Easter Week, 2000

I had meant this to be a time when I considered the direction of my ministry, but instead, when I began to think and pray, I found myself revisiting the questions raised fifteen years ago when I went through what I now call my “catholic conversion”. Is it now time for me to review my “experiment” in the catholic interpretation of the Lutheran faith?

I have been reading the 1978/1980 report of the US Lutheran-Catholic dialogue on the Teaching Ministry and Papal Infallibility, and have been reading the Common Statement and the Catholic reflections on the statement. I am finding myself to be in almost complete agreement with the Catholic stance, and writing notes in the margin about what Lutherans believed. It strikes me that when I write “Lutherans believe…” I am no longer including myself in that belief, for I have by now (after the intense reflection of the past week) ceased to own “Lutheran” as my self description, and I have determined that from now on I would be “Catholic”. I have found this conscious realisation upsetting, because I am terrified of the material and communal consequences of this change of mind.

Last January [2000], just before I went to Canberra for the National Aged Care conference, my friend P. loaned me a copy of a tape of Father John Fleming, the Adelaide Catholic priest who converted [to the Catholic Church] from Anglicanism in 1987. This brought back a flood of memories for me, and reopened a very old box, on which I thought I had fairly well closed the lid. Father John, in his C. of E. guise, had been a strong influence on me through personal conversation, and his relationship with my aunt and Dr Daniel Overduin [a Lutheran pro-life bioethicist, now with God]. He was the catalyst for my “catholic conversion”, when I was converted to the notion of catholicity in 1985, my second year at Luther Seminary.

At that time, I belonged, with several other seminary students, to a mock society called the “Ecumenical Society”, which was in fact a society for the appreciation of catholic and orthodox worship. We visited the Church of the Good Shepherd in Plympton, where Father John was vicar, and I was immediately impressed by both his preaching (the clear evangelical nature of his sermon) and by the ceremonial of the service (what I would today call “contemporary catholic” in style). I think I can date my “catholic conversion” from this visit. At the time I was not married--nor even engaged--to my first wife, and I began to contemplate conversion to the Roman Catholic church to become a Catholic priest. I believe I seriously considered this possibility for more than a year, and was still thinking about it even once I had married . I think I am remembering this correctly, because John Fleming converted on April 26th 1987--two and a half months after I married for the first time--and I had pasted a couple of cuttings from the Advertiser report of this incident into the back of my copy of the Apologia. I believe that I did so because at the time it reflected on my own state of mind.

I believe too that it was at this time, around mid 1987, that I came closest to deciding to convert to Roman Catholicism. I was in my first year at University, my first year of marriage, my fourth year of Seminary, the beginning of my career as a preacher and leader of worship, and about the time that I began work for the Commission on Worship. Yet I did not convert. I believe that this was for two reasons:

1) firstly, I decided that the church is an “article of faith”. That is, that there is no visible manifestation of the true catholic church here on earth that was identifiable with a particular church institution. This is not to say that I believed in the doctrine of what is sometimes called the “invisible church” but that I resolved to seek by faith the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in my own Lutheran denomination; and

2) secondly, I decided that the Lutheran confessions were best and most truly to be interpreted when they were interpreted as confessions of catholic doctrine in line with the church of the past rather than statements of Protestant opposition to the catholic faith. In doing this, I was to some extent embarking upon a similar exercise that Newman attempted when he tried to reinterpret the 39 articles in a catholic sense. I was convinced that my task would be easier than his due to the fact the Lutheran confession was a result of the "conservative reformation" whereas the 39 Articles was a product of the more radical Calvinism inherent in Anglicanism. Furthermore, I was, through this exercise, aligning myself with a party that had begun to emerge in US Lutheranism, the so-called “evangelical catholic” party .

I could describe the next 13 years of my life as an intensive attempt to live out these two principles. I can certainly say that these years have provided a good test run. I remained strongly convinced of the evangelical catholic interpretation of Lutheranism during the completion of my theological studies, vicarage at Morphett Vale (SA) in 1990-91 , my university education, my associate ministry at Warradale in SA, my ministry in the parish of Knox (and later Frankston and Casey) here in Victoria, and my extensive ecumenical involvement with the Victorian Council of Churches.

During all this time, I was a staunch defender of all things Lutheran, although I recognise now that I was really defending was my understanding of "evangelical catholicism". So, I was uneasy with such teachings and practices in the Lutheran church as

  • the commissioning of men to function as pastors without ordination,

  • the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” when defined as an individuals right to act as an ordained priest (including the practice of lay absolution),

  • the understanding of the real presence which emphasised the “in, with and under” aspect rather than the sacramental identification of the bread and the body as one and the same thing,

  • the teaching that the liturgy was essentially a man-made ceremony,

  • the reduction of the eucharistic liturgy to the “magic words” of institution,

  • and so on. The rising issue of the ordination of women, and my attempt to work my way through this mine-field to a conclusion that I could trust, also affected me.

Two questions were rising in my mind: How were doctrinal decisions made in the church? And what authority enforced them?

In January of this year everything came to a head. After listening to the John Fleming tape, I made a long trip to and back from Canberra (10 hours each way on my motorbike) which gave me a lot of time to reflect. While there, I attended worship at St Peter’s Lutheran Church, and was bitterly disappointed in the service--both in the conduct of the baptism ceremony and the eucharistic liturgy (what there was of it). I began to ask myself this question: if the church is the community of saints gathered around word and sacrament (as Lutherans say it is), and if what happens in the churches of the LCA cannot be guaranteed to be in fact the true sacrament (or even the true word?), in what ecclesial community will I be assured that the full liturgy of word and sacrament will be celebrated every Sunday? What ecclesial community was truly the church? The answer to this question became obvious to me.

In the next few months, the issues of ministry (personally) were heightened as the congregations at Knox and Frankston struggled in relation to the financing of their church buildings, and the congregation at Casey struggled with falling attendance. It was also exacerbated by an experience at an evening service in my wife’s parish when the communion service was celebrated with minimal elements of the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the sacrament. This led to the involvement of the President, and what became for me a bit of a test case in the exercise of authority in the church. These months were busy and stressful, and led to me taking these three weeks off after Easter (two weeks “sick leave” together with one week’s holiday).

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