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Sunday, October 31, 1999 Published at 09:21 GMT


Churches agree on 'basic truths'

Senior clerics prayed together before signing the declaration

By religious affairs correspondent Jane Little

Leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches have signed a historic declaration resolving a major point of disagreement that has divided the two churches since the Reformation.

The document does not say the two churches agree on all points but "it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification."

The Doctrine of Justification was the central issue in the Reformation which led to the division of Christian Europe more than 400 years ago.

The ceremony - on Reformation Sunday - marks a symbolic mutual recognition and has been years in the making.

Historic stage

Churches throughout Germany and beyond pulsate with the sounds of the hymn Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty Fortress is our God) by Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, on Reformation Sunday every year.

But this year, the singing could be more muted. What began 400 years ago with Luther nailing his 95 theses attacking Rome to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, has reached a new historic stage with the signing of the Joint Declaration on Justification - a central theological tenet of Christianity.

It lays out the way to salvation from sin. Luther, incensed by the Catholic church's practice of selling indulgences for spiritual rewards, argued that it comes not from doing good works but through God's grace alone.

Symbolic end to differences

"He wanted to protest really," said Dr Ann Murphy, a Catholic Reformation scholar. "He said if you really understand the relationship between human beings and God, you can't merit grace as a gift, you can't earn it. And you are justified or saved simply through God's gift in Jesus Christ."

Doctrinal condemnations and mutual hostility followed Luthur's protest. But Sunday's signing - achieved after 30 years of negotiation - marks a symbolic end to all that.

The Lutheran World Federation, which represents 60 million Christians belonging to the oldest denomination of Protestantism, is the first to patch things up with the Vatican.

Role of the Pope

Reverend Dr Ishmael Noko, general-secretary of the federation, says a totally new atmosphere has been created between Lutherans and Catholics.

"We're now able to take up some of the very difficult questions like the role of the Pope in the ecumenical community," he said.

The ultimate goal of both churches is reunion, but that is still some way off. More than 200 Protestant theologians have signed a petition criticising this agreement as a sell out.

Still, the fact that the two churches are worshipping together in Augsburg, where the first attempts to make up were made 400 years ago, marks something of a milestone in church history.

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