My Ecumenical Journey

This interesting article was drawn to our attention by the Revd Jon Dal Din, who is a deacon in Southwark Archdiocese. It was originally published in the Focolare Movement’s New City magazine: www.newcity.co.uk.
Luther’s Rose

Martin Sauter is a non-stipendiary pastor in the Lutheran Church in Ireland. He is currently Chairperson of the Dublin Council of Churches of which he has been a member as representative of his church since 1996.

My faith journey began in Southern German Pietism, a lay movement that originated in the German Lutheran lands of the Holy Roman Empire in the late 17th century. Pietism challenged a church many perceived as lacking a heart of faith, having for over a century since Martin Luther’s day focussed first and foremost on establishing church structures and academic theology and teaching institutions within a state church. Pietists called for a conversion of the heart and for works of faith, submitting to the divine commands to live a holy life, a life of sanctification.

Upbringing within a Pietist community

My father was the leading elder in the small community in my hometown of the Hahn’sche Gemeinschaft a pietist community named after the 18th century Swabian mystic Michael Hahn. For as long as I can remember people gathered in my parents’ living room four times a week reading the Scriptures, Hahn’s writings, singing hymns and praying. The brethren round the table would speak, while the women sat in the back silently. Our local community was quite distanced from the institutional church. The elders felt that the church had lost its way and that the faithful therefore had to withdraw from it to remain faithful to Christ. It did not secede from the church. I was therefore baptised and confirmed in the local United Evangelical church, but attendance of church services was discouraged. As a teenager and young adult, I found the demands of the community increasingly claustrophobic. I did not see any way of bridging the gap between life in the community and my life as a pupil/student in school with my friends whom I could not accept to be “lost” or “fallen” as the community would have held. This discrepancy eventually led me to become quite depressed.

The “ecumenical” discovery

It was a trip to Taizé in France in my first year in college that changed all that. I joined a group of fellow students and we travelled in a VW bus to find out about this ecumenical community of which we had heard so much. We arrived for Pentecost with thousands of other young people.

The experience of worship there with its emphasis on silent prayer, its movingly beautiful, simple, mantra-like chants, its reliance on the proclamation of Scripture, but without preaching, the sparse beauty of the church space, the simplicity of life together with so many from diverse backgrounds, the gentle but insightful introduction to Scripture by the brothers in bible study: all this turned my understanding of faith upside down. Everything was so electrifyingly different from religion as I knew it. I felt that I had encountered God for the first time. Taizé also awakened my curiosity in Roman Catholic theology and spirituality which has remained with me ever since.

A couple of years later saw me take up a secondary school teaching assistantship in Glasgow. Here I encountered the Iona Community. Impressive its consequential incarnational theology, and communal life, insisting on speaking and acting prophetically into the fraught social and political contexts of widening gaps between rich and poor, and a runaway nuclear arms race.

Justice and Peace pilgrimage

It was in Scotland that I discovered the rich legacy of the ancient Celtic Church, but most importantly, that I first had an inkling of the Holy Spirit’s gentle but insistent nudging of Christians into realising unity in the Body of Christ. It was in the summer of 1982 that Pope John Paul II visited Scotland. A Justice and Peace pilgrimage was organised finishing at the Papal Mass in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. As I arrived in Edinburgh for the start of the pilgrimage two things transpired: the organisers had innocently planned this event to be a completely Roman Catholic one, but it transpired that more than half of the pilgrims were from different churches, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Quakers and a Lutheran – clearly a Spirit-intervention! I will never forget the three days walking across the Lowlands of Scotland in the heat of late Spring: the conversations with fellow pilgrims as we discovered how much we needed to learn from each other. It dawned on me that the Body of Christ was indeed a reality, but that it was broken. For the Good News to unfold its power and its beauty, we needed to come together to allow the Holy Spirit to resonate with the rich gifts God has spread throughout the churches, only then, as Jesus prayed, the world would be able to believe (cf Jn 17,21).

A pastor in Ireland

Many moons have passed since then, and the journey was never boring. I got to know my wife Maeve from Dublin while studying in Germany.  We married, and we eventually settled in Ireland. Initially I thought my move to Ireland back in 1990 would bring me into a Celtic spiritual space, but God had other plans. On my first Sunday in Dublin I thought I would visit, for a first and last time, the little mostly German speaking Lutheran Church. Well, I walked into St. Finian’s just as the pastor intoned the Kyrie, and the rest is history. Among all the ecumenical connections and warm welcome I had enjoyed everywhere, I had come “home”, perhaps for the first time. The Lutheran liturgy and theology I encountered in St. Finian’s was what I had been looking for all along, without knowing it. I have remained here ever since, and in 2014 I was encouraged to embark on a process of preparation and theological examination that led to my ordination, endorsed by the Council of Bishops of the United Lutheran Church in Germany (VELKD) and carried out by Vice-President of the Lutheran World Federation Bishop Frank Ottfried July.

I am filled with gratitude for my journey. Step by step, I have been led to discover and participate in an ever-evolving communion which flows from the mystery of the Triune God which connects us across Churches and the entire globe.

As I write, we are in deep global crisis: a pandemic and climate crisis. Therefore, we understand ever more urgently our need for living our interdependence in a creative and caring way. So help us God!

Pastor Martin Sauter