Christian Unity Week 2019

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Where’s Ecumenism Now?

I have been privileged recently to be part of the Catholic-Presbyterian theological forum which has as its focus, ‘The Contemporary Understanding of the Grace of God in Christ’. The forum consists of some twenty members, representing both traditions. We meet in the Benedictine Abbey in Rostrevor, which is nestled into the beautiful Mourne mountains in Co. Down. The setting, the hospitality of Dom Mark Ephraim and his community, and the excellent conference facilities of the monastery all contribute to a calm but stimulating discussion of what unites and what divides our two Christian traditions.

Latterly, we have been analysing a most interesting document which is the fruit of intense dialogue in twenty-two countries across five continents between Catholics and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), over a seven-year period. The WEA brings together Evangelical Christians from Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist and Pentecostal traditions. The final document entitled, A Report of the International Consultation between the Catholic Church and the World Evangelical Alliance (2009-2016),is in two parts. The first deals with the status of Scripture and Tradition in the Catholic Church and the WEA. The second concerns Salvation and the Church. A clear methodology is set out at the beginning of the document. Each issue will be dealt with in three stages: firstly, ‘to map out the convergences, building on previous consultations, and on the basis of our respective teachings and practices’; secondly, ‘to name aspects of the other tradition which give us encouragement’; thirdly, ‘to formulate questions to each other in a respectful and intelligent way’ (14). This method is strictly adhered to throughout and, because it is structured in such a positive way, there is no shying away from the difficult questions on both sides, some of which we will highlight here. This is the method we follow in our discussions at Rostrevor and it will be the structure on which we will base our final report.

Following an outline of the points of convergence and an enunciation of the encouragement that each side receives from the other, the questions are posed. One such, from the Catholic side, goes to the core of the differences in relation to sola Scriptura: the tendency of the Evangelicals to equate the Word of God with the Scriptures risks seeing the Incarnation of the Word as a text rather than as a person (25). This raises the issue of religions of the Book and the Catholic understanding of Christianity as a religion of the Person of Christ. As for the Evangelicals, they press Catholics to give a scriptural basis for its teachings, e.g., the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption (27); purgatory and indulgences (39); papal infallibility (47). The document deals with Ressourcement(37), which is welcomed in both traditions. However, the Catholic side challenges the Evangelicals as to how they receive the Church Fathers. In particular, they point to their refusal to accept more than two sacraments despite evidence to the contrary in the patristic period (41). This question is again posed directly towards the end of the document: ‘Why have the sacraments lost their primary role, and what might you be missing by not celebrating the sacraments?’ (63).

The issue of the status of Scripture in relation to Tradition is of major significance in the document and received a lot of oxygen in our Rostrevor discussions. Dei Verbum 9 causes particular grief for our Presbyterian brothers: ‘both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence’.

The role of the Holy Spirit is well articulated by both sides, leading to such questions as: Does the Spirit work in the same way in the subsequent life of tradition as it does in Scripture? (Evangelical question); Given that the Spirit leads to unity, where is the Spirit at work in the Reformation which brought about such division in the Church? (Catholic question).

In its focus on salvation, the document is extensive in relation to the differing interpretations of the certainty of being saved. The WEA comes down firmly on the side of certainty, basing their assertions on biblical quotations while the Catholic position places more emphasis on hope rather than certainty. A related issue is the possible salvation of those who do not hear the Word of God. The WEA does not concur with the views Vatican II, such as those expressed in Nostra Aetate. An important question highlighted on the Catholic side is the implications of salvation in this world. It suggests that the Evangelicals are not sufficiently concerned with social justice and the welfare of humanity because they are so preoccupied with eschatological salvation.

This article is not intended as a comprehensive answer to the question: Where’s Ecumenism Now? We are far from the heady days of Arcic I and II. But this extensive study carried out over a seven-year period gives new hope that Christ’s prayer is still alive, especially in our Catholic-Presbyterian theological forum: Ut unum sint.

Noel O’Sullivan

Rev. Dr Noel O’Sullivan

Rev. Dr Noel O’Sullivan

Lecturer in SystematicTheology

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