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More than 500 years after the Reformation, we have every reason not to take the separation of the Protestant churches and the Church of Rome for granted. We believe in the same Lord and baptize with the same baptism, and our being separated contradicts our shared confession of faith, in which we confess the one holy catholic and apostolic church. It is time to reconsider our separation.  

We have over 500 years of separated life behind us. Despite our conflicts and even violence, the Lord of the Church has continued to work through our churches. God has been present in the world through the Roman Catholic Church, the church that goes back to the time of the apostles and has handed down and lived the faith of the ages for the past 500 years in the context of modernity. God has also been present in the world through the churches of the Reformation that have continued and shaped the apostolic witness differently. In these churches, important aspects of Christian life and faith have come to fruition. This also applies to the churches belonging to the Baptist tradition and, later, to the Pentecostal churches. The break goes against the will of the Lord and, therefore, constitutes guilt. Yet, because of God’s mercy, we may speak of a felix culpa, an evil out of which God has allowed something good to arise. However, a felix culpa can never be a final word.

We realize that the break between Rome and the Reformation cannot simply be dismissed as a misunderstanding and that it was based on disagreements that had to do with essential elements of the expression and shaping of faith. Some of these still exist, especially the disagreements about church and ministry. Yet, we share the faith in the triune God and Jesus Christ, the Savior and the one Head of the Church. We share the grace of baptism, we believe in the real presence of Christ in Eucharist/ Lord's Supper, and we believe in the meaning of ministry as representing Christ and as a sign of communion with the faith of the one Church. A church-dividing issue from the time of the Reformation, ‘justification by faith,’ ceased to be dividing according to the 1999 joint declaration on the doctrine of justification of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. Later, this declaration was also endorsed by the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The question then becomes: Is what separates us today still really church-dividing?

In the West and in the Netherlands, we are living in a post-Christian era. The church has been marginalized and its image is crumbling. Acquirements of yesterday are being knocked out of the church’s hands and the survival of many congregations and parishes is uncertain. However, our time can also become a time of purification. A time when a divided church may find its unity in Christ. A time when a united Church is called by the inspiration of the Spirit to be a witness to the gospel.

Christ has been torn apart but has continued to watch lovingly over His children. Is He now bringing us together again – even under the pressure of time? Can it be otherwise than that Christ desires that today Rome and Reformation come together and that his prayer ‘that they all may be one’ (John 17: 21) is fulfilled? Many search and long for the one apostolic and Catholic Church in visible form. A unified church that is the body of Christ and the dwelling place of the Spirit. That will be a Church that does justice to both unity and plurality. It will be a Church in the power of the Spirit, who gives the gifts the Church needs in this era.

We believe that the treasures that God has given the church over the past 500 years belong to the Church that is linked to its origin, the Church of the Apostles, of which Christ is the cornerstone. It is the Church that has taken visible shape in our continent mainly in the Church of Rome, but which no longer actualizes its full catholicity due to the schisms in the church. This is equally true of the churches of the Reformation. Our concern is not a ‘return to Rome’ but a conversion of us all to Christ. This is only possible through prayer and humility, in the awareness that unity is a work of the Spirit and not a human achievement. This way, we envision a Church of ‘unity in diversity’ or ‘reconciled opposition’. A unified Church, where much ‘lived Protestantism’ receives a place.

The question has arisen in our platform whether this could take the form of a ‘Protestant rite’ in the one Church. Or is that impossible and will other models have to be considered? How can mutual recognition be given a place on the road to union? Recognition of the legitimate significance of the pope as pastor pastorum (shepherd of shepherds) and of the sacrament of the Eucharist on the part of Protestant churches and recognition of the legitimate significance of Protestant offices and Holy Communion on the part of Rome have been mentioned as steps toward this union.

It could easily be objected that the demand for unity is not the most pressing. Young people, it may be argued, are much more concerned with the growth of their personal faith, church planters are looking for new forms of community, and ‘ordinary’ congregations and parishes need all their energy to keep their heads above water. What are the benefits of unity for them? Should unity really be our aim? Doesn’t ecumenism often have the connotation of doctrinal vagueness and ‘watering down the wine’?

We do not want to dismiss these questions out of hand. We do not believe in ecumenism of the greatest common denominator, nor in ecumenism as a project from above. An ecumenism that does not understand and listen to the language of the hearts of believers from within is doomed to be fruitless.

However, let us all remember that we do not have Christ for ourselves and cannot live apart from the great family of Christ. We cannot have faith for ourselves apart from the faith of the one church. Shouldn’t we honestly admit that with our priorities, concerns, and questions, we are often trapped in a bourgeois status quo? That we wrongly think that we can better preserve our vitality in separation? However, in this way, we deprive ourselves of the deep joy of the one Church of the one Lord. Thus, we remain in history and prefer to listen to the laws of history rather than obey the laws of the Spirit. The Lord will be so patient with us that even then there will be true church life. But why not open ourselves to the word of Christ: ‘They shall be one flock, one Shepherd’?

Bram van de Beek

Koert van Bekkum

Eddy Van der Borght

Eric Bouter

Gijsbert van den Brink

Ad de Bruijne

Hans Burger

Wim Dekker

Kees van Ekris

Arnold Huijgen

Anne Westerduin de Jong

Gerard de Korte

Samuel Lee

Almatine Leene

Stefan Mangnus

Marcel Poorthuis

Marcel Sarot

Karim Schelkens

Diederik Wienen

Fokke Wouda

Arjan Plaisier

Yes, I sympathize with the intent of the Declaration.

Thank you!

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