Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reformation Sunday—From Both Sides Now

Religion seems to be on many minds recently. Lots of punditry about the Pope beckoning to disgruntled Anglicans to “come on over, it’s easy,” the best of which is A. N. Wilson in the NY Times. Maureen Dowd has written another one of her “gotcha” columns about the Catholic Church, which isn’t very hard to do. This time about a two-year Vatican official inquiry into the "quality of life" of those religious in apostolic life, "actively engaged in service to Church and society," a.k.a. nuns. The other shoe dropped this past summer when it was confirmed that “the Vatican-sponsored effort will involve an examination of ‘the soundness of doctrine held and taught’ by the women.” [National Catholic Reporter]

The inquiry itself is not treating the religious as second-class citizens, Dowd’s phrase, as much as a review of their life and service to the Church as measured against Church doctrine. I see it more as a control move, but not unreasonably sinister. When a woman joins a Roman Catholic religious order, it’s clear what the policies of that institution are. It’s not unreasonable for the Home Office to occasionally audit its outposts.

Now, whether the Home Office is just, and wise and Christ-like is an entirely different question. Through the centuries many have thought not. One particular individual who held this view was Martin Luther. He was a priest and a monk who believed the Home Office had gone so far astray that he had to demand an immediate change in business as usual. When that didn’t happen, he protested his way to a Reformation movement that begat Protestantism.

The irony that Christianity splintered into multiple sects is profound to me. Christ said of Peter, “upon this rock I build my church” and humans couldn’t keep even that one simple idea intact. So what hope, really, was there for the complicated things?

Marty and Me
Perhaps moreso than many cradle Catholics, I was aware of Lutherans from an early age because my mother was a Lutheran before her marriage and conversion to Catholicism. As I sat next to her at Mass, she would whisper to me, “this is a Protestant hymn,” and so I became aware of the distinctions. As kids we slowly understood that one of our grandmothers wasn’t an Irish Catholic!

Many years later I followed the talented Gwen Toth from St. Francisi of Assisi, where she was music director for almost 2 decades, to Immanuel Lutheran, her new post. And that’s how I became involved with Reformation Sunday.

Today as part of Immanuel Lutheran’s festivities Gwen programmed a concert of all German music, including the only motet Luther ever wrote, as well as Reformation era composers like Ludwig Senfle (“Das Gelaeutz zu Speyer,” music painting the bells of the famous cathedral there) and Johann Schein, “Was betruebst, du dich meine Seele.” The concert came off well, and I found it very moving to be participating. People have died horribly, needlessly, for the differences between Catholic and Protestant, but for at least this Sunday afternoon, musicians were coming together to create exquisite music. And the talented players were bringing to life old period instruments, such as the cornetto, dulcian, theorbo, violone, viola de gamba; an interesting sight at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

There are of course theological issues betweens the sects. It seems that Luther himself believed in the True Presence, but he was basically out-voted on that by the theologians he surrounded himself with. The theology of Justification separates the two sects: basically, Marty’s people believe that faith alone will be enough for God’s grace to grant your soul salvation; for RC’s, it must be faith combined with good acts---that you must actively participate in your personal salvation, along with faith. This is the tenth anniversary of the Vatican signing a “Join Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” with the Lutheran World Federation in a gesture to try to bridge the schism.

Thank God people have stopped killing each other over the differences, even, for the most part, in Northern Ireland. Of course the killing was actually about the economic and political attachments to the sects, and the less easy to define cultural sensibility of the two sides.

Still, when I think about the pain Christians have heaped upon each other over the centuries (and yes, upon peoples of all faiths and no faiths), I wish that this bumper sticker would come true:

“Stop fighting. Don’t make me come down there again.” JC