The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) Exco and Heads of Churches of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) jointly organised a “Luther & Vatican Ecumenical Study Trip” on 24 May – 4 June 2019.
This marks for the first time such an ecumenical endeavour is undertaken whereby some leaders from the Lutheran, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Salvation Army and National Evangelical Fellowship, came together to foster a deeper ecumenical spirit locally as well as with the global body of Christ. This is facilitated by tracing the “biographical footsteps” and works of Martin Luther in Germany and making connections with the Catholic Church in Rome.
The participants of this Ecumenical Study Trip included Bishop Dr Ong Hwai Teik, Bishop of the Methodist Church, Bishop Aaron Yap of the Lutheran Church of Malaysia, Bishop Danald Jute of the Anglican Diocese of Sarawak & Brunei, Bishop Datuk Melter Jiki Nais, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Sabah, Archbishop Datuk Ng Moon Hing, Bishop of the Anglican Dioceses of West Malaysia and Primate of SEA, Mr Tan Kong Beng, Executive Secretary of CFM, Rev Andy Chi, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, Rev Fr George Harrison, Parish Priest of the Church of the Visitation, and other CFM Exco members and CCM Heads of Churches who were accompanied by their spouses. President Ezra Kok [CAC] and President Tie King Tai [SCAC] were also part of this delegation.
The itinerary began with our arrival at Neuendettelsau, Bavaria, which is about 2 hours drive from Munich, and situated 20 miles southwest of Nuremberg. We were most impressed by the cleanliness, beautiful, well planned and organised social and living environment of Germany.
The Headquarters of the Mission EineWelt [MEW] or Mission One World of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria is located here. It is the Mission One World that made it possible for our Ecumenical Study trip through their generous hospitality based on a strong conviction of the need for global ecumenical unity. The MEW is “committed to the Christian testimony in word and deed and it stands up for justice, peace and the preservation of the Creation.” It has connections and work relations with church institutions and projects in 32 countries, the oldest being with Papua New Guinea since 133 years ago.
The visit to the local Augustana Lutheran seminary [since 1947] was very profitable as we heard a presentation on “Luther and the Reformation” by Prof Dr Gury Schneider-Ludorf. She enlightened us on Martin Luther’s powerful tract in 1520 at Wittenberg – To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate that powerfully created spiritual, political, social and economic changes in 16th century Germany. Martin Luther, by God’s sovereign providence, expounded a theology that had far reaching reforming effects in shifting responsibility and authority for the welfare of the state and people to the secular authorities, ensuring access of the Bible for everyone through his translation. That led to wide-spread educational initiatives of the founding of schools and universities and strategic impact on art, culture, literature, music and architecture.
Another memorable highlight was the visit to the Protestant Church Central Germany in Erfurt where we witnessed how the local pastor and congregation share their premises and some worship services and community outreaches with the Augustinian monks. It was most heart-warming to hear from Rev Gabriele Lipski, Father Yakob and Fr Matthias how “we use everything together, we worship together” - in very concrete and practical ways.
We visited the remarkable Asisi Panorama “Luther 1517” - a 360° panorama (cyclorama) that provides a lively recreation of Wittenberg at the time of Martin Luther, his wife Katharina von Bora and his fellow Reformer Justus Jonas. This presentation of life in the medieval ages using lighting, art and spatial manipulation to create an unforgettable educational and mind-opening experience - is best experienced personally, rather than describing it on paper!
This was followed by the delegation led by Bishop Dr Ong Hwai Teik and Bishop Aaron Yap in planting of the CFM sponsored tree on 29 May 2019 at the Lutheran World Federation Luther Garden [set up to commemorate 500 years of the Reformation with the planting of 500 trees]. [All in the delegation participated in the act of planting and watering]. There are 11 denominations and major church networks from 101 countries participating, with 37 varieties of trees planted. Martin Luther had reportedly said, “Even if I knew that the world were to collapse tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today”. In 2017, Lutheran churches commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (Jubilee) here as it had its beginnings in Lutherstadt Wittenberg.
Our stay in Germany ended on 31 May with a visit to the head office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bavaria in Munich. There we had a constructive exchange on ecumenism and global issues relevant to the witness of the Church as we met Bishop Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, who is also chairman of the EKD, a German umbrella organization of Protestant, Lutheran and reformist churches [like our CFM].
The next leg was to Rome to visit the Holy See at which time, 8 of the 26 in the delegation had to leave for home. Apart from the dazzling architectural sights and wonders in the ancient Basilicas, Catacomb, Colosseum, Pantheon, the Scavi [site of the bones of St Peter] and the Vatican Museum, we were regaled with stories, legends and traditions by a most competent tourist guide who made the past come alive.
She gave us insights and increased our understanding of the religious life of the Catholic faith and of great personalities of our Christian faith when we visited the basilicas dedicated to St Peter, St John and St Paul.
The other highlights in Rome included our visit on 3 June to the Malaysian Embassy in the Holy See where we were warmly welcomed and accorded thoughtful Malaysian hospitality for lunch! We are so glad and honoured to be able to visit, dialogue and share a meal with the Malaysian community in the Vatican, hosted by the Ambassador, His Excellency Westmoreland E Palon and his wife and staff - who did most of the cooking!
We were warmly received by Cardinal Kurt Koch who heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity [PCPCU was set up by Pope John XXIII on 5 June 1960] on the next day. We learnt of the serious intention of achieving Christian unity via great efforts made by the Vatican in which it is engaged in international theological dialogue with at least 15 Churches and World Communions [including the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the World Methodist Council, the Baptist World Alliance, some Pentecostal groups and the World Evangelical Alliance]. Specific PCPCU officials are allocated to work with different World Communions and Denominations. There is also a Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.
This Ecumenical Study Trip, has unequivocally enriched the ecumenical fellowship within our delegation and fostered greater understanding, deepened friendships and unity as we come from different Christian traditions and denominations. We are further challenged to pursue unity in ecumenicity as we have been touched by the openness and warmth of the international Lutheran and Roman Catholic Communions. They have expressed their earnest sincerity in pursuing ecumenical unity by the way they so authentically and generously received and connected with our delegation.
We are again reminded of the great and sovereign providence of God, Who “in the fullness of time” – raised a man like Martin Luther who worked in a team with Philip Melanchthon [the first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation, intellectual leader of the Lutheran Reformation, and an influential designer of educational systems] and Lucas Cranach the Elder [German Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving]. Martin Luther was also aided by the timely invention of the printing press by Gutenberg and protected by Friederich the Wise from being assassinated. [Frederick III, Prince of Saxony worked for constitutional reform of the Holy Roman Empire and protected Martin Luther at a crucial period for the early Reformation].
We were reminded and inspired by the first hand exposure to the colossal and serious effort put in at a global level by the very much older and bigger historic denominations in intentionally pursuing unity in ecumenicity, that will authenticate the witness of the Lord’s Church. The current “next great step” in Christendom, in an age and a world that seeks unity, is demonstrating the reality of Christian unity. Christians possess little moral authority as messengers of the Gospel of reconciliation – unless we can demonstrate to a watching divided world that despite our denominations, we are “all one in Christ Jesus.” We need to let our unity in Christ shine through even though we do not disband our denominations. The risen Christ as reality of the heart and source of our fellowship must be affirmed; this basis should not be displaced by other substitutes. It is said that the measure of our maturity can be and is measured by the breadth and depth of our capacity for fellowship with other Christians.
In this unforgettable historic study tour, one refreshed participant said, “We were able to enjoy our study tour amidst much learning, self-reflection and personal transformation and fellowship.” Another sums up the priceless experience of this trip with these word: “All in all, this has been an eye opener for all those who participated in this study. This tour has indeed opened a whole new world of love, understanding and unity amongst the Churches.”
Bishop Dr Ong Hwai Teik
Christian Federation of Malaysia