calendar March 1, 2010 in Bishop, Bishop messages

Forever Connected in Christ


Bishop Claire S. Burkat was part of an official ELCA delegation led by Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson that met in London with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan D. Williams, leader of the Anglican Communion; in Istanbul, Turkey, with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, world Orthodox leader; and in Rome, with Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the world’s Roman Catholics.  The delegation also met with leaders of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) in Geneva during its Feb. 3-17 Ecumenical Journey.


I witnessed first hand how we are bound more closely to Christ than our scriptural and doctrinal differences can separate us.

On the seventh day of our journey, February 11, we visited the Roman Catacombs of Domitilla, just outside of the city of Rome.  An underground complex of passageways and burial tombs dug out of volcanic rock, the catacombs were the burial place for more than 150,000 Christians, many of whom were martyred in the second century.  A Basilica was built over the catacombs in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion in the Roman Empire.

In this church, Bishop Hanson donned a chasuble and alb, as our group descended two levels underground to a small alcove, which had been furnished with an altar, candles, and linens.  Bread and wine awaited us for our Eucharistic worship.

As we read God’s Word and celebrated Christ’s sacrament of Holy Communion, I was touched with astonishing gratitude for this experience.

When we sang the Doxology, I realized we truly were living our Christian belief that the great cloud of witnesses to the love and promises of Christ are for eternity, and for us.
“Praise God from whom all blessing flow…Praise God all creatures here below…”  We were those creatures below, connected forever with the communion of saints for all time and place.

When we began our journey in London, I had every intention of writing a daily blog to send at regular intervals.  A malfunction in my wireless service and the realization that we had very little time each day for writing allowed me to absorb the experiences at hand, and make the connections later.

The most powerful learning is my new understanding and appreciation for the oneness of God’s people in Christ.  Yes, there were differences in culture, in worship, in theology, and in current pressing issues as we traveled to four major Christian centers, and met with prominent Christian leaders in London, Istanbul, Rome and Geneva.  However, the hospitality, love and respect for us, and us for them, and our common faith in Jesus Christ transcended the difficulties, which sometimes threaten to divide us and undermine the common Christian witness to the world.

When Jesus prayed before his death on the cross that we all might be one, as he and the Father are one, I realized this was already being accomplished, through His Spirit in the lives and witness of the faithful people we encountered.

Bishop Burkat with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace.

In London the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan D. Williams, and Bishop Mark Hanson affirmed the full communion agreements between the worldwide Lutheran and Anglican expression in Canada, Europe and the United States.  Going forward we discussed with Anglican ecumenical leaders how important it is for us to work together to address the common challenges we face in this increasingly secular world; particularly, to commit resources and to summon the courage and will to fight poverty and disease across the globe, and in our own neighborhoods.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I with the bishop in Istanbul.

In Istanbul, I was impressed by the love and hospitality of our Orthodox brothers and sisters in spite of religious suppression.  Their patience, hope and faith that God will find a way for the Turkish government to allow freedom of faith expression and the opening once again their seminary was a heartfelt plea, and continues now to be part of my prayer petitions.

On Sunday morning, February 14, we worshipped and received the Word of God and the sacrament of Holy Communion secretly in an upper room of the hotel at 6:30 a.m. because Christian worship in a public place is prohibited in Turkey.  How remarkable, because this is the country in which all seven historic ecumenical councils were held, including the council of Nicaea 325 which brought forth the Nicene Creed in which we confess our belief in the one, holy catholic and apostolic church.

His All Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, was gracious in receiving us, and in spite of his exalted title is a humble, kind and faithful servant of God.  Some of the icons at the Patriarch’s church and at the seminary chapel date back to the fourth century.  Now when I look at an Orthodox icon, I see the faithful devotion of a people following Christ for two thousand years and I feel connected to this one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Just as I returned to the United States, I received a communiqué announcing a statement on ecumenism by the Ecumenical Patriarch that was read in Orthodox churches worldwide on February 21.  Bartholomew I says, “Orthodoxy must be in constant dialogue with the world.  The Orthodox Church does not fear dialogue because truth is not afraid of dialogue.” 
The Patriarch continued: “If Orthodoxy is enclosed within itself and not in dialogue with those outside, it will both fail in its mission and no longer be the ‘catholic’ and ‘ecumenical’ Church.  Instead, it will become an introverted and self-contained group, a ‘ghetto’ on the margins of history.”

[The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, responded to the statement with a plea to Secretary of State Clinton: “The Ecumenical Patriarch now experiences threats to his safety that require police protection and barbed-wire barriers. …We are grieved that his safety and freedom are constantly threatened.” Writing on behalf of the 36 member communions of the Council, he added, “Despite the many traditions and histories that our member churches bring to our council, we are emphatically agreed that a threat to the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a threat to Christians everywhere.”]

Father Gregory Fairbanks of the Vatican’s ecumenical affairs office with Bishops Burkat and Hanson.  Fr. Fairbanks was formerly posted in Philadelphia and was the Archdiocesan representative to Bishop Burkat’s installation.

In Rome, at the Vatican, thanks to Bishop Hanson’s position as President of the Lutheran World Federation, which represents 69 million Lutherans worldwide, Pope Benedict XVI received us as a group in a private “encounter.”  Our Lutheran delegation appreciated his and Bishop Hanson’s commitment to continuing dialog, in spite of some serious disagreements in teaching, theology and ethics.  “Our ecumenical journey which is now bringing us to you is a sign that we bear witness to Jesus’ prayer–that we might be one,” Bishop Hanson said to the Pope.  Pope Benedict responded to us, “May the Lord help us to treasure what has been accomplished so far, to guard it with care, and to foster its development.” He also shared that he hoped our meeting and conversations would be used by our Lord to bring about the unity He desires.

And so we concluded our journey in Geneva, Switzerland, home of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches.  We worshipped in the chapel at the World Council headquarters.  The architecture and furnishing of the chapel visibly represented the faith expressions of the member churches.

During meetings in Geneva, Bishop Burkat poses with Bishop Hanson and Dr. Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the LWF.

During our time at the Ecumenical Center we celebrated the ministry of the retiring General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko, from Nigeria, and welcomed the new General Secretary, The Rev. Dr. Martin Junge, a Chilean pastor and theologian who will take office next fall.

The Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, a Lutheran theologian from Norway, was elected General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, which represents 349 member churches, and 560 million Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant believers, including the ELCA.  Dr. Tveit told our delegation that “Jesus’ prayer that all believers would be unified is not only a word of information, but it is a word of transformation.  That is what we do here.  You are not only here to be informed, you are here to make a difference.”

In every group we met, Bishop Hanson reminded those gathered that we as ELCA Lutherans are an evangelical church, a confessional church, an ecumenical church and a missional church.

Every single day we encountered the devotion to Christ by the people of God in every country, we participated in hearing the Word and receiving the sacrament in various settings, from the most ornate to the most humble.  We toured and admired the art and architecture that glorifies God from generation to generation, century to century, even after kingdoms have fallen and disappeared.  We were renewed in our faith in Christ and our love for His Church throughout the world.  I witnessed first hand how we are bound more closely to Christ than our scriptural and doctrinal differences can separate us.

In Christ,

+ The Rev. Claire S. Burkat