Even in the most loving family, some members can go their separate ways. As heartbreaking as that may be, you always remain family.
It was the enduring connections within the Christian family that were celebrated in a joint Lutheran and Catholic prayer service Oct. 30, a day before the 500th anniversary of perhaps the biggest family split in history, the Protestant Reformation. The movement was sparked in 1517 by Martin Luther, a 16th-century monk who was eventually excommunicated as a heretic by the Catholic Church over his challenge to its teachings and practices.
“It’s more than an analogy; we are a real family,” said Archbishop Richard Smith, who presided alongside his Lutheran counterpart at a service hosted by the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton at All Saints Cathedral.
“We are the family of God, a family whose members, sadly, have gone their separate ways over some pretty serious divergence in understanding of the truth, the truth that has been given to us by Christ, left to the Apostles and handed on down through the centuries of the Church.”
Bishop Larry Kochendorfer of the Lutheran Synod of Alberta and the Territories agreed.
“We haven’t been united as Christ calls us to be,” he said. “In fact, there have been hateful actions, and there has been turmoil and pain within the Church.”
Those differences led to centuries of division, war and violence, and the Edmonton prayer service focused on repentance and greater unity among Christians. The local leaders used the same ecumenical liturgy used by Pope Francis and world Lutheran leaders during the Holy Father’s historic visit to Sweden last year.
The service included a Common Prayer, a joint Catholic and Lutheran choir led the singing, and both Archbishop Smith and Bishop Kochendorfer preached.
Along with Anglican Bishop Jane Alexander, the bishops also signed a formal agreement to continue to work together on issues of homelessness and poverty, as well as on prayer and discipleship.
“There’s great power in saying that we are family, because many people will talk about us as different denominations as if we weren’t even cousins,” said Bishop Alexander. “First and foremost, we’re Christians.”
Those attending had similar sentiments.
“It’s good. We need more reasons for people of different faith backgrounds to be together than apart, particularly in these times,” said Catherine Bereznicki, a Catholic who attended the service with her mother, who sang in the choir.
“It’s neat to see how we’ve moved over the last 500 years, moved together instead of apart,” said Colleen Vogel, a Lutheran member of the choir along with her husband Mark.
“We celebrate coming together in whatever way we can.”
Of Catholic and Lutheran churches, Mark Vogel said, “We’re shedding the animosity and finding similarities. And that’s a slow process. It won’t happen in our lifetime probably.”
The joint service was not without controversy. Some critics on social media questioned why the Catholic Church would mark the historic split, calling it “horrible” and a “celebration of a divorce.”
Archbishop Smith called that a misunderstanding of the event.
“We are commemorating the Reformation,” he said. “I don’t think there would be any Christian, Catholic or otherwise, that would celebrate the disunity of the Church and the divisions that are in the Church. It’s not something to celebrate. It’s something for which we repent. We do not celebrate that. We need to learn from it and grow from it.”
He noted that “everyone recognizes, from the Holy Father on down, the need to commemorate it so that we take another look at it, learn from it, and from that learning discern together how we can move forward to heal the division even better.”
In the Catholic Church, Archbishop Smith noted that Pope Francis’ meeting with Lutheran leaders was a continuation of ecumenical efforts by his predecessors, especially since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Nevertheless, there remain substantial theological differences within the Christian family. In the Anglican and Catholic churches, Bishop Alexander cited the ordination of women. Archbishop Smith cited the differences with other Christian faiths in the celebration and understanding of the Eucharist.
“We cannot gloss over differences. The differences remain substantial to the point that we are not able to celebrate the Eucharist in common,” Archbishop Smith said. “There is no thought in any mind of the Catholic Church to be changing our doctrines. I mean, truth is truth.”
Faith leaders have agreed to further cooperation and dialogue, and while Bishop Alexander is not sure where that will lead, the fact that it’s happening can only be healthy.
“We’re seeing ways in which the Church can continue to grow and change,” she said. “Ideally, we are one in Christ and we recognize the oneness in Christ. But unity in Christ does not mean uniformity.”
And Archbishop Smith noted that, at this point, Christian unity remains undefined.
“What that will look like, when this will all take place, it’s all in God’s design.”