Seminar 2019: Doctrine divides – Spirituality unites?

The theme of this year’s International Ecumenical Summer Seminar, which was organized by the Institute of Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg from 3 to 10 July, was: “Doctrine divides—Spirituality unites?” In his introductory lecture, Prof. Dr. Theodor Dieter stated that the thesis “doctrine divides” is both correct and incorrect. It does not apply when ecumenical dialogues have overcome the divisive nature of differences and have been received by the churches, as in the case of the Leuenberg Agreement (1973) between Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches in Europe. The thesis, on the other hand, does apply in the case of the rejection of Eucharistic hospitality between the Roman Catholic church and Protestant churches. Here many theologians and church leaders see divisive differences in teaching and practice. And yet it is precisely in this question that the thesis “doctrine divides” does not hold true, as when one thinks of many Christians in the churches who have forgotten the traditions of their churches and so cannot understand why shared communion should not be possible. The churches have lost much in importance in their existence as institutions for a large number of people; that also applies to their doctrines, which find little resonance. In contrast, many forms of spirituality have become attractive. A slogan expresses this: “Church is out, spirituality is in.” Many Christians adopt practices of spirituality that are originally located in other churches. So it pays to ask if and how certain forms of spirituality connect people from different churches or, under certain circumstances, create new divisions.

Prof. Dr. Corinna Dahlgrün (Jena, Germany) described structurally in her lecture “What is Spirituality?” the broad and diffuse field of what may be called “Christian Spirituality”: in response to the call of God in the double commandment of love, in relation to the individual and the community, with the task of distinguishing the spirits and the importance of having a spiritual counselor. She then distinguished between different forms of God-seeking.

Bishop Dr. Karin Johannesson (Uppsala, Sweden) addressed a specific kind of the Lutheran tradition, which is historically reserved toward or even opposed to matters of piety and spirituality. She explained the challenge of this tradition by the teachers of the Carmelite Order (Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and especially Thérèse of Lisieux, 1873–1897), and showed how their teaching helps to rediscover certain theological and spiritual motifs of Martin Luther. Indeed, certain motifs of Luther and the Carmelites have mutual resonance, and Bishop Johannesson indicated what significance such an encounter could have in postmodern Sweden.

Prof. Dr. Asamoah-Gyadu (Legon, Ghana) spoke about “The Holy Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostal / Charismatic Spirituality and Uniting Elements of African Churches.” He sketched the history of the Pentecostal movement from its beginnings and explained it from a biblical perspective with the words “promise” (of the Holy Spirit), “fulfillment,” and “experience.” Here the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles play a special role because of the conviction that the powerful spiritual events portrayed in these books are not limited to the time of the apostles. Although the Pentecostal movement has become a “denomination” over time (with attendant distinctions of who belongs to it and who is not), it should first be seen from the perspective of spirituality that can be found in every denomination, with the characteristics of democratizing the charisms, oral theology, and a special sense of community. Many churches in Africa share this spirituality without understanding or calling themselves Pentecostal. Therein lies the unifying power of this spirituality.

Prof. Dr. Etienne Vetö (Gregoriana, Rome) spoke about the spiritual movement of the Chemin Neuf, an ecumenical order originating in France and now active in many countries. It is an interesting combination of two very different forms of spirituality: the disciplined form of the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola and the more spontaneous, impulsive piety of the Charismatics. Prof. Vetö explained how both forms fertilize and make the movement powerful.

Another example of connected spiritualities was put forward by Sister Dr. Nicole Grochowina of the Christian Brotherhood in Selbitz (Bavaria, Germany). This Protestant order has a Franciscan character and is now in a certain form of communion with the Franciscan monasteries. Sister Nicole explained the encounter of spiritualities with the concept of friendship, which indicates mutual enrichment without loss of one’s identity. She explained how this friendship creatively has shaped the history and profile of her Order.

On Saturday, world-renowned and esteemed violinmaker Martin Schleske spoke on the subject of “Violinmaking as a prayer of the hands—the prayerful life as sacred art.” In a moving, inspiring way, he developed from the steps of violin-making his penetrating observations and insights into human existence and spiritual life, about silence, hearing, resonance, sound, beauty, friendship with Jesus, and immersion in the biblical word. The creative activity of violinmaking becomes a prayer for him. In the second part of his talk, Schleske took the triad of which Paul speaks in Romans 15:18: Word–Work–Miracle as his point of departure. According to this triad, faith should become the instrument of grace, so that grace in the world can work, so that the unholy may become holy and the sick may become healed. According to Mark 11:23, this does not require great faith but only faith “that lets itself be played by grace.” Faith is receptivity to the work of grace, listening to what grace wants to do with it, becoming one with it. It is a path not of knowledge but of discovering, risking something with readiness, willingness to be disappointed and to learn from this. It is a spirituality that takes that word of Jesus seriously.

Prof. Dr. Julie Ma (Korea / USA) showed the powerful spread of Pentecostalism in Asia using the examples of Korea, Myanmar, the Philippines, and India. It is characterized by the emphasis on baptism in the Holy Spirit and an intense expectation of God’s supernatural intervention in the form of healings, through prayer movements (prayer and fasting, prayer mountains in Korea), the formation of networks of small spiritual communities (“cells”), and comprehensive social commitment for the needy. While the traditional churches have long rejected the Pentecostal movement, they are now greatly influenced by it due to its strong growth and are now opening up to it.

Rainer Harter, founder and leader of the non-denominational prayer house in Freiburg, Germany, presented the house where prayers are said twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He explained the biblical (I Chronicles 16:4, Revelation 4:8) and church history background (Cluny, Zinzendorf) for this pattern of unceasing prayer. The focus is on the intimacy of meeting with God, the beauty of prayer, the sanctification and unity of the church. The prayer house shines on the churches and on the city. It has 140 coworkers, 30 of them employed; they all live from donations. There are more than twenty such prayer houses in Germany.

Dr. Anna Briskina-Müller (Halle-Wittenberg) presented from the Orthodox perspective aspects in which Orthodox and Protestant theology and piety converge. Brother Richard of Taizé explained the “spiritual path of Taizè” based on the history of this community. According to Brother Roger, there is no spirituality and theology of Taizé; Taizé should not be a form alongside or even in competition with other forms. But there is spirituality in Taizé; it is like a spring to which pilgrims come, to then move on and return to their churches. The short form of the songs was initially developed as an emergency measure in view of the many especially young people who came from many different countries. In order not to exclude them in worship for linguistic reasons, you had to have simple songs that you repeated. This has led to a rediscovery of ancient prayer forms. Scripture and chants are the elemental forms; reconciliation of Christian traditions is the goal.

Finally, Fr. Dr. Augustinus Sander OSB (Maria Laach, Germany / Vatican) introduced into the Liturgy of the Hours as a widely used basic form of prayer: praying in the presence of God, the need of those who pray, the trinitarian reality, prayer as a form of Psalm piety, christocentric prayer in the light of Easter, and personal prayer in connection with the prayer of the Lord.

Complemented by other topics discussed in the working groups, participants in the seminar were presented with a wealth of elements and aspects of spirituality that challenged and inspired them and made them think about each presentation’s ecumenical relevance.

The Sunday outing took the group to Waldersbach, a village deep in the mountains of the Vosges, where Pastor Oberlin (1740-1826) worked for fifty-nine years (!) as a pastor. In addition to his preaching, Oberlin was an educational reformer (he invented pre-school education, in fact he made education compulsory in the villages under his care long before the national introduction of compulsory education), a Pietist, an Enlightenment thinker, an economic reformer, a patron of medical care, an expert in physiognomy—and all this combined with extensive correspondence with many important people throughout Europe. The group joined in worship at Oberlin’s church. After lunch at a ferme auberge (farm hostel), the trip continued through beautiful weather to Mt. St. Odile, the sacred mountain of Alsace, which offers a wonderful view of the Rhine Valley. This was followed by an extensive wine tasting and ended with the classic food of Alsace, tarte flambée. The seminar concluded with a service of holy communion in the church of St. Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg.