When Jesus proclaimed himself as the true vine and God the Father as the vine grower in John’s Gospel (15:1-5), he emphasized the need for people to be unified to him, the branches outstretched.
It is a message of unity, shared with the faithful at the Lutheran-Catholic prayer service held at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock Oct. 30, a day before the anniversary of Reformation, the split of Protestantism 500 years ago. The joint prayer service “From Conflict to Fellowship: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation,” was led by both Diocese of Little Rock Bishop Anthony B. Taylor and Bishop Michael Girlinghouse of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). A reception followed the service.
“We’ve come a long way together in the last 50 years, but we’ve still got a long way to go before Christian unity can be fully restored and this wound in the heart of the Church healed,” Bishop Taylor said in his homily about the dialogue that’s taken place between the churches since the 1960s.
Since June, Catholic and Protestant leaders from the ELCA Lutheran denomination, United Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches have met locally to discuss their understanding of salvation, Church authority and the Eucharist. Though there are still divisions, coming together in prayer on the 500th commemoration of the Reformation, which took place after Martin Luther wrote his “Ninety-five Theses” protesting the Catholic Church, is a sign of commonality.
“Obviously the break up of Christian unity is something both sides regret,” said Father Taryn Whittington, prefect of the House of Formation in Little Rock.
Father Whittington, who grew up the son of a Pentecostal minister, said in his experience, particularly visiting hospital patients of all faiths, “I do think there’s less of that tension out there than there used to be and this can be a visual representation of that.”
Father Whittington and Deacon Shannon Johnson, of Faith Lutheran Church in Little Rock, planned the discussion topics of the four meetings of faith leaders.
Johnson said it’s important for Christian denominations to expel myths about each other.
“We have so much similarity we need to remember that and uplift” the Christian faith, she said.
Lance and Eileen Miller, members of Community of Joy Lutheran Church in Hot Springs Village, participated in the discussions.
“Just to see, learn and hear how the two churches are the same” was enlightening, Eileen said. Her husband Lance added, “It wasn’t a ‘You’re wrong, I’m right’ … I think it’s important to send a message to everyone else that after 450 years of conflict, we can still get together and share and love each other.”
The format of the prayer service, music and readings were taken from the “From Conflict to Communion,” document created by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
Shannon’s husband, Josh Johnson, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, worked with the Cathedral’s director of music Beau Baldwin for music selections, taken from both faith traditions.
“I think for me it was to emphasize we have more in common than we have different,” Rev. Johnson said. “I think even though we still have some key theological differences, there are a lot of things we agree on.”
The prayer service was both respectful and solemn, as faithful reflected on “one of the two most painful ruptures in the 2,000-year history of Christianity. The first split, of course, we all know from Eastern and Western churches in 1054. And the second, which is the split within Western Christianity, starting Oct. 31, so 500 years ago tomorrow,” Bishop Taylor emphasized in his homily.
Bishop Girlinghouse recalled the story of an older Catholic monsignor he met during a multi-faith wedding as a young pastor. The kindness and advice he gave has remained with him through his ministry: “Pastor, don’t ever get a preacher’s voice,” meaning a self-righteous attitude.
“When I think about what it means to be Lutherans and Roman Catholics together, I think of that monsignor and his kind wisdom and his deep faith and his acceptance of me,” Bishop Girlinghouse said. “It’s true there were probably all sorts of theological issues that would have divided us if we sat down and talked through those things … and yet when he looked at me he didn’t see any of those things. When he looked at me, he saw another child of God.”
Bishop Taylor pointed out how Lutherans and Catholics have been in dialogue for about 50 years, pointing to several documents including Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. He also pointed to Pope Francis’ participation with Bishop Munib A. Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, in an ecumenical prayer service in Lund, Sweden last year.
“As we all know, the following 450 years were a tragic time: first there were bitter religious wars and everybody thought they were on the right side; and then centuries of mutual disdain and incomprehension. Catholics today will tell you Martin Luther was right to call for reforms and eventually the Catholic Church did respond, especially with the Council of Trent, which corrected many areas of corruption and abuse within the life of the Church,” Bishop Taylor said.
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