Fuller Theological Seminary, a leading center for the formation of evangelical Protestant pastors, will continue to promote positive relations with the Catholic Church, according to its new president.
“Our reach is global...and at Fuller we want to be a catalyst for healthy global ecumenism,” Dr. Mark Labberton told CNA March 15.
Labberton is currently a professor of preaching at the Pasadena, Calif.-based seminary, and will take over as president of the school on July 1. He succeeds Richard Mouw, who has served as Fuller's president since 1993.
He said that though there are tensions in Latin America between Pentecostalism and the Roman Catholic Church, he wants to promote good relations between the groups.
“One of Rich Mouw's emphases has been evangelical-Catholic dialogue and conversation, and I'm certainly hopeful that can continue.”
Labberton expressed a “great respect for the Roman Catholic Church” and said he is moved by its “expression, with all its tensions and challenges,” and by its “overarching unity.”
“The global response and attention given to the Pope's selection this week is itself obviously a palpable expression of that, and the fact is that there's no movement within Protestantism that could galvanize the global church in such a singular way.”
He is particularly encouraged that Pope Francis brings is bringing social justice concerns to the forefront of his papacy, while staying always connected to Christ.
Labberton said that putting aside Protestants' “acute anxieties around issues of power,” he has “great regard” for the Catholic Church, and finds it “very inspiring in many different forms.”
He is eager to “grow in and engage” his experiences of Catholic “leadership and worship,” he said.
He finds the prospect of becoming Fuller's president a daunting one, due both to the changes facing Christianity and education, and the legacy he has to fulfill.
The Protestant church in America, he said, is facing one of its “largest sea changes,” with redefinition of denominational structures and a “deep restructuring of what church means.”
Protestantism is facing “many more experiments” in non-denominational visions, he said, and so Fuller's graduates are facing a field that is “in some cases fractured, or being re-defined.”
“The thing that concerns me the most, is how does a seminary like Fuller contribute in the most meaningful way to the education of the Protestant church in all its various manifestations, and its impact in the wider world,” Labberton said.
Because of this, he said, “one of the things I found very moving about the appointment and call of the new Pope this week has been my sense of deep gratitude for his social conscience; his sense of the Church and the reality of the Gospel and needing to live it in real terms, especially in the lives of the poor and the marginalized.”
Labberton shares this social conscience with Pope Francis, and said “it's one of the primary concerns I'd also want to bring to the seminary.”
“I think evangelical churches have often been guilty of over-talk and under-live, especially when it comes to allowing our faith to lead us and draw us to engagement with the people who are most unseen and forgotten, so I'd hope that's one of the main themes that would emerge from what I hope to do as president.”
He said that Protestants can at times focus on “a caricature of Reformation days” and a theology of being saved “by grace through faith in Christ alone.” He said this leads to “almost a divorce between grace and action,” which he finds troubling.
“That's a false dichotomy. Protestantism at its best will see that as a false dichotomy. But I think in popular terms it is an evident dichotomy, and I think it's a false theological division that I would want to do everything possible to address.”
Under his leadership, he would like to see Fuller “call the Protestant church into the fact that these are two inextricably bound qualities of our experience of God.”
The new president hopes that churches affected by Fuller Seminary “would vividly demonstrate – not just talk about and affirm – but actually come to more deeply and truly incarnate” the intrinsic link between God's grace and human action.