February 28 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

12-13 lutheran

A look at Lutheran links and the intricate politics of Christian denominations

Ecumenism, the policy of forging and strengthening links with other Christian churches, is again on the papal agenda, and Ross Ahlfeld has good reason to celebrate its renewal

Can you believe it’s 2020? The Millennium celebrations don’t seem like 20 years ago, it feels as if it was yesterday. Back then, I was spending more time at Scottish Socialist Party branch meetings than at Holy Mass; every Thursday night, five of us used to gather in a back room at the Greenock Arts Guild.

Meanwhile four lads from the rival Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party would be meeting in the room next door and sometimes a few of the old Tankies from the Socialist Labour Party would be in a room down the corridor (Tankie being used to describe Stalin-supporting comrades who looked kindly on the use of heavy armaments to subdue opponents).

Occasionally, the janitor would look in, shake his head and say: “Why don’t you lot just sort out your differences?”

Mother Church

These days, I’m completely out of the revolutionary Marxist scene and firmly back in the loving arms of Mother Church but sometimes I still think on my old comrades, especially when heading to Sunday Mass.

On the way down the hill, I pass our local Episcopal, Presbyterian, Evangelical and Baptist Churches, all with dwindling congregations much like our own, and I’m reminded of the SSP, SWP and SLP—tiny groups, all competing against each other, all saying pretty much the same thing to hardly anyone, like the ‘Peoples Front of Judaea’ from The Life of Brian (A film which I’ve always felt was more offensive to Socialists than Christians).

Papal visit

Neither does Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Glasgow seem like a whole decade ago and nor does it feel like exactly ten years ago last month since the now Emeritus Pope Benedict walked into the Christuskirche in Rome to worship there alongside the small Evangelical Lutheran Community who live within the Eternal City.

For many, this ecumenical gesture was an indicator of the Pope’s seriousness about reconciliation though, perhaps, this act of unity said more about Benedict’s desire to see smaller but more faithful churches finding more in common with each other and in doing so, become less like the aforementioned quarrelling Leftist factions.

Equally, we might give some consideration to the fact that Benedict’s openness to our Lutheran brothers and sisters is informed by his country of birth and the trauma of the Second World War. We’d also do well to keep these two aspects in mind when thinking about the contemporary debate in Germany on opening up communion to Lutherans whose spouses and families are Catholic.

Religious similarities

To be honest, I’ve always found Lutherans to be much like ourselves in that they have their hardliners, whose entire religious identity is rooted in opposition to, rather than in concert with, Rome. They also have their moderates who have managed to accommodate the Lutheran doctrine of ‘justification’ with a Catholic understanding of salvation, as laid out in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification from 1999 in which the two Communions agreed on the essential aspects of the doctrine of salvation and on the Church’s role within it.

The foundations for this agreement were established way back in the 1960s when the controversial dissident theologian Fr Hans Kung, in response to the famous Protestant theologian Karl Barth, stated that Luther had overreacted and that the differences between us were not fundamental or warranted a division. Barth, who was invited to attend the Second Vatican Council, agreed with Fr Kung’s conclusion.

It’s been said that Karl Barth had been hostile to Rome before Vatican II, whereas after the council he became less entrenched and more open to the entire ‘catholic’ Church beyond confessional boundaries. Like Fr Kung, Barth became convinced that our remaining differences were no longer matters of substance.

World federation

Like many people, I’ve always thought things might have turned out differently if Martin Luther had been at the Council of Trent, just as Barth was changed through his presence at Vatican II. We might have ended up with Lutherans in the Church alongside Benedictines, Franciscans, Augustinians and Dominicans. Either way, few of us now believe that separation was meant to be a rupture for all time.

Sure, many Catholics still consider Martin Luther to be a diabolic heretic who wrecked the Church. But, to be honest, I find it very difficult to think of all these decent Lutherans as apostates, even if that’s what many within the Wisconsin and Missouri Lutheran Synods think of us, some of whom even still identify the Pope as being the Anti-Christ.

Generally speaking, Lutherans aligned to the Lutheran World Federation tend to be more liberal and open to Catholics than Lutherans who belong to the more conservative International Lutheran Council. Yes, the Lutherans have their schisms, too.


The fact that some of them still consider our Holy Father to be the Anti-Christ is, of course, deeply shocking. Well, it’s only shocking until you remember that some of our own so-called ‘ultra-traditionalists’ frequently attack our own Pope Francis in much the same way, often employing equally offensive language; just as there are worrying numbers of baptised ‘liberal’ Catholics who don’t go to Confession or appear to hold to Church teaching on transubstantiation. Possibly, we should sort this problem out before worrying about denying Communion to those who adhere to consubstantiation (a distinction in Eucharistic understanding which very few of us ordinary Catholics or Protestants might profess to even understand).

Indeed, I have met Lutherans who accept everything the Church teaches and appear to be in a better state of grace to worthily (and validly) receive the Host, apparently more so than some dissenting baptised Catholics who regularly receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

Lutheran Church

Nonetheless, it’s still tough for me to think of Lutherans as somehow demonic, especially since they are essentially my own people: my great, great grandfather Berdhardt-Diedrich Ahlfeld was baptised in the Lutheran church in the village of Lemwerder and in my own travels through Germany I’ve only ever encountered hospitality and fellowship from Lutheran Christians from Bremen to Lubeck.

Or to put it another way, our attitude to other denominations must always be inspired by the application of Catholic personalism, which requires us to think of our neighbours not as a collective, but rather as individuals.

Consider, for example, someone like the life-affirming Liverpool FC manager Jurgen Klopp, a Lutheran, self-confessed Leftist and high priest of ‘Gegenpressing’ the exciting pressing football tactic aimed at immediately winning possession back. What’s not to like?


It’s also worth nothing that in Germany, Lutherans and Catholics share a political party in the CDU and they even share churches in places like Bautzen in Saxony for example, where St Peter’s Cathedral has been shared since 1530.

Moreso, to understand ecumenism in Germany, we have to take into account Germany’s turbulent history. For example, as early as 1861, Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler of Mainz forcefully advocated for reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans in Germany through the establishment of a prayer society for the Reunion of Christendom called Ut Omnes Unum, ‘that all may be one’.

Yet, von Ketteler wasn’t what you might describe as a woolly ecumenist or modernist, rather the Bishop was what kids these days call an ‘Old Skool’ traddie-aristo and hardline opponent of Bismark’s Kulturkampf against the Church in Germany.

The Nazis

However, the real moment of change came in 1940 when the great figure of the German resistance Cardinal Konrad Von Preysing of Berlin insisted that prayers at Sunday Mass be offered for 30 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Confessing Church’ Pastors who had been arrested by the Nazis.

It might seem odd that a Catholic Cardinal would call for prayers for Protestant clergy in Catholic Churches across the country but systematic persecution often has a way of rapidly accelerating both solidarity and ecumenism.

This sense of unity was reinforced during the worst excesses of Nazi tyranny when, in 1943, three Catholic priests and a Lutheran Pastor, known as the Lübeck Martyrs, were beheaded together. It’s said that their blood ran from the guillotine and mingled on the ground and for many; the Sacramental aspect to this image of brutality came to symbolise the awakening of a new spirit of ecumenism.

The overtures towards unity weren’t all on our side, the ‘Bund für evangelisch-katholische Wiedervereinigung’ (League for Evangelical-Catholic Reunion) created by the Lutheran Pastor Max Lackmann, another clergyman whose ecumenism was forged in the Priest-Block of Dachau concentration camp, sought to form a separate Lutheran Church, analogous to the Ukrainian-Byzantine Churches, in communion with Rome. There was also the Catholic-Lutheran St Jakobus Brotherhood, the Brotherhood of St Michael and also F. Max Josef Metzger’s Una Sancta Brotherhood.


Sure, I understand concerns about us casually abandoning the catechism and watering down the truth in the name of pragmatism. Yes, we do not want to belong to a Church which deals in what Bonhoeffer describes as ‘Cheap Grace’—a Church without discipline which allows you do whatever you want, whenever you like.

None of us wish to see the Holy Sacrament lose its true consecrated and sacrificial nature, being reduced to merely a meal of bread shared among us as a symbol of fellowship: it is, was and always will be the Body of Christ.

However, the German bishops have made it clear that the Protestant spouse must share a Catholic understanding of Jesus Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. This opening of communion would only be for inter-denominational married couples who share a very strong spiritual need to receive the Eucharist together.

Amoris laetitia

You might well ask why these Lutherans within Catholic families don’t just convert if they already believe everything we teach but as we all know, families are complicated and this is about embracing the call to mercy laid out in Amoris Laetitia.

Finally, if my days as a teenage militant have taught me anything then it’s that people don’t trust ‘Entryists,’ they consider them to be untrustworthy. This probably explains why the faithful responded so badly to theologians like Hans Kung’s ‘This time we’re not leaving’ attitude to Vatican II, which framed the Council as another Reformation.

This type of stance sounded too much like political entryism, it was seen as unhelpful towards our efforts to build trust and overcome deep-rooted suspicions. Yet, on reflection, was it really such a divisive approach? Were progressive Church scholars such as Kung perhaps simply saying that whatever happens, we’re resisting the scandal of division?

Regardless, as we move towards intercommunion, it’s ironic to think Kung’s old adversary Benedict’s slow-paced approach to unity might prove more fruitful than Kung’s polemics. As Benedict’s most outspoken critic, Kung once attacked the Pope for failing to accept other denominations as being ‘churches’ in any proper sense, but as Benedict stated in the Christuskirche in 2010: “There is only one Christ, whom we behold together.”

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