When I was a Lutheran, especially at the Seminary where we had a real practice of daily observance of the liturgical year, this week was always a big week: June 24th was the Birthday of John the Bapist, June 29 was the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul, and June 25 was… well… the Commemoration of the Augsburg Confession. Yes, this is a “feast day” in the Lutheran Church and, on his blog, my friend Pastor Matt Harrison (now President of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church) explains why: June 25, 1530, was no less than the “Birthday of the Lutheran Church”.
And this raises an interesting point of ecclesiology. If you were to ask a Catholic and a Lutheran “What day is the Church’s Birthday?”, they would both answer “Pentecost”. If you were to ask a Lutheran “When was the Lutheran Church born?” one possible answer might by the one Pastor Matt gives: June 25th 1530, the date of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession. But if you were to ask a Catholic “When was the Catholic Church born?” his answer would be the same as the one he gave you previously: “Pentecost”
These differing answers point out, first, that it is too simplistic to say to Protestants “Your Church was founded by X on such and such a date; but ours was founded by Jesus Christ”. Protestant Christians aren’t stupid. Lutherans know that Luther didn’t “establish the Church”. They also believe that their Church was established by Jesus Christ, in so far as they see themselves as belonging to the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”. But they do make a clear distinction between their church as a denomination (or more strictly, in the Lutheran case, a “confession”) and the “Una Sancta”, as one of my dear (now departed) seminary lecturers used to call the Church Catholic. And so they can indeed speak of a “birthday” of their church which is not synonymous with the birthday of the “Una Sancta”.
But Catholics can’t. Apart from Pentecost, we don’t have any point in our history (Dan Brown and all that nonsense about Constantine not-with-standing) to which we, or any impartial historian, can point and say “That’s when the Catholic Church began”. It is simply one long continuum, without break, from the first beginning until now. Now, of course, our Protestant friends will say “But the Roman Catholic Church has deviated from true Christianity” – but even they are at a loss to say when this happened. When – at what date or juncture – did the “Roman Church” cease to be “true Christianty” and become something else?
I do not for a moment want to denigrate the great witness or courage of the Lutheran reformers in the presentation of the Augsburg confession all those years ago. There is very much in that Confession of faith that is recognisably Catholic and, compared to many other Protestant statements of faith that came afterward (and compared even to what Martin Luther would have said if he, and not Melanchthon, had written the Confession) it is a very Christian and irenic document. And we need to acknowledge that among our friends in the world today, traditional Lutherans are foremost (see here for example). But we do have very different understandings of the nature of the Church and of our understanding of the nature of our own communions.