Harding Meyer (1928 – 2018)

Obituary by André Birmelé 

The worldwide ecumenical movement lost in Harding Meyer’s death on the first of December this year one of its most important figures. Meyer was an ecumenical visionary and a pioneer. Many of the developments in global bilateral relationships can be traced back to him. We have much to thank him for.

Originally, however, Meyer had no particular interest in ecumenism. In 1958 he took a post as docent at the Lutheran theological faculty in San Leopoldo, Brazil. As a good Lutheran theologian, he was principally interested in the truth. In those days, before the Second Vatican Council, he met and spoke with representatives of the locally very strong Catholic church, through which Meyer gradually became convinced that concern for the truth could not be divorced from the question of the unity of the church. When, in 1966, he was called to the role of Secretary for Ecumenical Questions at the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, he was able to bring this conviction to the global level. The first international dialogue in which he participated was the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, which began in 1967. He took part in this dialogue for twenty-five years.

In 1971 Meyer moved to the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg. The LWF had founded the Institute at its assembly in Helsinki in 1963 to accompany Lutherans’ global dialogues with other Christian churches. At the outset the Institute had multiple difficulties so it fell to Meyer to give it the necessary direction and drive to do its work. His focal points were equally conducting dialogue and intensive investigation of the Lutheran heritage, on the principle that it is only dialogue partners who fully know their own identity can successfully engage in a dialogue that is not satisfied with compromises but always looks to the ultimate goal of the unity of the church throughout the world.

Due to his already vast experience, Meyer dreamed of an Institute where Lutheran scholars from many different countries around the world in all their diversity would work together. Thus these representatives, while eachworking on the global level to converse with a specific Christian family, would also need to keep their attention focused on their local contexts. This was bound up with travel to give lectures and courses in locations all over the world. Meyer developed this dream and contributed to the Institute’s international recognition which it continues to enjoy to this day. Specific theologies and church institutionsas seen individually in countries were too narrow a scope for him. He was convinced that there was not just one way to be church, and the Institute should not speak as if there was. For this reason he insisted that the directorship of the Institute would rotate among the staff every two years. This was an important structural principle to keep the Institute open to voices from around the world without the post turning into a matter of bureaucratic administration. Meyer himself took on this two-year post a number of times, but he was equally happy when a colleague from Eritrea, Indonesia, Finland, or the US held it. So he enacted within the Institute’s structure his fundamental conviction: unity in diversity! Not only dialogue with other churches, but first of all dialogue within Lutheranism.

The many activities that Meyer took part in, his numerous publications, and the impetus he gave to others are so many and so wide-reaching that it is not possible to enumerate them in detail. But two in particular have had such great significance that they are worth saying a few words more about.

As mentioned above, Meyer took part in the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue from the beginning. He was the Lutheran expert. Already in its first report (1972) the dialogue achieved a wide-reaching consensus on the understanding of salvation. This was further verified in the understanding of the Lord’s Supper (1978). There it was asserted that a basic consensus existed on the doctrine of the Eucharist, and only the question of the office of ministry remained an obstacle. Accordingly, the dialogue then turned to the ministry. It was acknowledged in the 1981 report that in this domain there remained unresolved questions.

Meyer was of the opinion that only an official statement at the highest ecclesiastical levels would lead to the widespread reception of these dialogue results. His first attempt, under the title “Facing Unity,” was however rejected. In response, he took up a suggestion originating in the US to work on a “Declaration” that would express the basic consensus on the understanding of salvation and how the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century could be lifted between the two churches today. The outcome was the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), which was signed in 1999 by the Vatican and the churches of the LWF. This declaration is of the highest significance, since it is to date the one and only declaration that the Roman church has signed with a church of the Reformation. Meyer himself wrote the first draft of the JDDJ. He initiated the whole process. This first draft was thoroughly edited,and the project wascarried on after Meyer’s retirement by others, mainlyhis successor, Theodor Dieter. Nevertheless, Meyer accompanied the entire process, even from a distance, from beginning to end. His personal contacts also played a critical role in the process, for instance his good relationship with Cardinal Lehmann and, not least of all, with Pope John Paul II, who received him in private audiences. The JDDJ is an important result of recent ecumenical efforts. It in large part can be traced back to the preliminary workby Meyer.

The second momentous contribution that Meyer made that should be mentioned here concerns methodology. When scholars enter into dialogue, they are charting new territory. They must address not just the topic itself but the goal of the conversation and the ways to get there. Much that is taken for granted today here also can be traced back to Meyer’s innovative work. In particular he formulated two principles that are used throughout the world today, even by people who have no idea who authored them.

The first principle concerns models of unity. Meyer advocated for “unity in reconciled diversity.” Unity as uniformity was a totally foreign concept for him. Diversity is essential for church life. The problem lies in the divisive character of certain differences. This divisive character is specifically what must be overcome. That is the goal of the dialogues. Dialogue therefore reaches its goal when differences have been reconciled, which is to say that they are seen as legitimate expressions of the same gospel. A prime example of this is the four Gospels in the holy Scripture. They are different, have different emphases, and nevertheless they agree in the essentials.

In this same way, Meyer argued, the various Christian families should seek to be reconciled to one another without sacrificing their own distinctive identities. This vision was not that of the World Council of Churches, and there were some very tense conversations between the Institute in Strasbourg and Lukas Vischer, the leader of the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission. Meyer’s approach eventually won the day, as is witnessed not only by the JDDJ but by many other ecumenical developments as well.

The second principle that can be traced back to Meyer and has since been adopted worldwide is “differentiated consensus.” It is closely connected to “unity in reconciled diversity.” If unity is not uniformity, then so also must any consensus that would lead to unity cannot contradict the principle of “reconciled diversity.” Therefore consensus must not merely tolerate remaining legitimate differences in silence but expressly name and claim them as reconciled and therefore not divisive differences. In this way, consensus itself must be differentiated.

Here again the best example is the JDDJ. It makes clear that a consensus in the doctrine of justification exists and that the same fundamental truths can be said by the respective partners in different ways. However, since the notion of “differentiated consensus” has been misunderstood in many ways leading to different valuations of consensusas more or less full consensus, it is better now to speak of “differentiating consensus.” This in any event better expresses what Meyer intended and what today many bilateral dialogues confirm.

It is an interesting fact that even civil society has adopted these principles. The former president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, visited Meyer in Strasbourg in order to better understand his approach. Thus this way of engaging in dialogue takes place today not only in Strasbourg, but also in Brussels.

Deeply rooted in the Christian faith and faithful to his Lutheran heritage, Harding Meyer always strove for the unity of the church. But for him it was much like elderly Moses at the edge of the promised land. Meyer saw the unity of the church from afar but it was not given to him to enter into it. But he did much to set the churches on the right course and direct them. All of us, his colleagues and successors, are indebted to his approaches to ecumenism and are eager to continue along the road he first explored.

Harding Meyer died in the night of the first Sunday of Advent. A candle is lit and we are on the way to meet the Lord. Meyer has already arrived there. He sees now fully what we see only in part.

Thank you, Harding!

Download: Kurzbiographie Harding Meyer


Photo: D. zur Nedden


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