Meissen: Fragile porcelain or robust relationship?

 — May 26, 200026 mai 2000

GENEVA, 26 May 2000 (LWI) – The Rt. Rev Michael Bourke, Anglican Bishop of Wolverhampton, England, gave a lecture on “Meissen – Fragile Porcelain or Robust Relationship?” at the Annual General Meeting of the Anglican – Lutheran Society on 18 March 2000. He co-chairs the Committee, which oversees the 1991 “Meissen Agreement” between the Church of England and the Evangelical Churches in Germany. Below is a lightly edited version of relevant excerpts from his address, which appeared in the May 2000 edition of “The Window,” the newsletter of the Anglican – Lutheran Society.

“For historic reasons, the English churches have always had closer links with the Reformed on the Continent than with the Lutherans. I would say that Anglican encounters with Lutheranism have uncovered a mixture of ignorance, striking similarity and fascinating strangeness.


What Anglicans have discovered is a delightful similarity between our traditions. Our churches, in England and in Germany, are folk churches with a parish system, and a sense of responsibility for public life as well as private piety. There are similar liturgical forms and fine traditions of liturgical music and choral worship.

Anglicans have always envied the way in which Lutherans preserved their monastic buildings and their medieval treasures of church art….In contrast our English churches betray the scars of the Puritan cultural revolution from which very little survived. It was left to Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century and the Oxford movement in the 19th century to make our churches beautiful again. I have sometimes wondered if England’s loss of so much pre-Reformation church art has contributed to the Anglican insistence on episcopacy as a – “visible sign” – in our case virtually the only visible sign of ecclesiastical continuity.

These similarities have contributed much towards the popularity of the Meissen Agreement, signed on 29 January 1991. We have sought to build strong relationships between our churches on every level – not only through theological conversations but through parish visits. The Meissen Agreement has also established the two libraries – one of German Protestant studies in Durham, England; and an Anglican library in Tuebingen, Germany.

We are also committed to developing shared forms of episcope / oversight. This is expressed principally through mutual invitations to each other’s Synods, and also through inviting church leaders to attend the House of Bishops and its equivalent.

All these contacts, through which a strong bond of mutual understanding and commitment have grown, reflect the similarities between our two traditions. They add pressure to express our unity more fully, especially through exchanges of priests and pastors … The unresolved issue, of course, is the Anglican insistence that a united Church must include the historic episcopate as a condition of ministerial exchangeability.

Which first – church or doctrine?

At the risk of caricaturing, you could say that for Lutherans it is doctrine that makes the Church, whereas for Anglicans it is the Church that makes doctrine. Anglicans have majored more in church history than doctrine. It is notorious that since the Reformation there has been until very recently no professorial chair of systematic theology in England.

What holds the Church together is its common loyalty to scripture, the recognition of the same Gospel (in a sense not too carefully defined) in our various theologies, common worship and membership in the same Church expressed through communion with the Bishop. For the Church is not a collection of individual believers, but a covenant community, with a structure. In order to be part of the true Church, the local church needs to be linked with the global church, and in continuity with the historic church as well as the historic faith of the apostles.

The mutual fascination between Anglicans and Lutherans is that we each find it quite difficult to comprehend how the other thinks; and yet we recognize that we both affirm the same Gospel. We know that our own understanding and articulation of the faith are not to be identified with faith itself, and that our formulations are fallible and provisional. No one has a monopoly on inconsistency. We know, for example, that Anglicanism can encourage every-member ministry and a sense of voluntary lay participation, despite its heavy theological emphasis on ordained ministry and priesthood; and that some Lutheran Churches can be heavily clericalized and professionalized, despite the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

In the Meissen Agreement, the Church of England and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) recognize each other as true Churches in which the Word of God is authentically preached and the Gospel sacraments are administered. The Anglican insistence on the historic episcopate does not mean that we do not recognize the ministries and sacraments of the German churches. It means that the historical succession, as a sign but not a guarantee of the Church’s continuity in the apostolic faith, is a valuable and necessary element of a visibly united Church. This position, set out in the Anglican document, Apostolicity and Succession, and incorporated into the Porvoo Agreement with the Nordic and Baltic Lutherans, represents a real shift in Anglican thinking.

Theological pluralism

From an Anglican perspective, the Leuenberg Agreement between the Lutheran and the Reformed churches in Germany is interesting because for the first time it acknowledges the validity of theological pluralism. Churches with different confessions of faith can recognize the true Gospel in each other’s theological traditions, and on this basis can enter into a unity of reconciled diversity. For Lutherans, the Augsburg Confession, Article 7, includes the famous phrase satis est – it is sufficient for unity that we recognize each other’s doctrine and sacraments. On this basis the reconciliation of different forms of ministry or church structures is not necessary for unity, hence the preference for the expression “reconciled diversity” rather than “visible unity.”

As the Meissen dialogue continues, it remains to be seen how far this principle of theological generosity can be extended. If you can recognize the true Gospel in another church, even if that church has a different theology from your own, then unity with that Church must mean making some allowances for that church’s self-understanding. If Anglicans have moved towards the recognition and acceptance of non-episcopal ministries as true ministries of Word and Sacrament, is it possible for Lutherans to move towards an acceptance of the historic episcopate which they recognize as part of legitimate Christian diversity?

Mutual learning and commitment have been built from strong bonds of fellowship. Theological work must be responsible and we must carry our churches with us if the Meissen porcelain is not to break. Time alone will tell whether our theological journey will lead to a break-through or a dead-end. We ask for your prayers.”

Posted: May 26, 2000 • Permanent link:
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