Key Ecumenical Bishop: “The Reformation Was a Great Misunderstanding, We All Got it Wrong”

In a new interview in Crux, Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England — co-chair of the international dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity — offers us a glimpse of what to expect in Lund, Sweden, on October 31, when Pope Francis joins the LWF to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It’s a long interview, and much of it is background on the event, but what really stood out what this:

The consensus of the 1999 document on justification stated, if I’ve understood it correctly, that the reasons for the Catholics condemning the Protestant positions and vice-versa no longer hold, and if ever each Church did hold the position that the other said they did, what is now true is that neither Church no longer holds that position. In other words, the Reformation was all a big misunderstanding!

That’s a good popular summary, yes. Would Martin Luther have been excommunicated today? The answer is no, he probably wouldn’t. And he did not want to split the Church – he came to that, but it’s not where he began.

Of course, you’ll find certain Catholics and certain Lutherans still claiming the other holds those positions, but they are not representative of the mainstream positions of the Churches. The document was approved by Rome, which binds Catholics whether they like it or not; the Lutherans are made up of about 100 churches, and there were about 37 who didn’t, back then, sign up to it. Some have come into line since.


Most Catholics – and no doubt most Lutherans – have never read the document, and may wonder, ‘how does this affect us, in the parish?’ How would you summarize its importance for the person in the pew?

I think it’s very important that people know that the Reformation was a great misunderstanding, we all got it wrong, on both sides, and we’ve lifted excommunications and condemnations and apologized. So we can all be friends.

Got that? Just a big misunderstanding. The guy (Martin Luther) who blasphemed Our Lord when he said things like this is really, when it comes right down to it, a good guy:

“Christ committed adultery first of all with the women at the well about whom St. John tell’s us. Was not everybody about Him saying: ‘Whatever has He been doing with her?’ Secondly, with Mary Magdalen, and thirdly with the women taken in adultery whom He dismissed so lightly. Thus even, Christ who was so righteous, must have been guilty of fornication before He died.” (ref. Trishreden, Weimer Edition, Vol. 2, Pg. 107.) [Quote taken from David L. Gray, who has a lot more where that came from.]

Luther. What a guy.

So of course, since it’s no big deal — like living in adultery with a second “spouse” — guess what the logical conclusion is? (I’ll give you one hint: it rhymes with “schmommunion”!) Back to Bishop Kenney:

Which might lead some to say, if not ‘so what?’ then at least, ‘and now what?’

I think you’ve got to start now moving towards that visible unity. There’s no elephant in the room any longer. The elephant has gone back to the jungle and we’re left staring at each other in the same room, not really sure about each other. I think much of the ecumenical stuff now has to be at the local level. One of the big issues – and it will be interesting to see if Francis even mentions it – is inter-communion.

He’s already made a gesture about that, of course, when he visited a Lutheran church in Rome and, during a question-and-answer session, suggested to a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man that perhaps, if her conscience permitted, she could receive communion in her husband’s church. 

He did, but we’re not sure what it meant. He’s never clarified that.


But there is enough convergence for Francis to have made his still-not-entirely-clear gesture?

If I wanted Francis to cause a pleasant revolution in Lund, he would say Lutherans can, under certain circumstances without asking all the time, receive the Eucharist. That would be a major gesture. The sort of thing I would like to see is that in a so-called ecumenical marriage, the non-Catholic party can always go to Communion with his or her partner. That would be a major step forward, and it’s pastorally very desirable.

I wouldn’t want to say, and it won’t happen, that any Lutheran could receive at a Catholic Mass – we’re not there yet, and it would cause confusion. But if you were to say, anybody who is married to a Lutheran and they are both believing…these marriages exist, very much so.

Ecumenists: give them an inch, they’ll take 500 years of sacramental discipline.

I’ve already written about the pope’s all-but-permission for Lutherans in such marriages to receive communion in an essay that was aptly entitled, “Good Parents Say No: Pope Francis on Lutherans and the Eucharist“. I won’t rehash it here. It’s patently obvious that this should not be happening.

But if Bishop Kenney is part of the “small, inner core at the joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation for which Francis will be going to Sweden”, that means he’s most likely giving us a preview of what is to come. Saints preserve us.

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