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The Protestant Reformation - ...ready for reform

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Ecumenical News International
Daily News Service
29 February 2000


The Protestant Reformation - an historical idea ready for a
major reform
ENI-00-0074

By Edmund Doogue
Geneva, 29 February (ENI)--One of the most basic concepts of the
history of Christianity - that of the 16th-century reformation
which split the Western Church - is being radically revised
thanks to a series of meetings aimed at bringing Protestant
denominations closer together.

Theologians and officials representing a range of Protestant
denominations have been meeting since 1986 to examine the nature
of Protestantism. As their dialogues have evolved - the sixth in
the series was held in Strasbourg, France, from 11 to 15 February
- the participants have dramatically revised the historical view
of the reformation, throwing out the stereotype of a monolithic
"Reformation" led by Martin Luther and John Calvin. Instead, the
theologians say, there were a whole string of events and people
who reformed Christianity over a period of several centuries.

"Instead of speaking of 'The Reformation', it is more helpful to
speak of different specific and historic 'Reformations',
recognising similarities and differences, rather than assuming or
searching for one comprehensive definition," the 25 participants
affirmed in a working paper drawn up at the Strasbourg meeting.

Dr Milan Opocensky, who is about to retire as general secretary
of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, based in Geneva, told
ENI in an interview in his office after the gathering: "The
meeting was part of an effort to develop a more inclusive and
comprehensive definition of the notion of reformation. There was
a feeling that Lutheran and Reformed theologians have believed
that theirs was the 'real' reformation, and that other efforts
[to reform the church] were only secondary.

"This is not just a matter of correcting the footnotes in the
history books. We are saying that history should be partly
rewritten with a greater awareness of what happened on what we
think of as the margins. A certain perspective of history needs
to be rejected.

"My conviction," Dr Opocensky told ENI, "is that those who used
to be called the forerunners of the reformation, like the
Waldensians, the Hussites, the Czech Brethren, constituted a
reformation in their own right, and prepared the way for Luther,
Calvin and other reformers.

"Luther and Calvin did not just fall from heaven. Other people
had worked the same field, and people at that time were aware of
the earlier reformers. I am of course aware that Luther and
Calvin, for example, deepened what had been said before. But what
they said was not totally new. Some of it had been worked out 100
years before; in some cases, like the Waldensians, some of it had
been said several hundred years before."

Dr Opocensky, who is a minister in the Evangelical Church of
Czech Brethren, was one of the founding members of the series of
dialogues which began in 1986 in Prague where he was teaching at
the Comenius Faculty of Protestant Theology.

The dialogues - called the Prague I to VI consultations - began
as a meeting of Protestant churches whose origins predate Luther
and Calvin - churches such as the Waldensian Church (which traces
its origins to the 12th century), the Unity of Brethren, and the
Hussite Church. The historic peace churches, such as the
Mennonites, Hutterian Brethren, and Society of Friends (Quakers),
also took part.

All of these churches are part of what the participants now call
the "First Reformation" or the "Radical Reformation" during both
of which reformers made radical changes to the practice of
Christianity and broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, long
before the births of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John
Calvin.

As the consultations continued throughout the 1990s, they were
expanded to include representatives from the Lutheran and
Reformed churches. They were then expanded further to include
Baptists, Methodists and Roman Catholics. The Strasbourg
gathering included representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist
and Romanian Orthodox churches.

Dr Opocensky told ENI that the Prague consultations had covered
a lot of ground. In 1994, for example, the consultation known as
Prague IV (held in Geneva), discussed the Sermon on the Mount.

An important objective for the consultations was "eventually to
cancel" the various "mutual condemnations" which had been made
among Protestant groups, Dr Opocensky said. The different strands
of reform had in fact created division among Protestants. He
singled out the Anabaptists, a name which is now applied to a
whole range of 16th-century groups who rejected infant baptism in
favour of believers' baptism. Some of these groups developed
religious practices at odds with mainstream Protestantism, and
were harshly persecuted.

"Maybe there were valid reasons at the time, but we believe that
this part of history needs to be revisited," he said. "The
position adopted [by mainstream Protestants] was intolerant, and
often ended in violence."

He added: "All of this has a bearing on our ecumenical
fellowship today. If we don't heal these problems, we continue to
live with the wounds of the past."

Asked by ENI whether all the church representatives in the
Prague consultations were professional theologians, Dr Opocensky
said that some, like the Hutterite Brethren, "are not
theologically trained but put great emphasis on issues of
lifestyle and ethics". The Hutterian Bruderhof, set up in a bid
to follow the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, put their
emphasis not on theology but on a simple lifestyle, largely
ignoring the monetary system.

"That is a challenge to us," Dr Opocensky said, adding that the
Prague consultations had a momentum and implications which went
well beyond those in many other inter-confessional dialogues.

The beliefs of some of the churches involved in the discussions
have in fact enriched the consultations, according to Dr
Opocenksy, who mentioned as an example the Quaker method of
reaching a consensus through discussion and silent reflection
rather than by a vote. Through this method, he said, "they
[Quakers] reach consensus which is embraced by all. Isn't this a
lesson for us in the ecumenical movement? Formal discussion and
voting may work in the secular world, but if we struggle under
the guidance of the Holy Spirit, democratic procedures are
sometimes inadequate, and the truth has often been defended by
minorities."

The next Prague consultation is expected to be held in two or
three years. ]1037 words]