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A shared and ever growing path

2013-01-22 L’Osservatore Romano

The year 2012 initiated the Year of Faith, and an intensification of efforts were made with relations with Reformed, Baptists and Anabaptists, as well as other Christians.  A new trilateral international dialogue was initiated with Lutherans and Mennonites.  A new consensus document was finished by the Faith and Order Commission  of the World Council of Churches.  It was a year mixed with the conclusion of some dialogues, the continuation of others, and the initiation of new rounds of dialogues, all with the goal of growing together in faith, in the search for the visible unity which is the goal of the ecumenical movement.

Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches

 While the Catholic Church is not a member of the World Council of Churches, it is a full member of the Faith and Order Commission.  The Catholic Church has 12 of the 120 commission member seats (10% percent of the Commission). There are three Catholic Commissioners on the thirty member F&O Standing Commission, again 10%.  The World Council of Churches (WCC) states that Faith and Order is “Christianity’s most representative theological forum”.

Faith and Order wrapped up its work for this mandate in 2012, as the next General Assembly of the World Council of Churches will be held in the Autumn of 2013 in Busan, Korea.  The Standing Commission meets annually, this year the meeting was in Penang, Malaysia from 16-23 June, 2012.

During this meeting, several actions were taken that affect the future work of Faith and Order.  The Faith and Order by-laws were amended to reduce the size of the commission and restore its ability to initiate and evaluate studies and texts.  The new Faith and Order Commission will be a single body of 40 members, with 10% of the members (4) being Catholic, nominated by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU).  At least one of the leadership, drawn from the commission membership, will be a Catholic.  The new Faith and Order Commission will be set up in 2014, begin in 2015 and conclude in 2022.

A convergence text on Ecclesiology and a popular study guide for Sources of Authority in the Church were approved and finalized this year.  The ecclesiology ‘convergence text’, only the second convergence text in the history of Faith and Order, is titled The Church: Towards a Common Vision. The text will be submitted to the WCC 2013 Assembly, and then sent to the member ‘churches’ for reception and comment.  Fr William Henn, ofm.cap. was among the principal drafters of this text.  This text concludes nearly twenty years of work on ecclesiology, incorporating two previous published study texts, The Nature and Purpose of the Church (F&O Paper no. 181, issued in 1998) and The Nature and Mission of the Church - A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement (F&O Paper no. 198, issued in 2005).

A second text, of a different nature, was also approved, to be submitted to the WCC 2013 Assembly.  The Sources of Authority working group presented a popular guide encouraging local churches and ecclesial communions to examine the Early Teachers of the Church as a guide to developing their ecclesiology.  The format of the text is a series of scripture passages, commentaries by Fathers or other early teachers, a series of study questions and a concluding prayer.  It is hoped that this text will introduce the patristic tradition to a wider body of Christians than currently refer to them.

Turning from multilateral dialogue to bilateral and trilateral dialogue, conversations and contacts continued with several ecclesial communities of the West.

Relations with Reformed Christians

The World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) represents approximately 80 million Christians of 227 denominations from 108 countries, including various Reformed, Congregational, Presbyterian and United churches.  The new World Communion of Reformed Churches maintained its offices in Geneva, Switzerland in the former offices of WARC until 31 December 2012.  The headquarters of the WCRC will move in 2013 to Hanover, Germany to the Calvin Centre, owned by the Evangelical Reformed Church of Germany.

 The second meeting of the fourth phase of international dialogue between  the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity took place 27 April- 2 May, 2012 at the Columbia Theological Seminary (Presbyterian) in Decatur, Georgia, USA.  The overall theme of this phase, which is scheduled to be completed by 2017, is  Justification and Sacramentality:  The Christian Community as an agent for Justice.  The first meeting of this phase had been held in 2011 in Rome, Italy.  Bishop  Kevin Rhoades, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in Indiana, USA, and Rev. Dr. Martha Moore-Keish, of the Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur, Georgia, USA, co-chair this dialogue on behalf of the Catholic Church and the World Communion of Reformed Churches respectively.  The topics discussed during the meeting included Justification:  Reformed and Catholic perspectives, (particularly in respect to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification), and Justification and Baptism. 

 It is hoped that this phase of international dialogue will build upon agreements already achieved, help Reformed and Catholic Christians grow together in faith, and assist in the discernment of whether the WCRC will affiliate with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), the 1999 common agreement of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation concerning the doctrine of justification, a central issue of the Protestant Reformation.  In 2006 the World Methodist Council affiliated with the JDDJ. Discussion was held during this meeting on the WCRC’s process of consultation to affiliate to JDDJ.

The group will convene for its third meeting of these conversations in 2013 to study Justification and Sacramentality:  Justification and Sanctification and The Prophetic Office and Authority in the Church.

In addition to this official dialogue, the WCRC was represented at the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church in October, 2012 with Prof Dr Michael Weinrich of Germany participating as a fraternal delegate.

Relations with Anabaptist Christians

Interactions with Anabaptists in 2012 also presented new opportunities for a deepening of relationships.          The Anabaptists are a fourth major branch of the reformation (with Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican).  Anabaptists, also known as the ‘radical reformation’, are represented by the Mennonite World Conference (MWC), which defines itself as a communion of Anabaptist-related churches linked to one another in a worldwide community of faith for fellowship, worship, service, and witness.  The MWC represents 1,600,000 believers from 99 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ national churches from 56 countries on six continents; more than 60 percent are African, Asian, or Latin American.

There has been one previous phase of Conversations between the MWC and the PCPCU (Called Together To Be Peacemakers), 1998 – 2003.  Preparations have been under way for several years for a new round of international dialogue, which finally began in 2012.  Since both the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) had expressed their interest and readiness to initiate new rounds of conversations with the MWC, and since both the PCPCU and LWF had recommended baptism as a topic for such conversations, it was proposed to have a trilateral conversation with the Mennonites, Lutherans and Catholics.  A study of baptism, which is one of the principal historic points of theological division with Anabaptists, offers the opportunity to both look at the theological points of departure as well as address the possibility of mutual recognition of each other’s baptism.

The first meeting of the Catholic - Lutheran - Mennonite International Dialogue on baptism met in Rome from 9-13 December 2012.  The overall theme of this international trilateral dialogue as formulated in the 2012 meeting is “Baptism and Incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church.”  The Catholic team is chaired by Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga, I.M.C. (Colombia). 

Summary presentations on past dialogues on baptism and principal papers on the introduction to the Understanding and Practice of Baptism were presented from each side.  The group will convene for its second round of these conversations in January, 2014 to study “Baptism:  God’s Grace in Christ and Human Sin.”  Future topics in following years will include “Baptism:  Communicating Grace and Faith” and “Living Out Baptism.”

Relations with Baptist Christians

The Baptist World Alliance (BWA) is a fellowship of 220 Baptist conventions and unions comprising a membership of more than 42 million baptized believers and a community of more than 105 million.  Baptists practice adult ‘believers baptism’ like their Anabaptist forbearers, thus the difference in the number of members.  Baptist theology is a mixture of Anabaptist and Calvinist roots.  Baptists are the world’s largest protestant denomination, and the BWA represents the largest denominational group of Protestant Christians.  Baptists are evangelical in their theological approach, and tend to be in agreement with the Catholic Church on most family and moral issues.

 Rev Dr Timothy George, a renowned Baptist theologian of Beeson Divinity School in the United States participated as a fraternal delegate representing the Baptist World Alliance at the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church from October 7-28.

 The second series of conversations between the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Catholic Church met for its fifth and final year in December 2010.  The overall theme of this phase, which began in 2006, is “The Word of God in the Life of the Church: Scripture, Tradition and Koinonia.” Bishop Arthur Serratelli (USA), and Rev. Dr. Paul Fiddes (UK), co-chair these conversations.  Final revisions to the text between the PCPCU and BWA were finalized in 2012, and it is hoped to publish the report in early 2013.

Relations with the Salvation Army

 The Salvation Army has its roots in mid 19th century England, as a mission movement for the poor and marginalized.  The founder, William Booth, was a Methodist minister.  The Salvation Army operates in 124 countries.  Its claimed membership includes more than 17,000 active and more than 8,700 retired officers, over 1 million soldiers, around 100,000 other employees and more than 4.5 million volunteers.  Members of The Salvation Army also include “adherents”, who do not make the commitment to be a soldier but who formally recognise The Salvation Army as their spiritual home.  Salvationists can be classified as Evangelical Christians who do not practice any sacraments.

 A series of informal ecumenical conversations between the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church has been taking place for several years.  The only bi-lateral conversations to date by the Salvation Army have been with the Methodist World Council and with the PCPCU.

The theological conversations are still at an informational stage.  In May 2012 delegates representing the Catholic Church and The Salvation Army met at Sunbury Court, Sunbury on Thames, for the last of a series of five meetings of informal conversations.  The topic of this year’s conversations were the Theology of Mission and finalizing recommendations for future conversations.

 These varied continuing contacts, dialogues and conversations are indicative of the wide field of ecumenical endeavours with which the PCPCU strives for the restoration of Christian unity.  The Faith and Order Commission includes Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant members who are all aspiring to overcome classical and contemporary theological divides.  Dialogue with the ecclesial communions of the Reformation era work on various levels, depending on the nature and structure of each community.  In this time of the New Evangelization we are reminded all the more that just as Jesus prayed at the Last Supper that his disciples “be one so that the world may believe”, in the same way, all Christians today must increase both prayer and practical action to reconcile and restore the unity of the one Body of Christ.

Gregory J. Fairbanks