A German bishop, speaking at an event to mark the 450th anniversary of the death of a close collaborator of Martin Luther, has re-opened debate on the papacy, an issue that has divided Roman Catholics and Protestants for five centuries - writes Anli Serfontein.
Bishop Ulrich Fischer, who heads the regional Protestant church of Baden in southwest Germany, was addressing an 18 April 2010 service to celebrate the life of Philipp Melanchthon, in Wittenberg where he and Luther lived and worked in the 16th century.
Melanchthon "had been ready to acknowledge the papal primacy over the bishops according to human law if this would serve the unity of the Church", recalled Fischer at the service at the Wittenberg Stadtkirche (town church) where Luther once preached.
Fischer described Melanchthon as the chief negotiator between the followers of Luther and the papacy in the 16th century.
Melanchthon faced anger from fellow Protestants for his proposal. However, "In his ecumenical orientation he can even be seen as a precursor of the modern ecumenical movement," said Fischer, whose church boundaries include the town of Bretten where Melanchthon was born in 1497.
"The recognition of a primacy of honour for the Pope has remained objectionable, but for the continuing ecumenical debate it is nevertheless a productive idea, which was proposed about 15 years ago by Pope John Paul II, and which quite wrongly attracted few positive reactions from the Protestant side," said the bishop.
Speaking at the official commemoration on 19 April attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Catholic Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller noted how Melanchthon had been pained by the church divisions during his lifetime.
"As a Catholic bishop and as chairperson of the ecumenical commission of the German Bishops' Conference I am deeply grateful for the common ground that has been given to the still-divided Christians in this county," said Müller.
Melanchthon was Luther's closest collaborator in Wittenberg, and as a systematic theologian, he helped mould the Lutheran Reformation.
Chancellor Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, noted in her address that the official event was taking place in Wittenberg's Castle church, where Luther is reputed in 1517 to have nailed his 95 theses to the church door. "From here the Reformation changed the world for ever," she said.
Melanchthon is also known in Germany as the "teacher of the people", for his efforts in opening up education. Merkel in her address praised Melanchthon as one of the, "greatest educational reformers of our history".
In her speech, the German chancellor touched on allegations of sexual abuse in church institutions and homes.
"Shocking cases have emerged in recent weeks," she said. "What is needed is an uncompromising and open investigation. We will need to draw consequences from this. And the highest watchword is protection against future abuse."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]