SASKATOON — While first-year students in the Program in Ecumenical Studies and Formation (PESF) June 23 - 26 were being introduced to the principles of ecumenical theory and practice, those in the advanced year of the program focused more specifically on the process of ecumenical dialogue, using the themes of baptism and eucharist as points of entry into the dialogue.
Keynote speaker Sister Donna Geernaert, SC, of Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax provided historical context and a theological framework for dialogue issues related to baptism.
Over the course of two days, second-year participants reflected and examined contexts of dialogue and churches working together. Their task was to discover where points of agreement and consensus exist on the subjects of baptism and eucharist as well as to identify roadblocks, points where issues around baptism and eucharist have presented challenges in the dialogue process.
Geernaert examined historical experiences of dialogue, beginning with the emergence of Roman Catholic participation in the ecumenical process.
“Roman Catholic participation in the work of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order began during the Second Vatican Council. It was quite discreet at the beginning,” explained Geernaert. By 1979, the Roman Catholic Church was a full member of the commission.
Renamed the Commission on Faith and Witness in 1989, the organization broadened its mandate to include interfaith as well as ecumenical relations.
The commission invites member churches to engage in theological reflection to foster a greater understanding of the faith and to provide an ecumenical witness to Christ’s mission in the world.
“In 1972 the commission took up the topic of baptism, with a view to provide documentation which would support mutual recognition among several churches,” said Geernaert. “Within a few months, the commission was able to send a report to the churches with a two-part proposal: first, that baptism which was conferred by flowing water accompanied by the trinitarian formula would be accepted as valid, and second, that a common certificate of baptism would be agreed upon and adopted.”
While a common baptismal certificate was ultimately deemed impractical, “in 1975, five churches — United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican and Roman Catholic — announced that they had reached an understanding through which any one church would recognize the validity of baptisms conferred according to the established norms of the other churches. This was a significant step forward,” she noted.
Of particular importance was a document that came from the 1982 Faith and Mission Council of the World Council of Churches, entitled Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, which, according to Geernaert, is “the most widely circulated and responded to of the ecumenical documents.”
“There was a sense of excitement when it was first published and a lot of attempts to understand and integrate it. There were a number of study sessions sponsored by local dialogue groups, theological colleges and ecumenical centres” focusing on the document’s content and implications.
“Ecumenical dialogue on baptism was given a new impetus,” said Geernaert. “As many Canadian churches were considering their responses to the document, the Canadian Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission planned to hold a consultation on the pastoral and practical implications of recognizing the document as an expression of the faith through the ages.”
Given the agreement already achieved on the meaning and practice of baptism, Geernaert recounted the consultation’s recommendation for the development of a common catechesis on baptism.
“In 1986, Commission on Faith and Witness members began a conversation on developing a common catechesis with a comparison of baptismal liturgies from eight member churches: Anglican, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, Orthodox Church in America, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United. The dialogue included reflections on experience, biblical interpretation and points of theological agreement and difference.”
In 1991, a document was published entitled Initiation into Christ: Common Teaching and Ecumenical Reflections on Preparation for Baptism. “This publication marked an advance in reception of the ecumenical study of baptism in Canada,” said Geernaert.
The document is oriented toward use as a resource in ecumenical dialogue and study. Geernaert noted that it is intended for a wide spectrum of people: persons considering baptism for themselves or their children; persons who might be making a personal profession of faith or preparing for a renewal of their baptismal vows; pastors providing pre-marriage and baptismal counselling; congregations or parish groups; as well as those teaching a unit on baptism in a confirmation or catechetical curriculum or in a religious education program at the secondary school level.
While “there was much to celebrate in the Canadian Council of Churches’ efforts to promote the ecumenical reception of baptism,” Geernaert also noted the realities of dissonance that is a part of ecumenical dialogue. “The possibility of new divisions arising out of contemporary concerns illustrates the fragility of what has been achieved.”
Geernaert holds a PhD in theology from the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, and has taught at a number of Canadian universities. Her professional career includes being on the staff of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, where her portfolios included Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations, and Issues of Concern to Women. She chaired the Canadian Council of Churches’ Faith and Witness Commission and was instrumental in bringing the CCCB into the Council of Churches. She has participated in many bilateral dialogues, both nationally and internationally.