SASKATOON — As an Evangelical Christian, Dr. Gordon Smith has been enriched by his encounters with Catholics. He described some of “what Evangelicals can learn from Catholic Christians” during a recent presentation at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon.
Smith told the gathering that he was speaking as an Evangelical “who is deeply indebted to the perspectives and wisdom from the Catholic tradition that have enriched my Christian journey, and my ministry.”
The presentation at the cathedral was organized by the local Evangelical-Catholic dialogue group that has been meeting for the past three-and-a-half years in Saskatoon. Dialogue co-chairs Nicholas Jesson, ecumenical officer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, and Rev. Harry Strauss of Forest Grove Community Church, welcomed the diverse crowd to the April 30 event. A similar session on what Catholics can learn from Evangelical Christians is planned for the fall.
A committed life-long Evangelical Christian and the president of Ambrose University in Calgary, Smith said that he has grown in faith and understanding through the Catholic emphasis on sacramentality, as well as receiving new insights into the Gospel, spiritual formation and liturgical renewal from his Catholic sisters and brothers.
Smith added that he has also been blessed by ancient Catholic sources of Christian wisdom — including John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola and many others — and has been enriched by the Catholic emphasis on the importance of the intellectual life for faith.
However, it is the meaning of church (ecclesiology) which is the most critical issue for conversation, learning and dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals, asserted Smith.
“The fundamental matters separating Catholics and Evangelicals is not, in my estimation, tradition and Scripture, it is not faith versus works, it is not even Mary or celibacy or sacraments and their meaning, or even the centrality of Christ for worship and piety,” Smith said.
“We might differ on some or all of these matters, but they are not the fundamental point of divide. Rather the most pressing issue is very simply: what does it mean to be the church? And in this regard, I suggest to both parties that we need to listen twice as much as we speak.”
Evangelicals need to do some homework and some due diligence, Smith suggested. “Our radical individualism, our propensity for divisiveness and sectarianism, is something for which we need to repent, and then from this penitential posture, begin to read and listen to Catholic theologians, and to local clergy, and to Catholic sisters and brothers, on what does it mean to be the church as a liturgical, catechetical and missional community.”
Smith noted that one of the goals of ecumenism is not simply to map out agreement and disagreement, but to determine “where and in what ways can we learn from one another, and where and in what ways can we learn together.”
For instance, he said, “Catholic voices and perspectives that have helped me and many other evangelicals come to a greater appreciation of the place of the sacraments in worship — that embodiment matters, that materiality is inherent to our way of being, that physicality in our worship is central to true worship. The sense that if it only happens in our heads, and only happens in our hearts, and does not happen in our bodies, perhaps it doesn’t happen, perhaps it doesn’t take deeply and thoroughly.”
He emphasized the importance of an embodied faith. “There are two threads within my tradition: there is the rational thread, that everything happens in my mind, and there is the sentimental thread, that the only thing that worship is, is good feelings. But if our faith is not embodied, it is a fair question to ask if it takes. Grace by its very nature needs to be bred in the bone. It needs to be embodied if it’s going to have its transformative effect.”
Smith concluded with a quote from a letter that John Wesley, one of the Evangelical founders of Methodism, wrote in 1789 to a Roman Catholic friend: “Let us . . . endeavour to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God. Above all, let us each take heed to himself (since each must give an account of himself to God) that he fall not short of the religion of love.”
Smith added: “If Wesley was so inclined in 1749, how much more generous should we be of our assessment of each other today, being eager to learn together, serve together, worship together in mutual respect and love. Yes with discernment — but I would suggest with the discernment not of critics, but of fellow learners.”