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Evangelicals, Catholics discuss common statement

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski


SASKATOON — The second of three public meetings to discuss the draft of a common statement of faith between Catholics and Evangelicals in Saskatoon focused on differences.

The common statement of faith was produced earlier this year by a dialogue group of 10 Catholics and 10 Evangelical Christians from various denominations.

Outlining common points of agreement, central differences, and possibilities for joint mission, the common statement of faith is being introduced to the wider community in a series of three meetings, reviewing the content and gathering input, beginning with a meeting in October that focused on all that Catholics and Evangelicals hold in common.

The meeting Dec. 4 at St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon addressed the second section of the common statement of faith entitled We Acknowledge our Central Differences.

Dialogue member Bill Blackmon of Circle Drive Alliance Church welcomed participants and provided an overview of the background of the Saskatoon dialogue group and the development of the common statement of faith. Three years ago, Catholic Bishop Donald Bolen invited members of the Saskatoon Evangelical Ministers Fellowship (SEMF) “into a relationship, into a conversation, and into a dialogue,” he described.

“There are a lot of things we are not trying to do. We are not trying to re-write anybody’s theology,” Blackmon said. “But we are trying to take John 17 seriously, we are trying to do what is pleasing to the Lord as we try to listen and love each other in the process as those who are followers of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The roots of the dialogue go back some 25 years, Blackmon added, recalling a prayer summit that gathered pastors together in 1992, and the initiative several years ago by the late Pastor Ken Rutherford, who during his terminal illness asked for prayers for the unity of the Christian Church — prayer that members of the Catholic community participated in. The growing relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals in Saskatoon has also included two joint worship services since the dialogue group began meeting in December 2011.

“In our meetings we have looked at Scripture and tradition, faith and conversion, church and Christian community, the communion of saints, Mary, holy communion, salvation, missions,” Blackmon said. “In the process, the idea was brought forward that it would be good, and would move us forward, and do what we want to do — which is to invite the larger community into this process — if we were to struggle through and come up with a common statement of faith. So that is what we’ve done.”

Blackmon expressed the group’s hope that the public discussion of the common statement of faith would involve an “open, good, straight-hearted dialogue.”

He added that in addressing the topic of differences, “We can’t please God, and we can’t represent our churches properly, unless we tell it like it is — unless we honestly look at viewing our differences in the light we hope in: the love and the acceptance of the faith of Christ.”

Dialogue member Francine Audy of St. Paul’s Parish, led the gathering in prayer focused on John 17: 20-23, in which Jesus prays that his disciples might be one, as he and his Father are one. The section of the common statement of faith acknowledging central differences between Catholics and Evangelicals was then read aloud.
The document notes that although both “profess together that the Scriptures are God’s word, holy and inspired, trustworthy and true, and authoritative for all time,” Catholics and Evangelicals differ in acceptance of some apocryphal or deuterocanonical writings, and in the understanding of apostolic witness, post-apostolic Tradition, and weighing personal conscience and communal discernment.

“Whereas Evangelicals affirm God’s revelation through Jesus and the canonical Scriptures, Catholic also affirm the authority of communal discernment of doctrine by the church,” states the document. “Ultimately, many of our disagreements are rooted in differing perceptions of how God’s authority is expressed within the Christian community.”

Catholics and Evangelicals proclaim together that God’s people are gathered to be a community of believers, sharing in God’s life and mission in the world. However, there are significant differences in understanding about the essential nature of the church, according to the common statement of faith.

“Evangelicals do not embrace the Catholic emphasis on the historic continuity of the apostolic ministry in the institutions and clerical offices of the church, particularly the ministry of bishops and the papacy. Catholics disagree with the understanding of some Evangelicals that the essential nature of the church is simply a voluntary association of believers. Catholics are reticent about the multiplicity of denominations and diversity of forms of church government among Evangelical churches,” states the document.

Both Catholics and Evangelicals “confess together our sinfulness, our total dependence upon God’s forgiveness and the centrality of Christ in salvation,” however, they continue to differ over matters relating to the process of salvation.

Even though both Catholics and Evangelicals “profess together the risen Christ through the public proclamation of faith in the waters of baptism and participation in the Eucharist,” differences regarding these sacraments remain one of the most significant points of divergence between the traditions, the document describes. Differences also exist in how the two traditions regard the role of Mary as Mother of God, and the communion of saints.

“As we address these issues together, we recognize that we may also encounter non-theological sources of division,” notes the common statement. “Cultural and ideological factors can sometimes work their way into our theological expressions and ecumenical relationships. Sensitivity to these factors will assist our communities to witness to the Gospel of unity.”

Reflections were then presented by dialogue member Dr. Jeromey Martini, president of Horizon College and Seminary in Saskatoon, and by Bishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, before small groups discussed and provided feedback on the document’s section on differences.

The process was positive and resulted in lively discussion and feedback on the draft document, said Nicholas Jesson, ecumenical officer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, who co-chairs the dialogue with Harry Strauss of Forest Grove Community Church.

“Amidst the open dialogue offered during the evening session, there were a few Evangelical participants that were not comfortable with co-operation and dialogue between churches, even between Evangelical churches,” acknowledged Jesson. “More substantive concerns have been raised by Evangelical pastors regarding Marian devotions and Catholic understanding of Scripture, tradition, and authority. These concerns are already identified in Part II of the common statement, and will be the subject of continuing dialogue in the years to come.”

Bolen expressed gratitude to SEMF for accepting the invitation to enter into dialogue with Catholics, and for the team of dialogue members and common statement drafters who have “met many times and cultivated a relationship and worked profoundly well together.”

The bishop noted that for most of their history, if Evangelicals and Catholics talked at all, “we would talk about our differences, and we would talk about how wrong the other was and why we are right.” However, in the recently developed common statement of faith, the “robust character” of the section outlining the common faith shared by Evangelicals and Catholics is striking, Bolen stressed.

“We are looking at the differences tonight in this section, but it is in the context of a strong statement about what we hold together, and we follow this section with a strong statement about what we can do together in mission.”

Bolen added that when Christians enter into an honest dialogue, they are not compromising or negotiating. “We are standing together before Christ, trying to articulate our faith to each other, and in that process to grow in the relationship that Christ desires for us, and intellectually to map out what it is we have in common, and where it is that we have differences, and then to work on it, to keep working on those differences,” he said.

“I am not only very grateful, but very proud of the dialogue team for what they’ve accomplished here,” Bolen said. “It is Jesus Christ who invites us into a relationship with himself, and by virtue of our common relationship with the Lord, he invites us into a relationship with each other. So we are not making up anything new in Saskatoon that isn’t in the Lord’s desire and vision. But I think that what we are doing here is quite exceptional, and isn’t replicated in many other places in the world.”

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