In the past 50+ years a lot of ecumenical agreements have been published by a variety of bilateral dialogue groups at national and international levels. But for the most part these remarkable texts are like unopened Christmas presents, left on library shelves and in church archives. Rarely do they trickle down to the people in our churches.
In our small prairie town of Watrous we wanted to change this. So it was that in six sessions Lutherans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics (LARC) dove into the document Growing Together in Unity and Mission published in 2007 by the International Anglican — Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission or IARCCUM.
It was no small task. While everyone sort of knew each other in this small community, rarely had they had occasion, or permission, to share their faith at this personal a level. Moreover, the brave souls that participated felt initial hesitation and inadequacy in engaging such a comprehensive document, full of theology and history. But the beauty of breaking open the text “in community” soon became evident. Engaging the text together replaced apprehension with curiosity and openness, surprise, humour and . . . more questions!
The discovery that the similarities between our traditions far outnumber the differences lifted a lot of spirits. The realization that each tradition has made past exclusive truth claims, thus dismissing other denominational expressions of the Gospel, now caused a good deal of liberating laughter. On the other hand, some learning sparked shock, embarrassment and even anger: “I am shocked and embarrassed to learn that Rome does not recognize Anglican and Lutheran ordinations,” a Roman Catholic participant lamented.
Participants admitted struggling with old stereotypes of the other: “A challenge for me was trying to get passed what was instilled in me as a child.” Yet, even to voice this struggle, daring to be vulnerable, resulted in deeper understanding and closeness in the group.
A Lutheran participant noted: “The written material made very clear the reasons for the diversity between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran/Anglican churches. In the Lutheran Church we recognize Mary as the mother of Jesus. I wasn’t aware of the extent to which the Catholic Church places Mary in their faith.”
One general sentiment was the group’s previous ignorance of ecumenical dialogues that have been taking place at national and international levels between our respective bishops and theologians . . . for the past 50 years! Participants felt “left out,” asking why they were not informed of these developments years ago. This lead to a discussion about the notion of reception, and the arduous process this can be. One participant noted rightly that an ecumenical vision by local pastors is crucial for making the fruits of ecumenical dialogue and agreements available and accessible, so that they can be unpacked and embraced by the people in the pews whose lives are directly impacted by these achievements.
The most salient parts revolved around the eucharist. Lutherans and Anglicans had trouble understanding why Rome limits sharing the eucharist and how that can be justified from Scripture. Catholics were surprised to learn that Rome asks them to refrain from sharing holy communion in an Anglican or Lutheran eucharist. By the time we explored this sensitive subject, however, mutual affection led one Anglican to say to a Roman Catholic: “Well, if God moves you to receive communion at our eucharist, you can always go to confession after.”
The final session was characterized by a strong desire that this exchange not end. Using the categories from Part II in the GTUM document (Joint Study, Visible Faith Expression, Co-operation in Ministry, Shared Mission), practical ideas were generated on how to continue to foster Christian unity in our prairie town: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, joint services on fifth Sundays of the month, pray for one another in the Sunday intentions, mid-week services during Advent and Lent rotating churches, ecumenical retreats, sponsoring refugees, regular sharing circles, shared Good Friday service and Way of the Cross, joint Bible studies — the list goes on. Some of these are already happening. Now that we have encountered one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, there is no turning back.
Ternier is an Anglican priest who serves the Anglican and Lutheran parishes in Watrous, Sask. This column is co-published with the Saskatchewan Anglican. Marie-Louise blogs at http://graceatsixty.wordpress.com