Thursday, 17 December 2009
Home to Rome?
I recently posted the quote below over at ‘What Sasse Said’. It is taken from a lecture Sasse gave to an evangelical student organization, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, in my hometown of Brisbane, Queensland in 1967. Writing just two years after the conclusion of Vatican II, Sasse is reflecting on what Rome’s entry into the ecumenical movement, signalled at Vatican II, means for Christendom. At the present time, when the currency of ecumenism has been devalued, it is helpful to place Sasse’s comments in context, and note that at the time of this lecture the movement still held some promise, particularly with Rome’s entry, albeit on its own terms.
Sasse, like many confessional Lutherans, remained ambivalent about the movement. On the one hand, history and politics had determined that the Lutherans had always been engaged with the Reformed on one side and Rome on the other, particularly in Germany, but the advent of the ecumenical movement meant that now this engagement could take place through dialogue rather than polemics, a refreshing development for many. On the other hand, especially from his visit to the US in the early 1920s and his familiarity with Anglicanism, Sasse knew the danger to the Gospel from a ‘lowest common denominator’ attitude towards doctrine. Rome at least took doctrine seriously, unlike the Anglicans, for whom it often appeared to be nothing more than a troublesome hindrance to unity under an episcopacy in the apostolic succession, something to be agreed upon speedily in the broadest possible terms so that the real business of church polity could be discussed.
Here’s the quote, followed by my take on the interesting recent developments vis a vis Rome and ecumenism:
“[The] entry of Rome into the Ecumenical Movement of our time has completely changed the ecumenical situation. We are all now no longer confronted only with the Anglican concept of a future Re-united Church, based on that minimum of doctrine which East and West, Catholicism and Protestantism have in common, and with the concept of church unity that underlies the World Council of Churches. These concepts presuppose that Rome would eventually give up her claims and cease to be Roman. We are now confronted with a plan for reunion in an ecumenical church in which all churches, without giving up any of the treasures each of them possesses, but spiritually and theologically renewed and enriched by what they can mutually accept, would come together under the renewed office of the supreme shepherd of all Christians, who would rule the Universal Church together with the universal college of bishops. The advantage of the Roman plan over those of Canterbury-Lambeth and Geneva is its feasibility. It would include Rome in the process of reunion which could never reach its goal as long as the largest church of Christendom remained outside.”
From Holy Church or Holy Writ? The 1967 Inter-Varsity Fellowship Annual Lecture in Queensland.
There has been a lot of water under the bridge since Sasse uttered those words from a lecture podium in Brisbane, casting his mind and those of his hearers across the world (and across the Tiber!) to Rome. Sasse was speaking amidst the first flush of optimism that the entry of Rome into the ecumenical movement at Vatican II brought. To put this quote and this lecture into perspective, it should be remembered that this attitude of openness to the possibility of rapprochement between the churches was a complete reversal of the isolationism that Rome maintained for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. It can reasonably be said that much of the promise that this development contained has failed to come to fruition. While dialogue has contributed to the removal of caricatures and increased mutual understanding, the actual goal of reunion presently seems as far off as ever.
Indeed, it might be observed that there is presently an intra-Roman struggle to define Rome's stance towards ecumenical engagement, with Cardinal Kasper representing the optimism of Vatican II and Pope Benedict XVI representing a repristination of the Roman conservatism of the past, albeit with a radical face: witness the special provisions for Traditional Anglicans announced in 2009, which seems like a new, Western 'uniatism' parallel to Rome's Eastern uniate churches.
To what extent does this now represent Rome's future approach to ecumenical engagement, that is, not to seek communion with, so much as absorption of the orthodox remnants of Protestantism? (Who shall be victorious in this struggle, Kasper or Ratzinger? I suggest we shall not know the outcome until the election of the next Pope.)
Which brings us to the observation that it is the moral and doctrinal disarray of Anglicanism and much of Protestantism which explains Rome's shift; it can now position itself as a 'rock' (petra!) of stability in comparison with the shifting sands of Protestantism, and turn its eyes towards reunion with the Orthodox East, recently liberated from the shackles of communism (yes, I realise this liberation happened twenty years ago this year, but twenty years is but the blink of an eye in ecclesiastical history).
What is the confessional Lutheran answer to the questions these developments propose to us today, forty years after Sasse delivered this lecture? Some Lutherans are open to the 'uniate' option offered to Traditional Anglicans, seeing it as a lifeboat in which to escape the sinking ship of Protestantism. Where once the cry of Lutherans was ‘Away from Rome!’ (the German Lutheran equivalent to English Protestantism’s ‘No Popery!’), now the cry on the lips of some of the Lutheran Church’s best and brightest seems to be ‘Home to Rome!’ (In fact, Sasse’s own son, Hans, who studied for the Lutheran ministry, later converted to Rome, being led in that direction through reading the journal of the American Lutheran liturgical movement, Una Sancta ).
But does not the return to Rome necessitate the sacrifice of conscience? Even if one may, for argument's sake, judge that the church divisive issue of justification, the central question of the reformation, has been resolved by the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, what of the doctrines Rome has promulgated since the Reformation? How do Lutheran pastors and theologians who rightly question the role of private revelations in Pentecostalism subscribe so readily to the new revelations granted to the Papacy?
What is a confessional Lutheran to do if his own church, adrift on the sea of post-modernity without ballast or anchor, begins to sink? Go home to Rome? Check ‘What Sasse Said’ for Sasse's answer to these questions, as the remainder of the lecture, in edited form, is posted there (link in sidebar) over the coming weeks.