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3 traditions celebrate historic agreement, spirit of unity

Methodist, Catholic and Lutheran leaders recess following the celebration of an historic agreement on justification by faith at Old St. Patrick Church in Chicago. A UMNS photo by John Brooks, ELCA News Service.

By David Briggs*
Oct. 2, 2009 | CHICAGO (UMNS)

In joyful embraces, spirit-filled hymns and common prayer, Methodists, Catholics and Lutherans marked the end of centuries of division over a central doctrine of faith by vowing to move toward greater unity.

The celebration of an historic agreement on justification by faith, or how individuals are forgiven and brought into a right relationship with God, began with a colorful opening procession in which robed leaders of the three historic Christian traditions walked side by side.

United Methodist Bishop Gregory V. Palmer (left) joins the Revs. Ishmael Noko (center) of the Lutheran World Federation and Michael Kinnamon of the National Council of Churches during the celebration. A UMNS photo by John Brooks, ELCA News Service.

The professions of unity continued through a rousing finale, as hundreds gathered Oct. 1 in Chicago’s oldest church building for a service of thanksgiving and sang together with fervor, “We are marching in the light of God.”

Participants broke out in spontaneous applause at the end. Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, said in reflection, “For me, the heart of God, I trust, found some delight in us tonight.”

In a pew in the back, the Rev. Phil Blackwell, pastor of First United Methodist Church-The Chicago Temple, also sensed the Holy Spirit in Old St. Patrick Church, as Methodists, Catholics and Lutherans affirmed their common Christianity against a history of centuries of theological battles.

“We don’t go backward from this,” Blackwell said.

A ‘milestone’ in Christian history

The Rev. Ishmael Noko, top staff executive of the Lutheran World Federation, said during the service that the agreement on justification by faith, first reached by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, was “one of the major ecumenical milestones in the life of the church.”

The agreement, made possible by nearly 35 years of dialogue, voided standing condemnations dating back to the 16th century. Justification by faith was at the heart of the Reformation, with Lutherans emphasizing justification as a divine gift given human beings through no merit of their own. Catholics, and later Methodists, also emphasized the free will of human beings to accept or reject God’s gift, and the responsibility of believers to do works of piety and mercy.

In reaching their historic consensus, the Lutheran-Catholic agreement stated: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”

The World Methodist Council, which includes The United Methodist Church, accepted an invitation to join in the agreement. After years of conversation, the World Methodist Council in 2006 declared its fundamental doctrinal agreement with the Catholic-Lutheran pact.

Leaders at the service vowed to
move toward greater unity.
A UMNS photo by Ed Hiestand.

At the service Oct. 1, Noko gave special praise to the Methodist action, since the tradition did not have to undo centuries of conflict as Lutherans and Catholics did.

The Methodists, Noko said, acted “for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

In the opening procession, Palmer, along with United Methodist Bishops Sharon Zimmerman Rader, ecumenical officer for the bishops, and Hee-Soo Jung of Chicago, marched along the white marble center aisle with eight other international dignitaries. The group included Noko, Catholic Cardinals William Keeler and Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

All three United Methodist bishops offered prayers of intercession, leading the gathering in petitions for peace within the human family, the healing of the Earth, and collaboration among the churches in redressing social ills for the poor and downtrodden.

Rader said she could not have imagined such a Protestant-Catholic service as a child. For her, the event brought home the importance of holding Christ in the center of ecumenical relations.

“There will not be true peace,” she said afterward, “until we find the unity that is already ours.”

A challenging road ahead

No speaker said the path to greater unity would be easy.

In a homily, Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta said the recent decision by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to permit noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy “poses a serious challenge to our relationship.”

He called for more prayer to help heal new conflicts and provide opportunities for the churches to grow in unity.

In the service’s concluding address, Noko made an appeal to “let us go forward in this journey even if there are difficulties.”

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By the year 2024, Noko said, people should not be asking what the agreement on justification among Methodists, Catholics and Lutherans achieved.

Instead, he said, “Let them say, ‘Alleluia. Wow!’”

For its part, The United Methodist Church is committed to seeking Christian unity, Palmer said.

“God honors the effort we make, making the church whole and the body of Christ whole in the world,” he said. “For United Methodists, working across the barriers and the partitions is a part of who we are. It’s a part of our DNA.”

*Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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