imperialism, however gently managed, but allow an unprecedented freedom for indigenization. At some point, though, they are going to have to reconcile with the Christian past. If real ecumenical friendships could develop between them and the oldliners, we’d see an extraordinary renewal and deepening of faith and witness on all sides. So, in short, I’m not worried—I’m delighted.
Any final words?
The best on-the-ground idea I’ve heard for ecumenism comes from Steve Harmon’s little book, Ecumenism Means You, Too. He suggests that, in addition to your commitment to your own church family, you get to know another one, too—sort of like having a major and a minor. You can’t fix all the divisions all at once, but you can become a real bridge between two families of faith, mutually translating between the two and curing your own parochialism in the process. Ephesians 2:14 says that Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility,” so as Christ-bearers ourselves, I think we are called to make the unity happen in our own bodies, too. That happens when we put our bodies in two different churches, give our voices to praise in them both, consume the holy supper with our mouths in them both, serve the needy with our hands in them both.