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Evangelical-RC dialogue: discussions continue

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski


SASKATOON — A Feb. 5 public meeting to discuss the draft of a common statement of faith between Catholics and Evangelicals focused on affirming common mission.

The common statement of faith grew out of the work of a 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 has been introduced to the wider community in a series of three meetings, reviewing the content and gathering input.

Public discussion of the draft statement began with a meeting in October 2014 that focused on points of faith Catholics and Evangelicals hold in common, it continued in December with a look at central differences between the two traditions, and concluded Feb. 5 by exploring ways in which followers of Jesus in the Catholic and Evangelical Christian traditions can pray, study, witness and work together.

“Our two communities share a common conviction about the Christian life: Christ is forming us by the Holy Spirit into a faithful people called together and sent into the world to participate in his life and mission,” says the joint statement.

“Although we may have differences about certain aspects of the life of faith, we share convictions about Jesus that ground our call to common witness and mission. Compelled by the love of Christ, we therefore resolve to look for ways to worship and work together.”

The statement goes on to list areas of engagement where Evangelical and Catholic Christians can work together, share in common witness and outreach, including: worship and prayer; fellowship; listening to God’s Word; marriage and family; children and youth; social and ethical issues; direct outreach to those in need; and engagement in the public sphere. The statement says that common witness in the public sphere includes addressing public policy from the perspective of Gospel values, and advocating together on issues such as economic policy, health and social services, education, peace and warfare, care of creation, criminal justice, new genetic technologies and religious liberty

After a Scripture reading from Ephesians and prayer led by John Hickey of Catholic Christian Outreach, the Feb. 5 gathering at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Saskatoon was introduced by dialogue co-chairs Rev. Harry Strauss of Forest Grove Community Church and Nicholas Jesson, ecumenical officer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.

The joint statement section entitled We Affirm our Common Mission was proclaimed aloud, followed by reflections by two members of the dialogue group, with time for table discussion and large group sharing, before the event concluded with prayer.

Rev. Bernard de Margerie, a Catholic priest whose lifelong commitment to ecumenism included founding the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism in Saskatoon, described the final section of the joint statement of faith as “a generous and creative proposal” about the Gospel call to undertake acts of common witness, mission and service.

“Giving common witness and doing mission together is a good, blessed thing. It corresponds to a blessed Gospel evangelical impulse. It is the fruit of evangelical obedience and faithfulness to the Lord, wanting to be Christians together in witness and service. That’s Matthew 25 — it’s a good impulse,” said de Margerie. However, he also stressed the importance of authentic dialogue, and a courageous, ongoing discernment about differences.

“Elements that constitute our differences must be questioned, judged, reconciled and reconfigured within the unity of the Body of Christ,” stressed de Margerie, reading from One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity.

De Margerie said Christians from each tradition must consent to be questioned, and in the process, to be “purified, humbled and freed by the questioning itself.” Such questioning and dialogue is needed on all sides, “otherwise we will settle quietly in our friendly divisions.”

Again citing One Body through the Cross, de Margerie noted that the church is neither an “intimate sympathy among the like-minded” nor “a space of live and let live.” Rather, the unity of the church is the paschal unity that comes from the mystery of Christ dying, rising and sending the Holy Spirit — the “paschal unity of those who have been assigned to one another across denominational lines.”

De Margerie said that he has found most of the theological differences between Evangelical and Catholic Christians are complementary, not contradictory — “but we have not spoken to each other for 500 years.”

He stressed the need for ongoing, mutual rediscovery of different positions among the denominations, led by the Holy Spirit, and compelled by the love of Christ.

De Margerie also urged the dialogue group to endeavour to “encourage leadership and pastors to get hold of this desire of common mission.” He noted the need for churches to engage in a self-examination of conscience, and a need for humbly acknowledging the weaknesses and shortcomings within one’s own tradition.

Rev. Brendon Gibson of Emmanuel Baptist Church also spoke, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to serve on the local dialogue. “I am grateful for friendly differences. I am grateful that we are no longer — for the most part — at each other’s throats, and that we can engage in good conversation, and that’s a start.”

Gibson added: “We also affirm that we belong to a missionary God, we follow the one who was sent by God, and who has sent us into the world to bear witness.” He pointed to the joint statement’s action list for engaging in common mission in the world, to bring healing, reconciliation and restoration.

“We recognize in the dialogue that Catholics and Evangelicals have been doing this to some extent for decades,” he added, noting combined work on ethical issues and engagement in the public sphere.

“We’ve acknowledged along the way our need for each other, and have made common cause together on issues of life and death. We have stood together in life chains in solidarity with the unborn, and we have spoken with a common voice on the issue of euthanasia. And we will definitely be called upon to do so again in the months and years ahead.”

More recently, Evangelical churches and the Catholic diocese in Saskatoon have been working together in the area of marriage enrichment, he noted. Together as the Saskatoon Marriage Network, the diocese and several Evangelical churches are jointly hosting a Sacred Marriage Conference April 17-18 in Saskatoon, with speaker Gary Thomas.

“In the past several years we have also joined together in a common worship service and have participated in joint sessions of prayer, but as a dialogue, we believe that much more is possible. For while we affirm and celebrate all that is already happening, we resolve to look for ways to worship and work together.”

Shared Vacation Bible School events, joint Gospel proclamation through programs such as Alpha, supporting inter-church families, and working together in other ways to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, were cited as areas of common mission.

“As society becomes increasingly secularized and potentially more hostile to faith, I believe we will come to appreciate the value of a common Christian voice in issues,” Gibson said. “Working together on these issues will increase our credibility and potential impact.”

Dialogue co-chair Rev. Harry Strauss also emphasized the potential of the joint statement to affect the broader community. “We can do so much more,” he added. “I hope this will be a spark.”

In the discussion that followed, some expressed reservations about engaging in common worship. One table spokesperson said: “The sticking point is whether one accepts that the Gospel for Roman Catholics is the same as the Gospel for Evangelicals, and if that’s not cleared up, it excludes the possibility of authentic working together.”

Discussion at another table noted that the focus must be on the kingdom of God and not on any individual churches. “We need to recognize the common mission to build God’s kingdom.”

Another participant stressed the importance of friendships and faith sharing, describing the common faith being discovered by families connected through marriage, or in her own experience as a member of a group of coworkers from nine different denominations who meet to pray together.

Jodi Kozan, an evangelical member of the dialogue and the president and founder of Women’s Journey of Faith, led the closing prayer, citing John 17:21, in which Jesus Christ prays to his Father that his followers would be one as Jesus and his Father are one.

“It is possible, it is not impossible,” said Kozan. “I happen to believe in the midst of the controversy and the challenges that we have because of our differences, that if Christ believes it is possible, I have hope and faith to believe it is possible.”

Kozan added that the only way to be “compelled by love” to love each other and those of different denominations, is to worship God and be filled by God and his love. “The world will know we are one when we proclaim the name of Jesus.”

Feedback gathered from the three public meetings will assist the Evangelical-Catholic dialogue in revising the statement, said Strauss, noting plans to present the revised document in late April.

The local dialogue began in December 2011 after Catholic Bishop Donald Bolen invited the Saskatoon Evangelical Ministers’ Fellowship (SEMF) to participate in a process of getting to know each other, sharing faith and discussing differences. In addition to drafting the common statement of faith, the dialogue partners have organized two joint worship services in Saskatoon.

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