Getting the Stories Straight

What are you telling me? Ecumenical dialogues have been taking place for 50+ years?! And have produced substantial officially recognized agreements?! I have heard these questions, with the exclamation marks, too many times from well-meaning and committed Anglicans, Roman Catholics and others. Yes, we have been in conversation with one another for a good half a century; yes, we have published official statements on several aspects of our faith in Christ Jesus. And yes, this growing ecclesial relationship is bearing profound positive fruit in both our churches. After frozen relations of several centuries, we are finally recognizing in one another the presence and witness of our risen Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are also recognizing the serious need to walk together as an expression of faithfulness to our Lord’s dying wish that we all be one. It is only in Christian charity and unity that the Gospel can be credibly preached into a hurting world.

The above questions point to the ongoing challenge of Reception, i.e. the process by which official statements trickle down to the ordinary people in our pews to be embraced in their local context. This challenge was once again the subject of the most recent National Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue (ARC Canada) meeting in Ottawa.

But this time there was good news to share. For the past two years the ARC Canada group has been collecting stories of lived ecumenism on the ground between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.  New Stories to Tell was launched in conjunction with the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The collection is a rich tapestry of inspiring accounts in which individuals from both traditions rediscover our common heritage in Christ Jesus, thus contributing in no small measure to healing the wounds of our historic ecclesial divisions. Each story is followed by a brief theological reflection with references to one or more ARCIC documents, and by study/discussion questions.

The collection is dedicated to a renowned theology professor and ecumenist, Dr. Margaret O’Hara, who is considered a giant in her long-standing involvement in Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. Stories include experiences of interchurch families, bishops befriending each other and in some cases sharing living quarters (!), encounters at the TRC hearings, covenant agreements between dioceses, joint work with refugees, ecumenical retreats and parish missions, theological study groups etc.

Here is the opening story of this lovely new collection:

An Anglican priest shared the following experience: He had not come to this Truth and Reconciliation hearing with anger, and he had not come with blame. But he said that he wanted me, a Catholic priest, to know that he was not afraid anymore, nor ashamed of who he was. He was confident and secure and even proud of his identity as an Indigenous person, and he wanted me, wearing my clerical collar, to sit with him and hear that from him, because he had never been able to say that to any priest before.

It became clear that there was a misunderstanding. He had attended a school operated by the Roman Catholic Church in Canada, not the Anglican Church of Canada. I was an Anglican priest. So what were we to do? Should I offer a word of apology anyway? Or should we find a Catholic priest and start the process over again? Before I could decide, the man uttered: “Catholic… Anglican… It’s all the same. It was Christians who ran these schools and who did these things to my people. You are all responsible together. You all need our forgiveness. Maybe you should get your own stories straight before you talk to us.”

This encounter speaks clearly about our shared identity as Christians in the present, and about our dividedness in the past. It speaks clearly about our need for right relationship with Indigenous neighbours, as well as with one another, and about the way one relationship affects another. It points to the work of reconciliation as the way forward for healing. The Indigenous man in the above account speaks prophetically when he challenges us to “get our own stories straight” as churches. But already back in 1848, our divided heritage discredited us as messengers of the Gospel:

“Mr. Rundell (Rundle) [Wesleyan Methodist] told him that what he preached was the only true road to heaven, and Mr. Hunter [Anglican] told him the same thing, and so did Mr. Thebo (Fr. Thibault, Roman Catholic), and as they all three said that the other two were wrong, and as he did not know which was right, he thought they ought to call a council among themselves, and then he would go with all three; but that until they agreed he would wait.” [Great Plains Cree chief, Maskepatoon, in conversation with Paul Kane in 1848; James G. MacGregor. Father Lacombe. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1975]

We arrived in Canada as divided churches. Our separation was transmitted to Indigenous people during the earliest missions in New France and British North America. It was a stark reality in colonial life, as a Catholic majority came under the rule of an Empire whose established religion was Anglican. It continued to resonate in the ways the Protestant population expressed prejudice towards Catholics (who gladly returned the favour) and in the separateness of our educational, language, and legal identities.

That separateness is a reality which looms large in our present-day experiences as Christians together, and which affects the perceptions our society has of us, the stereotypes we have of one another, and the ministry we can offer. The work of ARC Canada, the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, and the stories of people and communities encountering one another in new ways, present a way forward. The path involves facing and reconciling memories, and making new history together.

The language of reconciliation and of right relationship is a gift we are learning, ever more deeply, from people like the Residential School survivor who challenges us to “get our stories straight.” The broken relationships which we Christians brought with us continue to affect the way we relate to the land, to its First Peoples, and to one another. Yearning for and coming back into right relationship involves all these aspects.

Ironically, in many other ways the world sees us as one even before we see our own unity. When it comes to negative press about one of our churches, we are all perceived in the same light. When it comes to martyrdom, we are not asked first whether we are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox.  As Pope Francis stated a few years ago, to those who persecute and kill we are simply Christians.

Would that the world could see positive signs of our unity! For the sake of right relation and the integrity of Christ’s message of salvation and reconciliation, let’s get our stories straight.

New Stories to Tell, published by ARC Canada, can be accessed at www.churchesindialogue.ca

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The Gift of Authority?

The harder question is certainly how do these documents and this ongoing conversation filter down to the grassroots level… These documents will only exist in the theological-geek world unless we can find ways to put them into practice in working together.” These words were spoken last April by Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls.

I agree with her; it’s high time that great ecumenical agreements and statements get more attention from the folks in the pews. So for starters, here are some of my musings on an important ecumenical document entitled: The Gift of Authority – Authority in the Church III © 1998 Anglican – Roman Catholic International Dialogue)

While this document was published some 18 years ago, it is sadly still little known by ordinary Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Sad really, for it is a prime example of good ecumenism in practise. The agreement takes a comprehensive look at the exercise of authority in the Christian tradition in a spirit of humility and honesty, openness and courage. Given the current challenges authority structures experience in both the Anglican Communion and in the Roman Catholic Church, it would behoove all of us to receive its content and to apply its insights sooner rather than later. The document confirms what I have been thinking and learning for a quite some time now, i.e. that the Roman Catholic way of exercising authority has been too centralized and hierarchical, and that the Anglican way of exercising authority within a synodal structure can be perceived as too nebulous and overly tentative. The former risks being experienced as increasingly disconnected from the lives of the lay faithful and the latter as too wishy-washy and lacking teeth. It seems to me that what the one tradition has too much of, the other tradition needs more of and vice versa.

The first section of the document is a beautiful sweeping look at the theological and spiritual underpinnings of authority in the Christian tradition throughout history. This is, in a way, the articulation of the Christian vision of how authority is supposed to work – where it originates, how it is refined and informed, and how it needs to be exercised:

In Jesus Christ … the “Yes” of God to humanity and the “Amen” of humanity to God become a concrete human reality. This theme of God’s “Yes” and humanity’s “Amen”     in Jesus Christ is the key to the exposition of authority in this statement. (par. 8)

When a believer says “Amen” to Christ individually, a further dimension is always involved; an “Amen” to the faith of the Christian community. … The believer’s “Amen” is so fundamental that individual Christians through their life are called to say “Amen” to all that the whole company of Christians receives and teaches as the authentic meaning of the Gospel and the way to follow Christ. (par. 12)

The interplay of God’s “Yes” and the believers’ “Amen” continues in the document’s exploration of the roles of Tradition and Scripture in the formulation and exercise of authority before it moves on to the importance of Reception and Re-Reception from one generation to the next in all time and place (par. 24—31). All this sounds as if Anglicans and Catholics are of one mind on the understanding and exercise of authority in the Church until par. 31 clearly acknowledges the challenges:

Anglicans and Roman Catholics can agree in principle on all of the above, but need to make a deliberate effort to retrieve this shared understanding. When Christian communities are in real but imperfect communion they are called to recognise in each other elements of the apostolic Tradition which they may have rejected, forgotten or not yet fully understood. Consequently, they have to receive or re-appropriate these elements, and reconsider the ways in which they have separately interpreted the Scriptures. (par. 31)

From here on the document lays out quite explicitly what the challenges are in each tradition  in order to recover the elements which have previously been “rejected, forgotten or not fully understood.

The Roman Catholic Church is challenged to examine its commitment to lay participation in  decision-making and governance structures of the Church. While the document concedes that “the tradition of synodality has not ceased” in the RC Church, as a lifelong Roman Catholic I know full well that this gracious assessment has not been embraced as fully as it deserves. While the vision of the Church fathers at the Second Vatican Council certainly included a revitalization of the synodal processes in the Church, effective implementation of that vision was seriously halted for nearly half a century, even at the level of Bishops’ Synods.

It is only now with Pope Francis that some concrete efforts are being made, illustrated by Rome’s initiative to send questionnaires to all dioceses prior to the Synod on the Family to invite the thoughts and questions of lay Catholics through their local bishops. The fact that efforts at collecting real-life data from the lives of real people, and the fact that bishops were urged to listen deeply to their people and then to speak from their hearts on these matters, resulted in what some have called chaotic and messy debates at the two Synods on the Family — surprise! The lid has been held on tight for too long on concrete and controversial issues and new questions. The synodal model still has lots of dust to get cleaned off, collected from centuries of neglect in Rome. As Roman Catholics are waking up to the messy character of synodality, Anglicans must be smiling – recognizing something all too familiar in their own synodal deliberations. When it comes to restoring the synodal principle in exercising authority, Rome has much to learn from Canterbury.

However, Anglicans do not have the golden formula either: Anglicans have shown themselves to be willing to tolerate anomalies for the sake of maintaining communion (par. 56), thereby risking to diminish the very meaning of communion. While the Anglican concern for the quality of relationships of love and respect trump rigid adherence to rules, and while the Anglican concern for historical contextuality, dispersed authority, synodal consultation at all levels and proceeding through careful discernment and reception of new ideas are all laudable attributes of the Anglican approach to authority, they come with subtle yet real traps revealing its fragility. No issue has brought this weakness to the fore more, and no question has tested this model more, than the current debate on same-sex marriage. (A next blog post will address this debate in greater detail — stay tuned) Some Anglicans now look longingly across the Tiber for more centralized authority, while some Roman Catholics look longingly to the Anglican model of relational and moral persuasion and consensus.

The current situation is a telling one, highlighting how much both traditions need one another:

In the Anglican Communion there is a reaching towards universal structures which promote koinonia, and in the Roman Catholic Church a strengthening of local and intermediate structures.
The Commission poses some questions frankly but in the conviction that we need the support of one another in responding to them. We believe that in the dynamic and fluid situation in which they are posed, seeking to answer them must go together with developing further steps towards a shared exercise of authority. (par. 55)

There are other challenges contained in the ARCIC Document on Authority, challenges and critical questions issued to both traditions. Much is expected from bishops in each tradition to help realize the potential for further growing in unity:

For the sake of koinonia and a united Christian witness to the world, Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops should find ways of cooperating and developing relationships of mutual accountability in their exercise of oversight. At this new stage we have not only to do together whatever we can, but also to be together all that our existing koinonia allows. (par. 58)

When I first read this document a number of years ago I read it as a Roman Catholic, and now I have re-read it as a new and developing Anglican. I am still as heartened and inspired by it as before – I’d like to think of this as a testimony to the document’s integrity. Currently the Anglican model of authority is being severely tested, painful as that it, and it is on full display for the world to see. The latest installments of this display are the Primates Meeting in Canterbury last January, the published statement from the ACC House of Bishops this past February, and soon the General Synod in July. But when the second largest denomination in the country is disaffected Catholics and when the process of reception by the faithful fails massively on important matters, Rome’s authority is by no means exempt from being tested, albeit in different ways.

I recently finished reading a book by Jeffrey W. Driver, the Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide, Australia, entitled A Polity of Persuasion: Gift and Grief of Anglicanism (2014, Wipf & Stock). It contains the following text on its back cover:

The injunction of Jesus, “it is not so among you,” challenged his followers to use power and live in community in a way that contrasted with what occurred “among the Gentiles” (Mark 10:41-45). This is why the sometimes tedious debates about authority and structure in the Anglican Communion could actually matter—because they might have something to say about being human in community, about sharing power and coexisting, about living interdependently on a tiny and increasingly stressed planet. The Anglican experiment in dispersed authority, for all its grief, could be a powerful gift.

It has been 18 years since “The Gift of Authority” was published. Have our churches acted on its recommendations? Have our churches taken its suggestions and questions seriously? Maybe. Eighteen years is nothing in a tradition that thinks and breathes in centuries. The people in the pews still know regrettably little about any ecumenical agreements, a tragic fact. Both the Roman top-down model and the Anglican bottom-up model are going through their respective refiner’s fires at this time. I pray that “The Gift of Authority” can be a tiny guiding light in the current dilemmas. I can hardly wait for the day that both our traditions’ approaches to authority get remarried into a coherent whole, deserving of Jesus’ words as quoted above: It is not so among you. (Mark 10:41-45)

Prairie Encounters

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