Lutheran Federation Leader on Ecumenism

Interview With Bishop Mark Hanson, in Wake of Papal Audience

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ROME, NOV. 9, 2005 ( After his Monday meeting with Benedict XVI, Bishop Mark Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation, spoke to ZENIT about the points that unite Lutherans and Catholics and the questions that continue to divide them.

Q: In his address to you, the Pope called for “patient dialogue” on the ecumenical path. Do you think this dialogue is “impatient” at times?

Bishop Hanson: I think often the laity are more impatient than the theologians. I think theologians recognize the great progress we have made, and the seriousness of the questions that remain before us.

But I think in the world today there is what Cardinal Kasper often calls an ecumenism of life, a spirituality of ecumenism, where lay people are praying together, reading Scripture together, engaging in common work in the world and, in the United States, we often see Lutherans and Catholics marrying one another and I believe they long to share the Eucharist together, as I do.

I think we all have that as our commitment: Until we are fully one in the Eucharist, we will not be one as Christ has made us one.

I think both of us recognize that there are serious theological issues left. Unlike Catholics, we Lutherans often enter into eucharistic sharing before we have all our theological disagreements resolved, because we believe that sharing the Eucharist helps us to become one rather than it being simply a reward at the end of discussions. … In the United States we are now entering into a eucharistic sharing with the United Methodist Church: We all share Holy Communion together although we are not yet fully in communion.

But this would not be the case with Catholics and I can understand why. I believe that, in his message to me and also when he was in Germany, Pope Benedict XVI said that we must not let the institutional issues that divide us become so important that we lose sight of the Word of God that fills both the Church and the world with the presence of God. I think that was a very helpful word, so that we will be mindful of the sovereignty of the Word of God, both in the Church and in the world.

Six years ago the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. That was a major milestone and we want to make sure that agreement continues to live in our churches and we also spoke about that with the Pope.

Q: Is ecumenical dialogue easy for you in your everyday life?

Bishop Hanson: For me, as a presiding bishop of a large church, it is. I lead the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is the largest Lutheran church in America.

We are very committed to our ecumenical relationships, we have faithful communion partners, we are consistently and continually affirming our ecumenical commitments, so it is very important for me.

I think there is the ecumenism of the ecclesial relationship, as churches to churches. It means we must address theological issues, and always seek ways to deepen our unity but never by dismissing our differences.

As Cardinal Kasper says, I also think there is an ecumenism of life that the laity share — that is, of the grass roots — and I believe there is also what I would call missionary ecumenism, namely, Christians working together in the world.

For instance, I went down after Hurricane Katrina and witnessed the devastation. A Christian there said to me: “The winds of the hurricane not only destroyed our homes and revealed to the world that there is poverty in America, but they also blew away our differences as Christians so that, in response to the hurricane, we are one, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians … because we need to be one in order to rebuild our lives and communities.”

I think there are many issues in the world where we need to be one, such as responding to poverty in the face of wealth; advocating human rights; and caring for creation.

What I see all over the world as I travel is that not only Christians are coming together, but Christians, Jews and Muslims are also coming together around three issues: ending hunger, reducing poverty and caring for creation.

These are the converging issues for people of faith in the world today.

In June, we had 43 different religious leaders come to Washington, D.C. We joined together in a common commitment to end hunger in the world. I think it is a powerful sign that we do not deny our differences, but come together for the sake of humanity and creation.

Q: Do you think that traditional Protestant churches are less vital than the new communities growing in the States as well as in Latin America and other places?

Bishop Hanson: That phenomenon certainly exists. [Among] the growing edges of the Christian church in the United States are non-denominational churches. There are community churches that are growing very rapidly.

They have a liturgical style that is not oriented to the sacraments but much more to singing hymns of praise and preaching. Although very informal, they are very attractive especially to suburban families with children whose lives are very hectic and who are often put off by more formal religious traditions.

As Lutherans, we struggle with the question of how to be faithful to the tradition of our liturgical life while also acknowledging that we live in a very different time and place.

I think this is often true for Lutherans in the world. Recently, when I was in west Africa, and also in Chile and Brazil, Lutherans were saying that many of them are leaving our church and becoming Pentecostals, charismatics, in part because of the way we worship. Therefore, I think we have to ask ourselves how we can be relevant in the contemporary context while not forsaking what we understand ourselves to be.

I think there are two issues pulling at both Catholics and Lutherans in the world: secularism on the one hand, which is more apparent in Europe; and fundamentalism, on the other. We have to talk about how we must respond to both.

Secularism finally tries to convince me I am the center of the world and my primary concerns should be to enjoy myself and consume, as there is no life beyond me.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tries to offer a different answer: a very rigid existence that focuses on life beyond. I think both Lutherans and Catholics can offer an alternative.

Q: What is the main reason for continued division between Lutherans and Catholics?

Bishop Hanson: I think it is the way we understand the church and ministry because until we resolve the theological questions about our understanding of the church and ministry we will not get to share the Eucharist together and those are not easy questions.

We made great progress on justification, which I think gave us courage. I think some Lutherans especially thought that once we signed the Declaration on the Doctrine on Justification we would quickly have eucharistic sharing. We now know that is not going to happen. Although we have a degree of agreement on a question that should no longer divide us, we do not have complete agreement.

And I would hope we could bring that concept to our conversations on the Eucharist because, as I mentioned to Pope Benedict, both Lutherans and Catholics speak differently about the Eucharist. We both believe that Christ is present in the bread and wine and throughout the world and that is a very significant agreement. We now need to talk more about what and who makes Christ present in the Eucharist and that is where we run into differences.

I think Pope Benedict XVI is right to keep calling us to the Word of God and to the world and to witness.

We must address the issues of poverty and human rights. When I was here two years ago and met with Pope John Paul II, it was two days after the war with Iraq had started and both, united, we’ve spoken very forthrightly in opposition to that war. As
religious leaders we must continue to speak out in response to war and violence.

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