Roman Catholics and Lutherans, who have battled for more than four centuries, are finding common ground today in the Augsburg Confession, the federal statement that severed them 450 years ago this week.
Throughout the United States and Europe, members of the two branches of Christendom are holding worship services and seminars, even a "Dialogue Dance" to celebrate the confession as a basic statement of Christian beliefs that can unite them.
Earlier this year, the official Catholic-Lutheran dialogue team met in the ancient German city of Augsburg to examine the statement that divided their ecclesiastical ancestors.
Out of this March meeting, the latest in a 15-year series of ecumenical dialogues, came a joint statement citing the Augsburg Confession as an expression of a "common faith."
"What we have rediscovered," the dialogue participants said, "points the way to a confession of our faith here and now, with Catholics and Lutherans no longer divided and in opposition to each other but bearing witness together to the message of the world's salvation in Jesus Christ and proclaiming this message as a renewed offer of the divine grace to today."
The Augsburg Confession dates to 1530, when the Emperor Charles V had assembled the princes from all parts of what is now Germany. The purpose of the Diet, as the gathering was called, was to resolve the religious turmoil that had been unleashed by Martin Luther. Charles needed to reunite the dissidents with the Catholic Church so he could get on with the business of fighting the Turks, who had invaded neighboring Austria.
Charles' strategy was to defuse tensions by letting the Protestant dissenters articulate their views. But Philip Melanchthon's careful statement of Protestant theological views, which history knows as the Augsburg Confession, became instead a rallying point for the dissenters. Though Charles reportedly dozed during the two-hour reading of the statement on June 25, 1530, the crowd gathered in the Augsburg courtyard did not.
The proclamation of Protestant views in the prestigious surroundings gave the Protestants a new solidarity and self-identity.
It took nearly 4 1/2 centuries for passions on both sides to cool enough for theologians to reexamine the confession and conclude, as the dialogue team did last March, that:
"The express purpose of the Augsburg Confession is to bear witness to the faith of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church. Its concern is not with peculiar doctrines nor indeed with the establishment of a new church, but with the preservation and renewal of the Christian faith in its purity -- in harmony with the ancient church and the church of Rome and agreement with the witness of Holy Scripture.
"The common faith which we have discovered in the Augsburg Confession can also help us to confess this faith anew in our own time," the statement said.
With this kind of agreement on the basic document of the Lutherans, some church officials enthusiastically predicted that intercommunion, even reunion itself between Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, could not be far away.
"There has been a profound reconciliation between us," said the Rev. John Hotchkin, Director of ecumenical affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of the dialogue team.
But the divisions of 450 years are not easily healed. For all the reconciliation, Lutherans and Catholics are still officially barred from receiving holy communion from each other's altars, although the continuing dialogue team has begun work on this.
Hotchkin is heartened by parishioners' support for healing the breach as reflected by the celebrations of the Augsburg anniversary.
"It's happening all across the country," he said in a quick interview this before two Lutheran synods.
"Everybody on the dialogue team, we're all booked solid," he said, "There are seminars, speeches, worship services. And in Tallahassee a couple of weeks ago, after the last night of a four-week discussion series, everybody went over to the [Lutheran] parish hall and they brought in some beer and a country band and had a Dialogue Dance." CAPTION:
Illustration, Drawing shows Emperor Charles V presiding over the 1530 Diet of Augsburg, at which the princes of what is now Germany were to resolve religious differences. Keystone Press Agency; Picture, The Rev. William V. Montgomery, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church, leads joint service for Lutherans and Catholics celebrating Augsburg confession. By Fred Sweets -- The Washington Post