President of the Lutheran World Federation Bishop Munib Younan and Pope Francis attending an ecumenical event at the Malmo Arena on October 31, 2016 in Malmo, Sweden. PHOTO| AFP

Published & Copyright by Nation Media , Saturday November 4 2017

If you have attended a wedding or funeral service in a Catholic church, you might have heard the priest’s announcement that Holy Communion was reserved for those prepared for it.

A friend of mine likes to compare this to inviting guests to your home and when the table is laid, telling them that the food is only for family members.

At a rare discussion in Nairobi last week, titled: "Luther, Reformer of the Catholic Church?” Dominican priest Kevin Kraft proffered a titillating response to the criticism, which left his audience in stitches. He likened giving communion to non-Catholics to endorsing premarital sex: “We know that sexual relations are a beautiful thing, a gift of God; but before marriage, there is not yet a covenant.”

 

Projecting Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, Fr Kevin, who is a member of the International Ecumenical Movement-Kenya (IEM-K) that co-convened the roundtable discussion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya, described intercommunion as “out of place because there is not yet a covenant of love”.

Although the ecumenical movement seeks Church unity in line with Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel, in which Jesus prayed “that all may be one”, Fr Kevin was categorical: “We’re not yet married. Our churches are engaged, and there’s a desire, and the desire is good, but we are not fully at the stage of a covenant or intercommunion.”

Ms Eneibi M-Gwam spoke for non-Catholics in the hall when she took issue with the communion rules that some consider discriminatory.

“That is the body and blood of Christ, which should be given freely to whoever would want to partake of it,” the Lutheran from Nigeria said.

Intercommunion – and it emerged that it is not quite a free-for-all affair even in the Lutheran Church – was one of the hottest issues during the three-hour session in Nairobi to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation marked across the world last week.

The Catholic Church ex-communicated Martin Luther after he nailed 95 theses (statements) on the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany, in October 31, 1517, and refused to recant when ordered to do so. That was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation that was driven by the printing press, which made the Bible accessible to the masses, making reading and interpretation of the scriptures easier.

The big leap towards unity was made when Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) between 1962 and 1965. It was open to Protestant theologians and the media as observers.

Over 50 years since Vatican II, Fr Gilles is convinced that huge strides have been taken towards church unity, itself a contentious concept. The priest’s interpretation seemed to be more literal: “If we don’t move forward and make that step to more integrated Christian unity, we are missing the boat and we are not faithful and we are sinful. If we continue to be separate churches, we are not faithful to the Gospel. We should be working together, praying together and… we should receive at the same table the bread of life and the cup of salvation.”

Fr Gilles had a strong supporter in Judge Lee Muthoga, who described the breakaway of the Church as “a mistake which needs to be corrected”. This, Judge Muthoga said, should be seen within the concept of a reformed and continuously reforming church.

There were those who championed unity in diversity, with each denomination bringing its strengths into the union – like retired University of Nairobi don Gerald Wanjohi. “Reformation should make us humble and that even though we belong to different denominations, we come together to respect each other.”

The Religious Studies scholar said “it’s very difficult to interpret” what Christ meant by one church. To him, the concept meant we don’t break down our churches in order to build one, but rather, to see what good there is to borrow.

Rwandan Presbyterian Minister Ananie Nduwamungu, who presides over an interdenominational French service at St Andrew’s Church, Nairobi, voiced his own struggles with the communion issue.

“The Church is one and I’m convinced it is the same Church. All those who have a testimony of following Jesus Christ, crucified, are my brothers and sisters,” he said.

However, it has been difficult to convince a Catholic congregant and a Pentecostal to take communion at his service.

“Our faith is one; the Creed is one. We also have to love one another and live out our faith accepting each other. That’s what is expected of us from above,” he said.

Ms Amelia Vasco Nanjate from Mozambique – who is a member of the international Catholic lay movement, Focolare – queried Christian faith.

“What are we doing to bring life in our churches that can link us as Christians? These roundtables are everywhere, but what are we doing to live as Christians?” Those, for her, were more fundamental questions than intercommunion, which appeared to have taken an inordinate proportion of the available time.

Clearly, Fr Gilles fears that the brotherhood – and sisterhood – of the Church may be a long time coming might just be true. Or was it just that the younger and the older generations of Christians understand the Reformation differently?

In an interview with Lifestyle, Lutheran Church Minister Isaiah Obare felt the Church had not played its role of teaching the youth the foundation of their faith.

The trend ought to worry the Church because there is a generational gap between those who know the background and those who don’t.

He described the Reformation as taking the Church back to its roots – the Scriptures – since “at some point it [the Church] had deviated and incorporated human and non-biblical traditions.”

PROTESTANT REFORMATION

A major Reformation issue on whether one is saved by faith or through good works also featured in the forum.

Fr Gilles acknowledged the centrality of baptism and of the Bible as some of the main ideas of Luther that fed into Vatican II.

At the time, Luther posted his theses, the Church was exploiting the purgatory doctrine to fundraise for the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Luther challenged the doctrine, saying, “I don’t find this at all in the Bible.” In Thesis 86, he said: “Why does not the Pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”

The gift of the Bible to lay Christians is probably Luther’s greatest legacy to the Universal Church. During the discussion, retired University of Nairobi professor Jesse Mugambi underscored the importance of Christians reading the Bible in their languages.

He disclosed that Kenya’s foremost biblical scholar, John Mbiti, had, for the first time, translated the New Testament from the original Greek to Kikamba and had it printed locally.

Over five centuries later, the animosity generated by Luther’s 95 theses has largely dissipated.

“We have made a lot of progress in the dialogue — so much so that the Catholic bishops and the Lutheran leaders in Germany decided to make a common statement for the year 2016 — the beginning of commemoration of the Protestant Reformation,” Fr Gilles said.

The document that captures the far the Church has come is titled, “Healing the Memory and Witnessing to Jesus Christ”, and was launched in September last year.

It acknowledges the inspiration of Luther and the other reformers and recognises Vatican II as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement, when leaders of other churches “witnessed a new transparency, fresh air and sincere desire for renewal”.

POPE FRANCIS

Pope Francis, regarded as a great ecumenist, bolstered Protestant-Catholic relations when he joined Lutherans in Lund, Sweden, on October 31, last year, for the launch of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Dr Ezekiel Lesmore, a Nigerian pastor at the Lutheran Cathedral, testified to the Pope’s ecumenical spirit. He spoke of a recent encounter with the Pope when he said to him: “Brother Lesmore, pray for me.”

But there is work to do, as Ms Audrey Masitsa, told Lifestyle: “It’s unfortunate that the Reformation brought so much division among Christians to the point where even though we believe in one God, we attack each other so much. A more united Christian front would be ideal,” she said, acknowledging that achieving Christian unity is still a long way off.

Fr Gilles believes that oneness of Christians is being undermined by some bishops and their flock, against the Pope’s wishes. Maybe Church leaders are ready to go further, “but they feel there’s a lot of opposition in the pews.”

SOUGHT TO DEBUNK MYTH

During the discussions, the moderator, Dr Ng’ang’a Gicumbi, sought to debunk the myth that Luther was faultless. “Some commentators have linked him as (sic) the father of Nazism because he had a special hatred for the Jews. [But] we are not looking at a person who was an angel.” Still, Dr Gicumbi noted Luther’s respect for dissent.

He listed the power of informed dissent, the power of internal dissent and of dissent based on faith as some of Luther’s strengths.

The dissent, Dr Gicumbi said, was grounded in “real faith in Jesus Christ”. Luther was also backed by “the power of conscientious dissent,” which enabled him to stand his ground when princes and bishops ordered him to denounce his views against the church.

Luther was bolstered by the power of shared dissent of the people, which led to full blown reformation.

At the Nairobi forum, Fr Maurice Schepers, also a member of the IEM-K, pushed the beginnings of the modern ecumenical movement much further than Vatican II. The movement, he said, resulted from a plea by African and Asian Christians in a meeting in Edinburgh 1910, when they told fellow Christians from Europe and the United States: “Please don’t export your disunity to us.”