My Friend Mel Robeck: Pentecostal Ecumenist

Dr. Cecil M. (Mel) Robeck, Jr. is professor of church history and ecumenics and the director of the David J. DuPlessis Center for Christian Spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. His recent publications in the field of ecumenics have focused on the Holy Spirit, the Church, unity in the Pentecostal perspective, and potential contributions the Pentecostal Movement can make to the worldwide Christian Movement.

robeckMel Robeck is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God and has also worked on ecumenical issues for nearly 30 years with the World Council of Churches, the Vatican, the World Alliance [now Communion] of Reformed Churches, and other groups. He serves as a Consultant to the Chairman of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization for long-term relations with the Vatican.  For the past 13 years Robeck has served on the steering committee of the Global Christian Forum.  He also participated with Pope John Paul II in worship events in Rome and Assisi.  For 18 years he has met annually with the Secretaries of Christian World Communions and he appears regularly as a panelist on broadcasts of the American Religious Town Hall Meeting.

Robeck is author of The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (2006, Recipient of the Pneuma Award, and nominated for the Grawmeyer Award) and Prophecy at Carthage: Perpetua, Tertullian, and Cyprian (1992). He is the author of Witness to Pentecost: The Life of Frank Bartleman (1985) and the editor of Charismatic Experiences in History (1985), and co-editor of The Azusa Street Revival and Its Legacy (2006) and co-editor of The Suffering Body: Responding to the Persecution of Christians (2006). For nine years, he was editor of Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies.

Mel Robeck is, as you can tell from this biographical information, a world-renowned Pentecostal scholar and a leading ecumenist. Most people in the Pentecostal world do not even realize how much has been accomplished in terms of global ecumenism through the efforts of many working together. Mel Robeck has been at the forefront of these efforts for decades.

images-2Through my own association with the Lausanne Movement I have come to know Mel personally. He was a specially invited guest at the installation services for Pope Francis last week and his diary, which he gave me permission to post here, reveals some interesting observations about the new pope, and the modern papacy, that you would rarely read in the media. I have edited his comments for length but divided them into two sections. The first is about the inaugural Mass for Pope Francis. The second, tomorrow, will be about the papal audience on March 20 with the representatives of churches and other religions from around the world. If you pray for the mission and peace of the Christian church then you will enjoy reading this “first-hand” account from a long-term Vatican observer who is a faithful Pentecostal scholar and minister.  (Except for the final paragraph the words that follow are all taken from Mel Robeck’s personal diary.)

The Inaugural Mass

If you were to face St. Peters Basilica, the left side was reserved for religious leaders.  That was where we sat. At the base of the first set of steps sat a group of perhaps 40 religious leaders, representing a dozen or so other religions – Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and the like.  At the top of the first set of steps and on the same level with the altar, the Secretaries of World Communions representing most of the Protestant and Anglican Church traditions were closest to the crowd. Patsy and I found our seats on row three, about 30 feet from the altar.  The rows were 4 chairs in width.  I sat next to General Linda Bond, head of the Salvation Army.  Patsy sat next to a Mennonite representative from the Netherlands.  The Anglican Archbishop of York, standing in for Justin Welby, who will be installed as Archbishop of Canterbury on Thursday, March 21, was the ranking churchman. The leaders of the Orthodox Churches – Greeks, Russians, Syrians, Armenians, Americans, and Copts, sat in the next section, led by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I. His presence was extraordinary in that the Ecumenical Patriarch has not attended such a service since before 1054, when the great schism between the church led by the Bishop of Rome in the West and the Ecumenical Patriarch in the East.

largeDrawing upon each of the scripture passages, Pope Francis likened himself to St. Joseph, and promised to be a protector of “the poorest, the weakest, [and] the least important.” Picking up on a theme that was used by Pope John Paul II who often spoke of the culture of death that pervades the world and called Christians to be agents of life, the new pope spoke directly to heads of State, asking them not to allow “omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world.”  He went on to say that “amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others.” He also asked “all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of good will: Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and the environment.” His understanding of power parallels that of Jesus (Mark 10:45) in “that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.” He challenged all of his hearers when he said, “Let us protect with love all that God has given us!”

At the end of his homily, the congregation rose.  A cantor began to sing the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, quickly joined by the choir, and then in alternate lines by the gathered assembly. This was followed by a series of prayers of universal prayers offered in various languages for the Church, its leaders, those in ministry, for government leaders to be enlightened by God so that they might build civilizations based upon love, for the poor and sick throughout the world, and for the lives of the people of God to be transformed through the holiness of God, making them more like our Lord Jesus.

When the rite of the Eucharist began, a small group of priests carried the offerings to the altar, and His Holiness, Francis I, held and swung the censor, circling the altar.  We were close enough to catch the occasional whiff of the incense as he walked around the front of the altar. Near the altar was a statue of the Theotokos, Mary with the infant Jesus. Pope Francis moved to the statue, censed it, and then stood quietly and appeared to pray for a moment before continuing his rotation around the altar. When he had completed the process, he was joined by the priests who had delivered the bread and wine to the altar and would act as concelebrants.

This was a break from the way Pope Benedict XVI chose to concelebrate. In his case, the Cardinals had formed two lines on each side of the altar, and extended their hands toward the altar while speaking the words of institution. In the case of Pope Francis I, the Cardinals remained seated. You could hear them speaking the words, but it was the priests adjacent to Pope Benedict who did the honors.

The Eucharistic celebration showed clearly how incredibly well organized the Vatican is for these large events. Those of us who sat on the platform were escorted back behind St. Peter’s Basilica and out the gate and to our awaiting buses. They returned us back to the hotel for lunch.

My Reflections

As I reflect on this special time and my presence in it, I am once again moved that I should be invited to participate in this historic event. I worked enough with Pope John Paul II to believe that I understood him. I was invited on several occasions to participate in ecumenical services with him, even invited to offer a public prayer or lead the crowd in a portion of the Creed. I corresponded with Cardinal Ratzinger when he was the President of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, met with him on several occasions as Pope, spoke with him, and even shared a luncheon table with him at Assisi when he was Pope Benedict XVI. This pope appears to be more Marian in his devotion, but just as “evangelical” as his two immediate predecessors. Tomorrow, Patsy and I will have the opportunity to meet with him and see him up close. I look forward to that initial audience.

Mel Robeck’s reflections are fresh and original. I share his perspective. I found this one sentence to contain words that will confound many evangelicals, for what it says and does not say, but they are words that I believe to be true as I’ve shown over the last two weeks: “This pope appears to be more Marian in his devotion, but just as ‘evangelical’ as his two immediate predecessors.” If this proves to be true then wide open doors for gospel ministry lie ahead of us as perhaps never before. I pray this will be true. In both the West, and in the new global context beyond the West, we need to practice greater respect and love for one another and seek to find ways to better make disciples of Christ. This call is at the very heart of what it means to be an evangelical.