Local Christian leaders celebrate anniversary of landmark agreement on road to unity

Christian leaders in Edmonton are celebrating the 20th anniversary of a landmark agreement between the Catholic and Lutheran churches on what had been a fractious point of doctrine and an outstanding issue for more than 500 years since the Protestant Reformation.

In essence, the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, states that the churches share a common understanding that by God’s grace alone – and not because of any merit on our part – we receive salvation.

While many differences still exist between the Catholic and Protestant churches, experts say, they are celebrating agreement on this doctrinal point – one the Catholic Church had lost sight of, according to Martin Luther, leading to the 16th-century Reformation that split its unity.

The agreement, controversial at the time with some Catholics and Lutherans opposing it, was subsequently signed by leaders of the World Methodist Council (in Canada, the United Church), the Anglican Consultative Council, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. It now represents 75 per cent of the world’s Christians, including an estimated 1.1 billion Catholics. However, its implications and effects are still being worked out.

Edmonton leaders of those denominations celebrated the anniversary of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) at an ecumenical event Nov. 3, and offered insight into it as a stepping stone to Christian unity.

Rev. Gordon Jensen, a Lutheran theologian, called the 1999 agreement a breakthrough.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

“It’s a celebration of what was signed 20 years ago which was, I think, a breakthrough in many ways even though it doesn’t seem that way,” said Rev. Gordon Jensen, the academic dean at Luther Theological Seminary in Saskatoon and the guest speaker at the Edmonton event.

“It’s one of those parts of the iceberg under the water that has really developed.”

Prof. Indre Cuplinskas

The landmark agreement was signed after decades of ecumenical dialogue starting in 1960s after the Second Vatican Council.

“It’s a big point because it’s at the heart of that disagreement. We haven’t sorted out all of the implications of it. If you don’t agree on that core bit, then you can’t move on to the other stuff,” said Indre Cuplinskas, a professor of Catholic and Christian history at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta.

“What’s impressive is the work that Lutherans and Catholics did 20 years ago, and all the work leading up to that, has borne fruit for so many other Christian churches,” said Cuplinskas, a member of the Edmonton Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue group.

While the agreement is 20 years old, the World Communion of Reformed Churches signed it just in 2017.

Jim Joose is a leader in the Christian Reformed Church of North America.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

“We cherish the reality that what was once used to divide the church, now brings us closer,” said Jim Joose, an Edmonton member of the ecumenical relations committee of the Christian Reformed Church of North America.

A key tool in achieving it, Jensen said, was the concept of “differentiated consensus,” where denominational leaders have basic agreement on the big picture even if they retain some different perspectives.

“I think we’re past the era of ecumenism where we insist on everybody using the exact same words and meaning the exact same things by those words. I think that’s just a dead-end road.”

Critics say the document should not have been signed in the first place because Catholics and Lutherans didn’t have complete agreement on justification, Jensen said. “But the authors of the document always felt that the consensus was reached on some of the basics, not on every little dot and iota.

“You only work those out as you travel along the way,” he said.

Lutheran Bishop Larry Kochendorfer of Alberta and the Northwest Territories said the JDDJ is “a very good illustration that we’re all on the same page, which is pretty important, but that we can look at things differently too.”

“We’re not in agreement on lots of things yet. But certainly on that fundamental piece, we are.”

Lutheran Bishop Larry Kochendorfer said the JDDJ illustrates Christian leaders are on the same page.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

City faith leaders say the agreement does not mean that all the differences that divided the Church in the 16the century during and after the Protestant Reformation have been resolved.

Looming questions remain over ministry, ordination, the sacraments – including the Eucharist itself – as well as the rosary, novenas and other elements of Catholic spiritual life.

However, the Joint Declaration signals a “rapprochement” between Catholics and Protestants.

“In the 16th century, Christians holding to their respective positions had a tendency to proclaim those ways of understanding without particularly listening to each other,” said Julien Hammond, the coordinator of interreligious and ecumenical relations for the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

“Maybe what we’re doing a better job of, today, is hearing the perspective of the other.”

With the Joint Declaration, “a certain foundational level of trust has been developed. It’s something that we can build on,” Jensen explained. “We can always come back to this agreement and say, ‘We agree on this. How can we develop this further to see new possibilities?’”

From the Catholic perspective, “it’s important to know that these churches are in dialogue at that high level. The church leadership is seeking ways to have dialogue and to agree upon things. In some ways we can’t imagine what greater unity is going to look like exactly. We have to leave it a little bit open.”

About 60 people attended the ecumenical service at St. Matthias Anglican Church.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

Faith leaders also say the Joint Declaration is a stepping stone towards Christian unity. Catholic and Lutheran leaders are continuing high-level dialogue, focusing on the Eucharist.

“One church as a movement of God’s grace,” Jensen called it. “Whether it would be folded into one institutional church, I’m not sure that would happen but I think it’s a very, very long-range possibility – something we should always be striving for. If the world sees us fighting and scrapping over everything, why would they want to be a part of any of our churches?”

Bishop Kochendorfer said further agreement remains to be seen. But at this point in the shared history, Lutherans and Catholics are celebrating a consensus on what had been big point of contention.

“It’s a reminder that God continues to call us to unity,” Bishop Kochendorfer said. “This is a huge step in that process. We have a long way to go, but we have come a long way as well. It’s very, very significant that we could be in conversation together, that we could move forward particularly on this issue of justification.”