To describe English bishop William Kenney as an “auxiliary of Birmingham” doesn’t capture the depth and range of his longstanding roles in pan-European church bodies — for two terms, for example, he was president of Caritas Europe, and he played a key role in organizing relief efforts for former Soviet countries following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Next week he will be part of a small, inner core at the joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation for which Francis will be going to Sweden. It’s the first visit by any pope to Scandinavia since John Paul II’s 1989 visit, which Kenney, incidentally, coordinated.

A fluent Swedish-speaker who spent 37 years in Sweden, Kenney  — who also speaks good German —  has long been involved with ecumenical dialogues at the inter-Nordic level, especially in the formal dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans. In 2013 he was appointed by the Holy See as co-chair of the international dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Recently he sat down with Crux in London to talk through the background to the event, the dialogue that’s expected to take place, and what Pope Francis might do or say to take it to a new level.

The Anglicans were recently in Rome to celebrate 50 years of relations and ecumenical dialogue. The dialogue with the Lutherans has been going on since the 1960s. How would you compare the two? 

They’re the two big dialogues that are going on. Both are of the same character, in the sense that not everyone in the Anglican Church is signed up to the Anglican one, and certainly not everyone in the Lutheran Church is signed up to the Lutheran one — there is another Lutheran body, apart from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), but the LWF is biggest.

But I would suggest that the Lutheran dialogue is nearer to us than the Anglican one is, even doctrinally. As the dialogues go, it has been quite successful.

The dialogue with the Lutherans since the 1960s led to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The things that we thought caused the Reformation have been taken away— the excommunication of the Lutherans was lifted, the condemnation of the Catholics were lifted. That is the formal Churches’ position now, it is not just a theological proposition.

There are those who say this has already achieved unity; it is certainly a major step forward, and it has removed most of the problems of the Reformation.

Since then we’ve been trying to find out what it means. It’s like when the Holy Spirit does anything — there’s this huge bomb, and then you try to find out what happened. That’s what we’re in the process of doing at the moment. The current dialogue, for example, is about the effects of baptism. There are serious Lutheran theologians who say that once you recognize baptism, which we do, then the Eucharist follows automatically, and so we should have inter-communion. That needs discussing.

Of course, some Lutherans don’t sign up to the declaration, and there are Catholics who don’t sign up to it either, but it is a major step forward. The issues which are still left, sexuality and women priests, are the ones that come up in modern times; they’re not the Reformation issues.

The women priests question is complicated, because some of the women priests I meet we have no problem with, because what they consider as priesthood has almost nothing to do with what we consider as priesthood.

I have received into the Church former Lutheran women priests who, in all honesty, simply wanted to preach, it had nothing to do with sacramental life.

The consensus of the 1999 document on justification stated, if I’ve understood it correctly, that the reasons for the Catholics condemning the Protestant positions and vice-versa no longer hold, and if ever each Church did hold the position that the other said they did, what is now true is that neither Church no longer holds that position. In other words, the Reformation was all a big misunderstanding!

That’s a good popular summary, yes. Would Martin Luther have been excommunicated today? The answer is no, he probably wouldn’t. And he did not want to split the Church — he came to that, but it’s not where he began.

Of course, you’ll find certain Catholics and certain Lutherans still claiming the other holds those positions, but they are not representative of the mainstream positions of the Churches. The document was approved by Rome, which binds Catholics whether they like it or not; the Lutherans are made up of about 100 churches, and there were about 37 who didn’t, back then, sign up to it. Some have come into line since.

When you read ‘From Conflict to Communion,’ the joint document summarizing that dialogue which has been issued to prepare both Churches for the commemoration, it is quite extraordinary how much convergence there is. 

And that’s why some people say we’re there, or almost there.

Of course, Luther would have been very shocked by homosexuality and women’s issues. Ecclesiology remains a key issue. But overall, we’re getting there, and this will inevitably lead to very painful decisions on both sides — about structure, about organizations and things like that.

With the document on justification, the central element of Protestant identity was taken away. Suddenly you can no longer define yourself against the other. I think we’re getting to the part of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue where unity will become a practical possibility, within decades.

Which raises, of course, what we mean by Christian unity. 

The Holy See’s position is that we are working for “visible unity”, without defining what it is. But I  can confidently say that’s more than what we’ve got now.

I think the Holy See is very sincere about that objective. If you go back to John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, when he asks the other Churches how they would like to see the papacy exercised, it’s because he wants all Christians to acknowledge the pope. He wasn’t saying they had to acknowledge the papacy as it is now, but to have some discussion about what it could be.

He said, “write to me, tell me what you want,” but they didn’t — or only very few. I can remember it took me about two years to get the Swedish church to even answer that.

Francis in Evangelii Gaudium quotes that passage from Ut Unum Sint and says nothing happened with it. What is Francis doing now, or could he do, to make that invitation more concrete to Lutherans?

He could obviously repeat it. He could, if he had the resources, get the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity to follow it up — we need to put skilled people onto it.  Certainly Francis’s embrace of synodality has gone down very well with the Lutherans.

‘From Conflict to Communion’ describes that what will happen in Lund is not a celebration, because we don’t celebrate division within Christianity, so what is it about? Is it a celebration of the journey the two Churches have been on towards unity? And why do you think Rome has agreed to kick off the Protestant world’s commemoration of the Reformation in Sweden?

I do know that there was a lot of talk in advance about whether the pope would come, and whether he would take part. But there has always been a Catholic presence at these Reformation commemorations — at least in recent times.

The pope coming, I think, is really his decision: as you know, he’s the man of the symbol, and the symbolic action of being there, whatever he says, is what will really matter.

Why Sweden? Because in 1947 the World Lutheran Federation was founded in Lund, and later went to Geneva. It’s important to note that the invitations are not from the Church in Sweden, they are from the LWF and from the Vatican. My invitation is signed by Cardinal Kurt Koch of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the chair of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib Younan.

So by speaking in Sweden, they are addressing all Lutherans everywhere?

That’s right.

Which brings us to one of the reasons for the commemoration — to assist with the reception of the document on justification, in other words, to help Lutherans and Catholics get behind it. 

That’s right — to gain popularity and knowledge of it, and to say to each other, these Catholics are not as horrible as we thought, these Lutherans are not as horrible as we thought. And let’s get together.

Most Catholics — and no doubt most Lutherans — have never read the document, and may wonder, ‘how does this affect us, in the parish?’ How would you summarize its importance for the person in the pew?

I think it’s very important that people know that the Reformation was a great misunderstanding, we all got it wrong, on both sides, and we’ve lifted excommunications and condemnations and apologized. So we can all be friends.

Which might lead some to say, if not ‘so what?’ then at least, ‘and now what?’

I think you’ve got to start now moving towards that visible unity. There’s no elephant in the room any longer. The elephant has gone back to the jungle and we’re left staring at each other in the same room, not really sure about each other. I think much of the ecumenical stuff now has to be at the local level. One of the big issues — and it will be interesting to see if Francis even mentions it — is inter-communion.

He’s already made a gesture about that, of course, when he visited a Lutheran church in Rome and, during a question-and-answer session, suggested to a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man that perhaps, if her conscience permitted, she could receive communion in her husband’s church. 

He did, but we’re not sure what it meant. He’s never clarified that.

There are respected Lutheran theologians who will say that by the very fact that you acknowledge baptism, which we already do, that automatically gives entrance to the Eucharist. That is an accepted theological position, which the Catholic Church does not accept but it respects. That is a way forward.

Already we allow Lutherans and other Protestants who can’t approach their own ministers, in certain circumstances, to receive — that’s allowed. So we can’t say at the same time that they don’t believe what we do. You can’t have it both ways.

You’ve got some Lutherans in Germany saying, because of this, that therefore we should withdraw our approval of the joint declaration, and you’ve got some Catholics in the United States who are saying therefore we should withdraw our recognition of Lutheran baptism. That is theological nonsense, and that is not Rome’s position — we recognize their baptism, and that’s not even open to discussion.

On the Eucharist, Lutherans have more or less the same doctrine as we have. But you’ve got Lutheran priests with practices that suggest otherwise, but they’re not widespread.

But there is enough convergence for Francis to have made his still-not-entirely-clear gesture?

If I wanted Francis to cause a pleasant revolution in Lund, he would say Lutherans can, under certain circumstances without asking all the time, receive the Eucharist. That would be a major gesture. The sort of thing I would like to see is that in a so-called ecumenical marriage, the non-Catholic party can always go to Communion with his or her partner. That would be a major step forward, and it’s pastorally very desirable.

I wouldn’t want to say, and it won’t happen, that any Lutheran could receive at a Catholic Mass — we’re not there yet, and it would cause confusion. But if you were to say, anybody who is married to a Lutheran and they are both believing…these marriages exist, very much so.

Francis is famously impatient with theological dialogue. He’s not against it, but he’s convinced you need to act together to create spaces for the Holy Spirit to act, and that’s what will bring about the unity. Mission together, act for justice together, show mercy … that’s what brings about unity, and the theological dialogue will catch up. That was more or less the message with the Anglicans.

That’s right. I think the justice part is there already — I can’t remember having a disagreement with a Lutheran over justice and peace issues; there’s at least as much agreement as among Catholics. Catholics and Lutherans often work together, issue joint declarations — for example, Caritas Internationalis and Swedish Church Aid. On South Sudan, we’re cooperating with the Swedish Church, for example.

We’re also beginning to get somewhere on evangelization and catechesis. The problem is always that we’re not quite teaching the same things yet. We’re certainly praying together — there’s a constant stream of invitations from both sides. And we’re long past the days of shouting at each other through newspapers. Nowadays you pick up the phone and say, ‘what the heck is going on?’ The relations between Catholic and Lutheran bishops are generally very good.

One of the concrete calls made at the end of ‘From Conflict to Communion’ is to jointly “rediscover the Gospel for our time.” That’s vague, but I’m guessing that it could mean acting together, for example, on refugees, on which Sweden has been exceptional — which is no doubt something Pope Francis will draw attention to. 

I think we and Lutherans can say, right now, faced with this huge movement of people, what right do we have to keep people out who are poor and desperate? When our politicians tell us we’re the fifth largest economy in the world? We should be out on the byways, and inviting them in.

It’s interesting that, apart from Italy, which has been fantastic, the countries that have taken in most people are Lutheran. They put the rest of us to shame. That might be something the pope wants to draw attention to.