This past spring, in a meeting with the Anglican — Roman Catholic International Commission, Pope Francis pointed out that working toward the restoration of full unity between Christian traditions is not optional but is an urgent summons of Christ himself. This was not the first time Pope Francis made such comments. In the nearly three years of his pontificate the Holy Father has taken every possible opportunity to stress this summons.
I am immensely grateful for his words. My many years of ecumenical ministry have given me numerous friends in a wide variety of Christian traditions. But more importantly, these involvements and precious relationships have greatly expanded my understanding of church. I have come to realize that it is only together that we reflect the fullness of the Gospel message. It is only together that we can credibly proclaim Christ’s saving love and mercy in an increasingly skeptical world. In fact, the task of unity among churches is a question of sheer survival in some parts of the world — see this article. We become a stronger witness when we learn to bind as one the various aspects of the witness of Jesus perfected in our respective denominations. Cardinal Emeritus Walter Kasper referred to this notion in a recent article as follows:
There is no ecclesiological vacuum outside the Catholic Church. Since Jesus Christ also works in and through the other Churches – and these often give clearer expression to individual elements of being church than the Catholic Church – the complete realization of Catholicity is only possible in ecumenical exchange and reciprocal enrichment. Catholic and ecumenical are therefore not opposites but two sides of the same coin. (Mercy is the medicine to heal the wounds of the Church, Cardinal Walter Kasper – The Tablet, November 12, 2015)
Back in 1952, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches met in Lund, Sweden. As the churches were searching together for the means of common witness, they asked each other earnestly whether they were doing all they could to manifest the oneness of the people of God: “Should not our Churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?” The answer to this urgent question has become known as the Lund Principle. This means that Christians and churches should try to act as much as possible ecumenically, in particular, to bear witness together to a common life in Christ.
Ecumenical involvement, therefore, is by no means limited to experts and scholars. In fact, much of the real ecumenical work occurs among ordinary people in the pews – the rubber-hitting-the-road type of stuff. Last year I was part of a Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue process. Seven Lutherans and seven Catholics (chosen from the pews) met on a regular basis to read and discuss together the new document entitled From Conflict to Communion, a text written by an international Lutheran–Catholic dialogue group in preparation for the year 2017, the year which marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The text bears witness to the good news that we are finally living in a season of reconciliation between our churches, a reconciliation which allows us now to tell the story of the 500 year old break-up together. Given the length of this separation and the centuries of mutual disregard, each tradition developed in isolation from and in contrast to the other. Fortunately, the time of such mutual distrust and condemnation is behind us and the time of recognizing our common faith in Jesus has been ushered in.
Thus was created From Conflict to Communion – the title aptly captures the reconciling movement and growing convergence between churches. Our group participants would prepare assigned reading at home; then we would gather to discuss and learn together by bringing questions and insights, as well as joys and sorrows about being Lutheran and being Catholic. The experience was electric; friendships were born, understanding grew through conversations which made dry words leap off their pages and take on flesh in real people’s lives.
This past spring another ecumenical milestone was reached in Saskatoon with the creation of a Common Statement of Faith. This text is the fruit of local dialogue meetings which took place over three years between 10 representatives from Evangelical Churches and 10 members of the Roman Catholic Church, both clergy and laity. Formal dialogues between mainline Christians and Evangelical Christians are not as old as some of the other dialogues, but they are a fresh expression of increasing numbers of Christian sisters and brothers desiring to come together in order to encounter Jesus Christ in one another’s faithful worship and witness.
And lo, as I am walking the “road to Canterbury” another delightful gift has recently been prepared for the people of God in the pews, this time from the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada. A unique series of short videos featuring Anglican and Catholic presenters offer “small answers to big questions.” The series is entitled Did you Ever Wonder? and can be found here. Each 8-minute presentation is followed by a few discussion questions at the end of the video. The series is an ideal recipe for a delightful encounter with fellow Christians. I wonder as I wander … is it thanks to my expanded experience and understanding of church that my current transition to the Anglican Church does not feel like a “leaving”?
Some seasoned professional ecumenists have called this era a winter of sorts in ecumenical relations. But this brief sampling of recently produced resources, themselves the fruit of faithful discipleship in Christ, indicates anything but a winter. Clearly even in winter we walk together, and never more so than among ordinary people in the pews. So if you have been wondering about “those Christians in other churches,” be bold. Go knock on their door, attend their worship or invite them to yours. Then suggest that you meet for shared prayer and learning; delve into From Conflict to Communion (if nothing else, at least study the Five Ecumenical Imperatives in its last chapter), propose a joint prayerful study of the Common Statement of Faith, or enjoy some of the lovely online videos produced by the Anglican–Roman Catholic Dialogue. Other Christians belong inside our comfort zone instead of outside of it, even if their Gospel expressions challenge us. There is no more excuse not to know each other, no more excuse not to befriend each other. There is no more lack of resources and study materials, no more excuse not to see Christ in one another. Pope Francis himself says so: it is an urgent summons of Jesus Christ whom we all profess as Lord and Saviour.
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