National Magazine of the Lutheran Church of Australia

Talking together bears good fruit

October 2017

Five centuries after the Reformation, how do the Lutheran and Catholic churches get along today? What has been achieved by working together since inter-church dialogue between the two began in Australia in the mid–1970s? We asked the dialogue team’s Lutheran and Catholic co-chairs – Rev Dr Stephen Hultgren, from Australian Lutheran College, and Rev Dr Gerard Kelly, of the Catholic Institute of Sydney – for their thoughts.

What has changed in the relationship between the two churches in Australia?

Rev Dr Gerard Kelly: The major change has been that we have moved from a situation of suspicion and hostility to one of friendliness. Rather than focus on what divides us, we are now more aware of what unites us. This becomes the starting point for engagement with each other.

There is much more contact than previously between members of our churches at all levels. There is a greater sense of trust of each other and a willingness to work together in addressing significant social issues. Our two churches have also grown in mutual understanding.

What have been the major achievements since dialogue began?

Rev Dr Stephen Hultgren: The dialogue has covered a number of important topics, including baptism, Eucharist (the Lord’s supper), the ministry, the church, justification, the ministry of oversight (bishops), Scripture and tradition, and the papacy (Petrine ministry).

Undoubtedly the most noteworthy milestone in the dialogue has been on the topic of justification. The Common Statement on Justification in 1999 stated: ‘Lutherans and Roman Catholics together see justification as God’s free and saving action in Christ whereby our sin is forgiven and we are both declared and made righteous. Together we confess that it is solely by grace and through faith that we are justified and not through our own merits. Together we say that justification cannot be separated from regeneration, sanctification, and the renewal of our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Together we affirm that justification, or salvation in Christ, is central and normative to our Christian faith’. This statement barely preceded the 1999 signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.

Ecumenical dialogue takes hard work, patience, and a spirit of goodwill towards the dialogue partner. The dialogue in Australia has borne good fruit, and we pray for God’s continued blessing on this endeavour, so that, as Jesus prayed, his followers might be one (John 17:21).

GK: The body of work produced by the dialogue is a remarkable achievement. Matters that were at the heart of the division of the 16th century are now seen in a different light. Sometimes we have cleared up misunderstandings. But more importantly, we recognise that both our churches have continued the process of reform and renewal, and this means that we address those divisive questions in a new way.

A further achievement is that the dialogue has not simply remained the preserve of a small group of theologians. The results have been slowly filtering down into church life more broadly. For example, I as a Catholic have a much deeper appreciation of the doctrine of justification and have become more aware of the place it has in my own church.

At another level, the results of the dialogue have also been able to play a role in helping our respective churches make decisions about the internal life of the church. This is what people today call ‘receptive ecumenism’ – we learn from each other.
There is one other achievement I should mention: we are now able to be frank with each when the relationship between our churches runs into difficulties. This is possible because there are genuine friendships among us.