A year ago, Lutheran Bishop Jessica Crist joined a contingent of high-level leaders from her denomination traveling to Rome to meet with Vatican officials.
Crist, bishop of the Montana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is also chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops.
The meetings were in advance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when deep differences caused an irreparable schism, and the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, which in part acknowledged a commonality with other faiths.
In Rome, the Catholics and Lutherans met in an ongoing effort to find common ground. Those meetings inspired Crist to connect with Catholics closer to home.
“Because that was so positive, I came back and called Bishop Warfel and said ‘Let’s talk. This is important stuff,’ ” Crist said in a telephone interview from Great Falls.
Out of that came a series of public conversations, including one Tuesday in Billings at American Lutheran Church. A potluck at 5:30 will be followed by several brief talks at 6:30 and then a question-and-answer time.
Crist said she and Warfel met for lunch twice, and then met again with laypeople from both denominations. The decision was made to talk about what the two faiths have in common, and what they don’t.
Crist and Warfel spoke at the initial gathering in Lewistown in October. They were joined by Dr. Paul Seastrand, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Lewistown, and several laypeople.
The group then held similar gatherings in Sidney and Great Falls. Snow forced cancellation of a meeting in Havre, but that will be rescheduled.
The get-togethers have been a success, Warfel said in a telephone interview.
“They have been varied, candid, very comfortable, speaking and sharing and finding out information and finding out new things,” he said.
Crist added that each has drawn 50 to 60 people and has engendered a feeling of camaraderie among the neighbors, friends and family who belong to both faiths.
“People are longing for this opportunity to talk about small things and big things,” she said.
But it goes beyond that, Crist added.
“There’s been sort of an impatience of ‘Let’s get it together, there’s a hungry, hurting world out there and why can’t we as Christian people with so much in common do more together?’ ” she said. “That’s coming from lay people who may not care about theological nuances that separate us.”
The Reformation began in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on a church door, inviting debate about church indulgences and questioning the direction the Catholic Church had gone.
Ironically, Crist said, a lot of what Luther objected to in the late Middle Ages has changed since then, and a lot of reforms he suggested have come to pass.
The turning point in relations between Catholics and Lutherans came with the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Warfel said. It came through documents on ecumenism and the importance of sharing the same baptism in Christ.
“That automatically makes us, on real but different levels, brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said.
Talks between officials of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, of which the ELCA is the only American member, have been ongoing for more than 30 years. As a result of that dialogue, Lutherans and Catholics in 1999 adopted a groundbreaking document called the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
That has to do with salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ, a crux of disagreement that led to the schism. That’s one point the two faiths hold in common, Crist said.
“We still have major differences on the nature of authority, the authority of the pope, how we look at Scripture and numerous other emphases, but we still have a lot more in common that we have separate,” she said.