On Sunday 15 October, Lutheran pastor Tom Pietsch delivered the third annual Barry Nunn Memorial Oration at Corpus Christi College. Coming from the Australian Lutheran College in Adelaide, Pastor Pietsch said that the challenges facing church bodies across the West today ‘are potentially greater than the ones that have divided us in the past.’

In his introduction to the evening, Fr Cameron Forbes explained that the Barry Nunn Oration comes to Corpus Christi as a bequest in 2020 from the late Barry Nunn. It is an annual lecture meant to honour the memory of the Rev Dr Peter Cross, a man who had close ties to Catholic Theological College (CTC) and Corpus Christi, and who was heavily involved in a number of ecumenical projects during his lifetime.

Its purpose is also to aid seminarians in the field of ecumenical knowledge, thinking and understanding.

In Adelaide, Pastor Tom Pietsch lectures in early and medieval Church history, Reformation history, apologetics, world religions and Lutheranism, as well as philosophy and theology. Prior to his entry into ministry, he studied economics and classics at Monash University.

Pastor Pietsch is currently a PhD student with the Australian Catholic University, focussing his research on St Cyril of Alexandria and his treatise De Adoratione et Cultu in Spiritu et Veritate.

He spoke on the topic ‘Lutheran–Roman Catholic Dialogue: Contours and Future Challenges’.

The Lutheran–Roman Catholic dialogue is ‘the longest continuous dialogue between two Church bodies,’ Pastor Pietsch said. Despite a rocky history, considerable strides were made in mutual understanding following the Second Vatican Council, resulting in the famous 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

Such strides reflect a time when the Church was enjoying ‘post-war growth and influence in society’.

Even so, ‘a different world is emerging, an altered landscape for all Western churches compared to that of the 1960s, even if the undercurrents were already running below the surface in the 1960s,’ Pastor Pietsch said. ‘A demographic sinkhole has been opening up beneath our parishes, and as one might expect in any human organisation suffering significant decline, politics is often consuming our shrinking parishes, dioceses and denominations.’

Pastor Pietsch spoke forthrightly about the challenges facing the Catholic Church and his own Lutheran Church, predicting that, due to the internal divisions rending Church communities across the West, a new style of ecumenism may well emerge.

A number of ‘flash points’ and lightning-rod issues have consumed different Church communities for decades, he argued, both Protestant and Catholic. Pointing to questions about the indissolubility of marriage, women’s ordination, abortion, gender and sexuality, Pastor Pietsch said that Church bodies everywhere are facing a much deeper crisis than that presented by the Reformation.

‘We are not always facing vast theological differences across denominational divides, but within them,’ he proposed.

In agreement with the Catholic historian Richard Rex, Pastor Pietsch said that while the first great crisis for the Church was the Arian crisis (seeking to answer the question, ‘What is God?’) and the second great crisis was the Reformation (seeking to answer the question, ‘What is the Church?’), the third great crisis is underway and revolves around the question, ‘What is man?’

In other words, what does it mean to be a human creature, to be created in the image of God? ‘This crisis is all the more striking because we are facing it divided, with the previous crisis, the Reformation, not yet resolved,’ he said. ‘And even though we’re divided, nevertheless we’re together drinking from the same cultural wells.

The contemporary push for a body emptied of intrinsic meaning, and awaiting the assertion of our will to project upon it any meaning it so wishes, the enthronement of desire as the sacred matter that determines our core identity and ontology is a movement that has its roots in centuries past of Western thought.

While others have been pessimistic about this state of affairs, Pastor Pietsch resisted the idea of an ‘ecumenical winter’ taking over the churches, arguing instead that this crisis may well shape ecumenical dialogue ‘for the better’ in years to come, producing ‘an ecumenism of mutual encouragement’ in which Church bodies ‘committed to historical Christianity … support each other across denominational divides.’

As the internal divisions become more apparent, these challenges may also present an opportunity to ‘sharpen our witness in a way that has ecumenical significance.’

‘It sometimes takes a crisis to draw nearer to the fullness of the faith,’ he said. ‘Seeking Christ, seeking his face, is always an ecumenical work, for only in the Christ will any lasting unity be found.’

While tremendous breakthroughs have been made in ecumenical dialogue over the last several decades, the present moment should not lead us to despair of further breakthroughs.

‘Indeed, we can work towards those breakthroughs, by ecumenical friendships among those committed to historical Christianity, and by approaching our own Church crises with faithful conviction and prayerful discipleship of Christ.’