Red Box Base Group (?):   Link to the Resources page

Ecumenical relationships in Europe

One of the presentations at CTE's Europe Day on 15 November 2011 was by the Very Revd John Arnold, former Dean of Durham, and one of the architects of both the Porvoo and Meissen agreements. This overview of the history of ecumenical relationships, the two Agreements and their reception in England and in Europe is followed by a bibliography.  It will be useful to anyone interested in the development of the ecumenical world in recent years.


In its early phase the Reformation in England was much influenced by the Lutheran Reformation, by the writings of Martin Luther, by travellers and scholars and by theological conversations such as those held in Wittenberg in 1536.  It was largely led by bishops, some of whom died as martyrs during the Marian persecution of the 1550s, which drove many Protestant Anglicans into exile in Geneva and Frankfurt.  When they came back they brought with them the vision and experience of Reformed churches, which owed as much to Calvin and Zwingli as to Luther.  One result was that, four hundred years before the Leuenberg Concordia of 1973, the Church of England developed an amalgam of the Swiss and German Reformations, but it did so in its own way with a uniform liturgy and with the traditional three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.  It needed those elements of structure to survive, because there was always competition from considerable numbers of Roman Catholics one the one hand and radical and Calvinistic Protestants on the other.  To the Catholics it said, ‘Our orders are just as catholic as yours in unbroken continuity with the undivided church’; to the Protestants it said, ‘Our church is reformed in all essentials, and we neither need nor want a Presbyterian form of ministry.’


The word ‘Anglican’ was first used in its modern sense by King James, who was re-acting against both the Roman Catholicism of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, and also the Presbyterian Calvinism of his native Scotland.  He became King of England only on condition that the Church remained episcopally ordered; ‘No bishop, no King.’  He had married a Danish Princess; and it is a pity that he spent so much time drinking with his brother-in-law Christian IV rather than discussing theology, or we might have been in communion with the Church of Denmark at the beginning of the seventeenth instead of the twenty-first century.


 Christian’s object in 1606 was to persuade James to join a union of Protestant princes and he was deeply disappointed, when he failed to do so.  The reason was that James wanted to be friends with everyone and further church unity by the only means available to him then, namely by marrying off his children, one to a Catholic, one to a Calvinist and one to a Lutheran.  The premature death of Prince Henry meant that the plan went wrong; but it is pleasant to speculate that if male primogeniture had been abolished then, the admirable Princess Elizabeth would have become Queen, Britain would have been saved a Civil War and Germany the Thirty Years’ War.


 Be that as it may, King James established a pattern, which can still be seen today in the Church of England’s commitment to ‘all-round ecumenism’ and its reluctance to join the Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe (the successor body to the Leuenberg Fellowship), which continues to disappoint and, indeed, baffle many of our friends.  Anglicans welcomed the achievement of the original aim, which was to lift the sixteenth century anathemas between Lutherans and Calvinists, but recoiled from what appeared to be an attempt to form a new pan-Protestant League with a higher political profile in Europe, in reaction to the development of the European Union and to the resurgent Catholicism of Pope John Paul II.  They preferred to work vis à vis the European institutions through the Conference of European Churches, and to keep alive the hope, however distant, of eventual union with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.


Like the Church of England, but unlike the Germans and the Swiss, the Scandinavian Churches remained churches for whole nations with their diocesan and parochial structures and the ministries, which served them, intact.  And, because they were spared the attention of iconoclasts and a violent dissolution of their monasteries, they preserved greater visual continuity with the medieval church than did the Church of England, with which there was never a formal schism.  Our churches have never unchurched or anathematised each other (contrast Lutherans and Reformed, Lutherans and Baptists).  Indeed, the English Reformers explicitly acknowledged the right and duty of ‘every particular or national Church’ to reform itself, or at least its liturgy, under God’s Word (Preface to the Prayer Book of 1552 and Article XXXIV).  There was not much that we have had to undo, other than the effects of drifting apart during the centuries.


The modern Anglican-Lutheran dialogue began with conversations between the Church of England and the Church of Sweden in 1909, followed by Finland 1933-34 and Estonia-Latvia 1936-39 on the eve of their illegal absorption into the Soviet Union.  In each case the starting point and framework was the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 (the holy scriptures, the catholic creeds, the gospel sacraments and the apostolic ministry, including the historic episcopate).  It is this fourth leg, which makes the Lambeth Quadrilateral more solid than the three-legged stool of protestant ecumenism (scripture, creeds and sacraments) – but of course a four-legged chair wobbles if either the legs are of unequal length or the floor uneven, whereas a three-legged stool is stable in all circumstances.  After the Second World War in 1947 the scope was broadened to include the churches of Norway, Denmark and Iceland, leading to an agreement on mutual invitation to Communion in 1954.  The net result of these separate agreements was that by the 1950s the Church of England was making distinctions between the Nordic churches which they did not make among themselves, constituting as they did and do a remarkably homogenous sub-regional group of national folk churches with many common characteristics and a high degree of communion and fellowship.


The 1950s were also the heyday of churches and peoples finding each other again after the Second World War.  All Anglicans had been on the same side in the war.  This was not the case with Lutherans, who had no framework of international communion at the time.  They formed the Lutheran World Federation, at first for purely practical purposes; but it soon entered into dialogue with the Anglican Communion at world and European levels.  Everywhere Anglicans and Lutherans found that they had much in common and were co-operating naturally.   Anglicans were also engaged in far-reaching conversations with Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Reformed churches, and in failed attempts to unite with the Methodists, the other English Free Churches and the Church of Scotland at home.   Lutherans mounted their own dialogues with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches; and they achieved pulpit and altar fellowship with the Reformed Churches in Europe by means of the Leuenberg Accord of 1973.



A new phase began in the early 1980s with a serious attempt by the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran World Federation to reach agreement on episcope, leading to the Niagara Report of 1987Meanwhile, we were all reaping a rich harvest of other ecumenical dialogues; and part of the Meissen/Porvoo methodology was to make use of existing material, rather than attempt to think up everything de novo and re-invent the ecumenical wheel, and also to test rigorously for consistency between the various dialogues.  Further encouragement was given by the publication in 1982 of the World Council of Churches report on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry; but the real impetus came in 1983 from the 5th centenary of the birth of Martin Luther.


 It was while participating in the celebrations of this event in East and West Germany that Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury proposed that closer relations be established with the German Protestant Churches.  He also issued a more general invitation to Lutheran churches, which led eventually to the conversations with the Scandinavian, Nordic and Baltic churches.  It had been his intention to hold the first round with them but his initiative met with such swift and warm responses from the Germans that the two sets of conversations took place the other way round, Meissen in effect serving as the forerunner of Porvoo.  The Luther celebrations, the large number of twinnings and the desire for reconciliation since the Second World War, and the reports of various theological commissions all helped to produce a favourable climate, leading to the Meissen Declaration, completed in 1988 and inaugurated in January/February 1991 with services in Westminster Abbey and Berlin in what was now a re-united Germany.  We had begun with tri-lateral talks and ended with bi-lateral celebrations.  Liturgical celebration, rather than mere signing, was a specifically Anglican contribution to ecumenical methodology.  So was the provision of structures of implementation and for joint oversight, not only of that implementation but also of the life in fellowship of the churches.


 The Meissen Declaration marks an important stage in growth towards the full visible unity of the Church.  However it is only a stage, because the mixed, federal polity of the German Churches (Lutheran, United and Reformed) proved to be an obstacle to agreement on episcopal succession.  ‘ Because of this remaining one difference our mutual recognition of another’s ministries does not yet result in the full interchangeability of ministers.’  (para 16).  It continues,  “Yet even this remaining difference, when seen in the light of our agreements and covergences, cannot be regarded as a hindrance to closer fellowship between our Churches.” (ALERC, 43).  We rejoice in that ‘closer fellowship’, but beyond it lies a move to the full recognition both of churches and of ministries within the wider perspectives of the universal Church.



That is just what the Porvoo Common Statement does.  It contains much of the same material as Meissen, but there are some points of difference and development.  First, the participants on one side were exclusively Lutheran, episcopally ordered, and, with the exception of Lithuania, historic, national folk churches.  On the other side, they included all the Anglican churches of Europe – Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as England.


Secondly, Europe had changed almost out of recognition between March 1988 (Meissen) and October 1992 (Porvoo).  The driving out of the spirit of Marxist-Leninism from central and Eastern Europe had not led to paradise restored, at least not among the churches.  Seven even more evil spirits had rushed in and Central and Eastern Europe was in turmoil.  The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches fell out with each other; and the Leuenberg Agreement had not led to the visible unity of Protestantism in Europe, which appeared to be as fragmented as ever.  In many places, though not in Britain and Scandinavia, the ecumenical movement was going backwards.  An Anglican-Lutheran agreement would be a rare inter-confessional breakthrough and a beacon of hope.


Thirdly, the agreement envisages ‘communion’ between the participating churches.  It goes beyond Meissen, indeed as far as it is possible to go with churches, which remain structurally and confessionally distinct.  This is a communion of two confessions, not a new compound Anglican-Lutheran church.  The Lutherans remain Lutheran and the Anglicans Anglican.  However, it is a dynamic, not a static relationship with implications, some of which have already been realised.  Others lie in the future.  “We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” (1John 32)


Fourthly, the Porvoo statement is more substantial, about twice as long as Meissen.  It had to be, because it was preparing the ground for a bigger and potentially more controversial step, namely the recognition of each other as churches, with the recognition of each other’s ministriesas they are.  The skeleton is similar to that of Meissen but it carries more flesh.  The Co-Chairmen’s Foreword provides a useful introduction and an authoritative statement of our intentions.  After setting the scene in chapter I with an emphasis on missionary opportunities, especially in the newly liberated Baltic lands, a common ecclesiology is developed in chapter II as the basis for the vision of unity.  The portrait of ‘a church living in the light of the Gospel’ (paragraph 20) is especially significant, because it is agreement on that image and likeness which enables us to recognise each other’s churches, as we do each other’s faces, by their features.  This is an iconic ecclesiology.  Porvoo benefited from earlier failures by its insistence that partners in conversations on church unity agree first on the nature of the church and then on the nature of the unity they seek before going on to make specific proposals.


Chapter III contains a much fuller statement of our agreement in the faith, without any qualifications or reservations at all.  It cannot be overstressed that agreement in the faith is not a matter of comparing 16th century statements like the Augsburg Confession and the 39 Articles and declaring, centuries later, either that they are irreconcilable or that despite appearances they really meant the same thing.  Instead, we make the attempt to state together what we actually believe today.  And we discovered that we do believe the same things, with different emphases it is true; but the differences in emphasis between the churches are smaller than they are within the churches and in any case are not sufficient to require division or impede unity.


The theological agreement (para 32) consists of 12 articles, in a logical, that is to say, theological order.  It begins (a, b and c) with the scriptures, God’s will and commandment and the gospel of Jesus Christ, described in the classical Reformation terms of justification by grace through faith.  This is our common scriptural heritage.  It then turns (d, e, f, g and h) to the apostolic and sub-apostolic heritage – the catholic creeds, liturgical worship, the church and the sacraments.  The section on the ministry (i, j and k) properly begins with the laity and what is here called ‘the corporate priesthood of the whole people of God’, which is less misleading than the old formula ‘priesthood of all believers’.  It moves on to the ordained ministry and within that to pastoral oversight and the episcopal office.  This order – the whole church, the ministry, bishops, rather than bishops, ministry, church – will turn out to be important when we come to the vexed question of the apostolic succession.  Finally (1) we look forward in common hope to common service and the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom.


Chapter IV takes the ‘long-standing problem about episcopal ministry and its relation to succession’ and it follows the order already established in chapter III, namely church, ministry, bishops.  To quote the co-chairmen’s foreword: “In seeking to unlock our churches from limited and negative perceptions, this chapter spells out a deeper understanding of apostolicity, of the episcopal office and of historic succession as ‘sign’”.  The limited and negative perception from which we needed to unlock some Anglicans is a view of Apostolic Succession, restricted to a supposedly unbroken chain of the laying on of hands upon individual bishops from the time of the Apostles until now.  The Common Statement, however, stresses the missionary and charismatic dimensions of apostolicity, especially its primary location in the Church as a whole (paragraphs 39 and 40) and only then in the local church under the leadership of the bishop (paragraphs 41-45).  This enables us to say (paragraph 49) ‘The continuity signified in the consecration of a bishop to episcopal ministry cannot be divorced from the continuity of life and witness of the diocese to which he is called’.  By bringing together the agreement on the church as koinonia and as a sign of the Kingdom with the material on ordination and continuity, the laying on of hands in the historic succession is taken out of the realm of negotiation and placed in the realm of grace, of Gospel freedom, of humble and diffident offer and of willing acceptance.  The question then becomes whether our churches really do wish in this way, 'to make more visible the unity and the continuity of the Church at all times and in all places’.


We come now to the Joint Declaration with its ringing opening words, ‘We, the Church of Denmark’, its six acknowledgements and its ten commitments.  It is the Declaration, not every word of the Common Statement, to which the signatory churches subscribe.  Note the use of the word ‘acknowledge’ in preference to ‘recognise.’  This comes from Meissen (‘anerkennen’, not ‘erkennen’) in order to avoid giving the impression that any church is conferring recognition on another.  We are simply recognising what is already the case.


The commitments follow naturally and are self-explanatory.  Note that bishops are to be invited ‘normally’, not ‘invariably’, to participate in the laying on of hands at episcopal ordinations, again to avoid giving a false impression.  And commitment vii ‘to work towards a common understanding of diaconal ministry’ is a sign that Porvoo does not insist on any particular theory of ministry beyond what is said in para 32j and that it is open to further discussion of the relationship between the one ministry and the three-fold ministry.


The Common Statement concludes with recommendations for liturgical celebration (B 59) and it sets ‘our agreement and the form of visible unity it makes possible’ in the context and perspectives of the ecumenical movement as a whole.  ‘We do not regard our move to closer communion as an end in itself but as part of the pursuit of a wider unity.’ (C 60, 61)  Porvoo is not a terminus but a sign pointing beyond itself towards other relationships, the development of which it positively encourages



The Common Statement and the Joint Declaration raised few problems for the Churches of Sweden, Finland and the Baltic States.  All these churches derive their orders from the Church of Sweden which like England in this respect carried out the Reformation under a strong centralised monarchy while keeping the diocesan and parochial structures of the mediaeval church intact and retaining or, in some cases, regaining the apostolic succession of bishops.  Only in Latvia, facing acute internal problems, has the matter not yet been brought forward for decision.


It was a challenge to the Anglicans to accept a broader view of apostolic succession and of its applicability to the Churches of the Danish Reformation.  Bishops of all these churches derived their orders from the German Reformer Johannes Bugenhagen, who though exercising a ministry of episcopé as Superintendent, was himself in priest’s orders.  This had formerly proved a stumbling block for Anglicans; and Porvoo broke new ground by locating apostolic succession primarily in the succession of the people of God in faith and in a particular place, and also by taking a more positive view of the actions of Bugenhagen im Notstand in (the emergency situation of) 1536 in ordaining Superintendents to fulfil an episcopal ministry in the vacant sees.


In the event matters went smoothly in Iceland and Norway largely, as can be seen with hindsight, because of the availability of synodical decision-making there.  The first phase of the process of adoption was completed in 1996, when the Agreement was celebrated in Trondheim, Westminster Abbey and Tallinn.  The Church of Denmark, which is the keystone in the arch, followed in 2010.  Successive Lambeth Conferences and Assemblies of the Lutheran World Federation welcomed, approved and commended the Porvoo process.


This ‘Northern Communion, stretching from Greenland to Finland and Estonia’ is not a threat to anyone else.  It has stimulated, rather than stifled, attempts to achieve unity with other churches.  Anglican-Lutheran relations have flourished in North America with substantial agreements in Canada and the United States, with whose churches we stayed in close contact throughout the process.   We may expect further progress in Africa, perhaps at pan-African level, and indeed wherever Anglicans and Lutherans find themselves living in harmony and making common cause in the service of Jesus Christ.  The Churches of Norway and Denmark have joined the Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe.  The Church of Sweden has transformed its relationship with the Mission Covenant Church.  The Methodists  re-opened negotiations with the Church of England, explicitly on the basis of Porvoo, and we are now in a Covenant relationship with them.  The Church of England has also achieved a Meissen level of fellowship with the Moravians and with French Protestantism, Lutheran and Reformed.


This has proved possible because at Porvoo we established the priority of the recognition of churches over the reconciliation of ministries and adumbrated a sustainable view of ‘episcopacy in the service of the apostolicity of the Church.’  We can be grateful to the Danish participants for causing us to develop a deeper doctrine of the ministry and a more sustainable view of the historic episcopate.  Other churches are beginning to take an interest, not least ecumenically minded Roman Catholics who see in Porvoo an acceptable form of Uniatism between equals without dominance or subservience.  Indeed, it was they who asked me to write an article for the Ecumenical Kirchentag Handbook on the way in which the Anglican doctrine of the ministry has evolved in ökumenischer Sensibilität in the course of the Meissen and Porvoo discussions. As we move by stages towards the goal of full visible unity in truth and holiness of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Porvoo paradigm may well come into its own



Select Bibliography


Basic Texts


The Meissen Agreement:  Texts.  Council for Christian Unity Occasional Paper No.2, 1992.


Die Meissner Erklärung:  Eine Dokumentation.  EKD-TEXTE.  Hannover, 1993.


Together in Mission and Ministry:  The Porvoo Common Statement with Essays on Church and Ministry in Northern Europe.  Church House Publishing, London, 1993.


The Porvoo Declaration:  Reference to the Diocesan Synods and Study Guide.  CCU, 1994.



General Background


Hunter, Leslie (ed).  Scandinavian Churches.  London.  Faber.  1965.


Österlin, Lars.  Churches of Northern Europe in Profile.  Norwich.  Canterbury Press.  1995.


Podmore, Colin.  The German Evangelical Churches.  London.  CCU.  1992.



Anglican-Lutheran Ecumenical Texts


The Church of England and the Church ofSweden.  Report of the Commission appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  London.  A.R.Mowbray.  1911.


The Church of England and the Church of Finland.  Lambeth Occasional Reports 1931-38, pp 115-187.  London.  SPCK.  1948.


Report of the Joint Commission appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Turku, July 1934.  In Vilmos Vajta (ed)  Church in Fellowship: Pulpit and Altar Fellowship Among Lutherans.  Minneapolis.  Augsburg.  1963.


Conferences between … the Church of England and … the Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Latvia and Estonia (1936-38).  Lambeth Occasional Reports 1931-38, pp 146-147.

The Church of England and the Churches of Norway, Denmark and Iceland.  London.  SPCK.  1952.


Anglican-Lutheran Dialogue:  Helsinki Report 1982, London:  SPCK, 1983.


The Niagara Report.  Report of the Anglican-Lutheran Consultation on Episcope, Cincinnati:  Forward Movement Publications, 1988



 Other Ecumenical Texts


All under One Christ.  In Meyer and Vischer (eds).  Growth in Agreement.  New York/Geneva.  1982.  pp241-247.


Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry.  WCC.  Geneva.  1982.


God’s Reign and our Unity.  The Report of the Anglican-Reformed International Commission  1981-1984.  SPCK.  London.  1984.


Leuenberg Agreement (1973).  Trilingual edition with an introduction.  Verlag Otto Lembeck.  Frankfurt am Main.  1996.


Leuenberg, Meissen and Porvoo.  Hüffmeier and Podmore (eds).  Verlag Otto Lembeck.  Frankfurt am Main.  1996.


Anglican-Moravian Conversations.  The Fetter Lane Common Statement.  Council for Christian Unity Occasional Paper No.5.  London.  1996.


Called to Witness and Service.  The Reuilly Common Statement.  Church House Publishing.  London.  1999.


See also the bibliography in Together in Mission and Ministry pp 195f.




John Arnold                                               Canterbury                                              15 Nov 2011



Low GraphicsCopyrightT&CsPrivacyHelpRegistered Charity 1110782, Comp Reg No 5354231