A Protestant Minister’s Confession on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation _______________________________________________________________
The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will be observed on Tuesday, October 31st. This was the day in 1517 when Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, launched his part of Protestant Reformation by nailing a series of 95 theological statements to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, calling for the church to look closely at her life and faith and to make any changes necessary in order to be more thoroughly Biblical.
I am a Protestant Christian by conviction and practice. I believe that when the Bible takes the measure of the church’s life and faith, that the Church will of necessity be “reformed and constantly reforming.” But in this continuous process of reflection, repentance, and renewal, I believe that we who are Protestants have not always been gracious to, or completely honest about, the faith and practices of our Catholic mothers and fathers in history, or of our Catholic brothers and sisters in the church just down the street now.
At the summer 2005 School for Spiritual Directors that I attended at the Pecos Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico I was asked as a Protestant minister to share in a Service of Reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Abbot of that community. We both made brief statements about our history of false witness against the other, and then we offered prayers of confession for the ways that our spiritual tradition had sinned against the other.
In my own denominational tradition of not thinking that me and mine are the only Christians, but that we just want to be “Christians only,” few moments have had greater power than that evening at the monastery when “separated brethren” were reconciled and stood together in unity, if only for that brief moment in time. But that moment was enough to convince me that this is what God in Christ truly wants, and for which we who name Him as Lord must constantly strive. In the interest of that eagerness “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” to which we are called (Ephesians 4:3), I offer here my statement and prayer from that Service of Confession and Reconciliation at Pecos in 2005 as a way of building a bridge on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation when what so many will be talking and thinking about are the walls that divided us then, and that still keep us apart now. DBS +
A Reflection for the Ecumenical Service of Reconciliation
Pecos Benedictine Monastery ~ Summer 2005
In a class on the book of Revelation that I took when I was a student in Christian College in the early 1970’s I was shown photographs of the Vatican with all the Cardinals in their scarlet robes, and I was told that this was evidence that the Pope was the antichrist and that the Roman Catholic Church was the great harlot on the seven hills, Babylon, clothed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold and jewels (Revelation 17). In doing this, my professor was simply following the lead of one of the founders of my denomination, Alexander Campbell, who in 1837 debated Bishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio, on the spiritual claims of Roman Catholicism. Alexander Campbell argued seven propositions in his debate with Bishop Purcell –
1. Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church was not then, nor had it ever been “holy, catholic, or apostolic.”
As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I apologize for such an ignorant and arrogant suggestion, and affirm that as Catholics and Protestants together we are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
2. Alexander Campbell argued that the notion of apostolic succession has no Biblical, logical, or historical validity.
As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I apologize for the disrespect of such a statement and affirm that the preservation of apostolic Christianity by the episcopacy, the canon, and the creeds is a gift we all share and from which we all benefit.
3. Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church is neither uniform in faith nor united in membership.
As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I apologize for the way that this accusation was directed at you alone while completely ignoring the scandal of division within Protestantism, and I join you in praying for the unity of Christ’s whole church.
4. Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church was “the Babylon of John, the ‘Man of Sin’ in Paul, and the Empire of the Little Horn of Daniel’s Sea Monster.”
As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I recognize the fear and prejudice involved in such sectarian misinterpretations of the Bible’s prophetic symbols, and reject the way they have been used to demonize and dismiss you.
5. Alexander Campbell argued that many of the things that the Roman Catholic Church has taught – purgatory, indulgences, auricular confession, the priestly remission of sins, transubstantiation – are spiritually immoral and injurious.
As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I admit that we have often spoken against beliefs and practices that you hold sacred from our own ignorance and misunderstanding, and I pledge myself to loving dialogue about, rather than malicious mischaracterization of any matter of Christian faith and practice where our convictions and perspectives may vary.
6. Alexander Campbell argued that we Protestants have the Bible independent of the Roman Catholic Church’s stewardship of the written Word of God.
As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, and in contrast to his perspective, I gratefully acknowledge that the Bible I love so much as a Protestant was in fact placed in my hands by your faithful preservation, provision, and proclamation of its truths through the centuries, and as the lamp unto our feet, I pray that it will lead us into unity and truth.
7. And finally, Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to infallibility rendered it unsusceptible to reformation.
As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I bear witness to the way that the Word and the Spirit continue to work in and through our different churches – breaking down false barriers, healing old divisions, leading us to new understandings, creating common appreciation for shared truths, and drawing us even closer to that unity of the Body of Christ that is God’s gift and our calling.
A Prayer of Protestant Confession – John 17: 20-24
An Ecumenical Reconciliation Service
Pecos Benedictine Monastery ~ Summer 2005
O God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all; Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, prayed on the night before His atoning death on Calvary’s cross that we who would one day believe in Him through the word of His Apostles might be one so that the world could believe that You had sent Him. The unity of the church was to be the key to the effectiveness of our mission.
O God, forgive us.
We Protestants have been so preoccupied with out “protests” of Catholic teachings, Catholic practices, Catholic traditions and Catholic interpretations that we have neither heard nor heeded Christ’s simple prayer, to our spiritual impoverishment and to the world’s spiritual detriment. Our earnest proclamation of your unconditional love made visible and tangible in Jesus Christ has suffered a serious loss of credibility because of our mistrust of Catholic Christians and our misunderstanding of Catholic Christianity.
And so, tonight God, I confess as a representative Christian and churchman that we who are Protestants have sinned against the intention of Christ for the unity of His people by the things that we’ve thought, said and done to our Catholic brothers and sisters throughout the centuries.
- We’ve harbored uncharitable thoughts about the sincerity and spiritual sensibilities of our Catholic brothers and sisters’ devotion to You; Why, sometimes we’ve even gone so far as to wonder whether or not Catholics are even Christians!
O God, forgive us.
- We’ve publicly ridiculed Catholic traditions, maliciously mocked Catholic practices and openly questioned Catholic faithfulness.
O God, forgive us.
- And too many times these uncharitable thoughts and unkind words have issued in actions of hatred and violence entirely inconsistent with your loving kindness. We’ve desecrated Catholic sanctuaries; persecuted Catholic communities; martyred Catholic clergy and laity; and urged wars of religion using Scripture as our justification.
O God, forgive us.
Here tonight, in this place, with these people, Protestants and Catholics in loving community together, help us all to hear and heed the prayer of Jesus Christ our common Lord and Savior. Touch our heads and hearts to see that our unity as Your people is not going to come about by trying to convert the other to our own settled convictions and faithful practices, but rather will be the precious fruit of our common confession of Jesus Christ as Your only begotten Son, our only Lord and Savior, and by our common possession of Your indwelling and empowering Spirit, freely and fully given to us all.
On this mountain, in this hour, may we experience the genuine miracle of brothers and sisters, Protestants and Catholics, dwelling together in unity, and thereby, blessing the whole world as it is promised (Psalm 133). Let the world see us, and believe. We ask this Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, to your honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.