Commentary: Crossing the Tiber

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor

WASHINGTON, June 4 (UPI) -- This coming Pentecost Sunday, the Rev. Leonard Klein will celebrate the birthday of the Christian Church for the last time as a Lutheran pastor.

He will stand in the magnificent chancel of Christ Church in York, Pa., consecrating the Eucharist as he has done for the past 22 years. The next time he will say mass at this "lovely feast," as Goethe called Pentecost, will be in perhaps three or four years' time -- as a Roman Catholic priest, and a married one at that.


Klein is "crossing the Tiber," as Lutheran and Anglican clergymen call the conversion of their many colleagues to the Church of Rome. Pastors and priests from these two liturgical denominations go this route with increasing frequency -- usually in despair over what they consider the slide of their previous spiritual homes into apostasy.


Others travel in a different direction; they "swim the Bosporus," which means that they join an Eastern Orthodox Church. Eminent Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan, editor of half the 55-volume English-language edition of Luther's Works, went that way some years back.

Pelikan, who translated several of the reformer's tomes, was quoted as saying, "I was probably the one Lutheran who knew most about Eastern Orthodoxy. Now I am the one Orthodox who probably knows most about Luther."

Many others followed him, for example Jay Cooper Rochelle, one of the most powerful preachers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a former seminary professor, who frequently writes for United Press International. In the Midwest, there are a slew of Orthodox mission churches whose priests were Protestant pastors.

Klein, who will convert with his wife and his daughter, is not just any minister. He was the editor of Lutheran Forum, a feisty highbrow journal defending faithfulness to Scripture and the 16th-century confessions against his denomination's kowtows to secular fads, which currently focus on the question of whether non-celibate homosexuals should be ordained and whether the Church should bless same-sex unions.

There have, of course, always been conversions from Anglicanism and Lutheranism back to the church from which these two denominations split in the 16th century. The case of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who became a cardinal, comes to mind.


But the pace of these conversions has been quickening in recent decades. The Anglican Communion alone lost hundreds of priests to Rome after its member churches decided to ordain women. One of the most prominent Lutherans to cross the Tiber was the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a prolific writer and editor, and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York.

Like his friend Klein, Neuhaus considered the Luther's Reformation completed by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As Klein said, "I realized that my view of Lutheranism as a reform movement for the Catholic Church meant that if I was really going to practice the best insights of the Reformation, I belonged inside the Catholic Church -- not outside it trying to make the Lutheran Church Lutheran."

Others equally appalled by the rapid theological and moral decline of mainline Protestantism, including the ELCA, feel that the Church of Christ must still hear the voices of the Reformers. Such distressed Protestants may opt for the more faithful competitors of these liberal denominations.

Thus Episcopalians would join any of the five major "continuing" Anglican churches, such as the Anglican Catholic Church, the Reformed Episcopal Church, or the Anglican Province of Christ the King. Traditionalist members of the Presbyterian Church USA would either become part of the burgeoning confessional movement within their denomination, or switch to the Presbyterian Church in America, which is growing at a breathtaking pace.


Disgruntled ELCA Lutherans might "swim the Mississippi," as some of them say, joining the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which has 2.6 million members and is headquartered in St. Louis; this columnist chose this option.

Whichever way the dissidents prefer to flee, though -- across the Tiber, Bosporus or Mississippi -- one thing is certain: hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions will "depart of fairer waters," as the Rev. Christopher Hershman of Allentown, Pa., phrased it, should the ELCA adopt an unbiblical approach to sexuality at its 2005 Church-wide Assembly, as many expect it will.

As all mainline denominations have to deal with the same issue, expect some of them to implode or erode to the point of irrelevance. More important, though, expect help from the southern hemisphere, where orthodox Christianity -- Protestant and Catholic -- is growing robustly, and whence black, brown, and yellow missionaries fly north, thundering into the ears of their American and Western European brethren: Hold it, you have lost your way.

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