John Menadue. Postcard from Copenhagen – I went to the ‘wrong’ church.

Sep 28, 2014

I fronted up for Mass last Sunday – or so I thought. The web had described the cathedral as small case ‘c’ catholic rather than upper case ‘C’ Catholic. It was the Protestant/Lutheran cathedral in Copenhagen. I missed the Eucharist but it was a moving encounter with my ‘separated brothers and sisters’.

In 1536 when the absolutist Danish monarchy decided to follow Luther rather than Pope Paul III, they arrested the Roman Catholic hierarchy and almost swept the state clean of Roman Catholics. In a population of only five or six million in Denmark, there are now only about 40,000 Roman Catholics, mainly foreigners. The historic old Roman Catholics churches, such as the 12th Century UNESCO listed cathedral in Roskilde, became Lutheran or Protestant churches.

But I found the Sunday morning service instructive. The organ music and choir were superb. The congregation sat for hymns and stood for prayers. In the pew behind us sat Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. She was dressed informally in jumper and skirt, with no obvious security.

The sermon or homily was preached from a side pulpit – those at the front had double seats, so we could switch our view to the back. With the sermon in Danish, I obviously couldn’t understand much of it but it gave me time to think how offensive it has been that the Christian churches have been divided for so long.

The first major break was in 1053 as the Roman Church, on quite trivial issues, waved farewell to the Eastern Church based in Constantinople. This split was confirmed in blood in 1204 when the Fourth Crusaders under the Pope sacked Constantinople.

The early Christian communities had been established in what is now Greece and Turkey, but we have been divided ever since.

Then came the great divide in Northern Europe with the Luther Reformation in the 16th Century. Luther was right on two basic issues. The first was the corruption and selling of indulgences in the Catholic Church particularly under Pope Sixtus IV and Alexander VI. The second was the doctrinal insistence by Luther that believers were sanctified by faith and not by good works, although there was common agreement that good deeds should follow faith. The Augsburg Declaration of 1999 acknowledged that Luther and the Lutheran churches had been correct on this doctrinal issue. The Declaration was signed by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Churches of Germany. But everyone was polite enough not to emphasise that Luther had been right.

And so Christendom was split again in Western Europe in the 16th Century, a disruption that triggered wars, persecution and the counter-reformation.

Every person and every institution is in need of reform, but we all cling to the power and security which familiar institutions bring. The Luther reforms were necessary, but it is regrettable that the reforms could not have been contained within the Catholic Church. What a difference it would have made if the necessary reform of the Catholic Church had occurred without the enormous and damaging Christian schism of separation.

The Catholic Church faces similar problems today – how to reform? But the barriers will be, as they have always been – leaders, hierarchies and institutions that are more concerned about maintaining their power. They have a lot to lose personally from reform. So they resist.

I am glad I went to the Lutheran Church in Copenhagen. But I missed the Eucharist and the sense that I get, particularly when I am travelling outside Australia, how universal the Catholic Church is.

The barque of Peter has taken a lot of water particularly as a result of the division of Christendom in the 11th and 16th Centuries. But the barque sails on as the keeper of the Faith.

As a Catholic, I still feel a very good Methodist! ‘Reform’ is in my genes.

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