The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a major challenge to many Christian communions and to the on-going work of the ecumenical dialogues in particular. The summer of 2020 should have seen the 15th Lambeth Conference, a meeting of all serving bishops of the Anglican Communion which takes place usually at ten year intervals. In April it was announced that this meeting would be rescheduled to 2021, and then in July it was rescheduled again to 2022. The World Methodist Council Conference due to meet in the summer of 2021 has also been postponed until the summer of 2022. The summer of 2022 will be congested ecumenically as the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches has also been rescheduled to this time. The bilateral international theological dialogues that the Catholic Church conducts with other world communions normally meet in plenary sessions annually, though such gatherings of theologians from all across the globe have not been possible in this time of COVID. Nevertheless, dialogue commissions have been quick to adapt and have found new ways of working to carry forward the work of healing of Christian division.
The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC)
ARCIC III’s plenary meeting was scheduled to meet in the Monastery of Bose from 9th to 16th May. As the consequences of the pandemic increased it became apparent that this meeting could not go ahead. Instead the Commission would have to meet electronically. Given the geographical spread of ARCIC’s membership, from New Zealand to the Americas, it was recognised that the Commission would only be able to meet for two hours a day, which would still mean a 6am start for some and a midnight finish for others. Four such meetings were held from 12th to 15th May.
The current work of the dialogue is to examine “how in communion the local and universal Church come to discern right ethical teaching”. This focus follows on from the ARCIC’s last document, Walking together on the Way (2018), which examined the structures of communion which exist in our two communions at the local, regional and universal level through the lens of Receptive Ecumenism.
Papers were prepared on how discernment is understood within each tradition, the status of ethical teaching, and to what extent ethical differences have proved Church-dividing in Christian history. The Commission also heard presentations regarding the sources and discernment of the Church’s social teaching. While the technology served the Commission well, it severely reduced the amount of working time of a normal plenary. Clearly, the restraints of time imposed by meeting virtually across a wide expanse of time zones limited the time for discussion and there was some debate about whether, in these circumstances, there was sufficient time to discuss and adopt proposed changes to the schema that had been agreed at the Commission’s previous meeting.
Ultimately the most fruitful and significant decision made during the plenary was to schedule two further electronic meetings in the autumn for which a Core Group would be appointed to develop a more detailed version of the schema, assessing and adopting, where appropriate, the proposals of the plenary. The Steering Group (co-chairs and co-secretaries) met in early June to appoint the Core Group which consists of two ethicists from each side and the two co-secretaries.
The Core Group has worked assiduously, meeting through the summer months and beyond, at times meeting weekly or fortnightly in videoconference. The group exceeded its brief and produced two draft texts for the first two chapters. These chapters were shared with Commission members by email ahead of plenary electronic meetings on 5th October and 2nd November respectively. The Core Group then incorporated comments, both written and those made during the meetings into the text.
Chapter 1 introduces the document in the light of work the Commission has already done. ARCIC II published Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church in 1994 and this work provides a helpful background and foundation to ARCIC III’s work. The Commission also envisages its text on the discernment of right ethical teaching to be a companion document to its earlier text, Walking Together on the Way (2018) because the two statements respond to a single mandate. As Walking Together on the Way used Receptive Ecumenism to examine the structures of communion operative in the two traditions, so the Commission is committed to employing the same method in studying the means by which Catholics and Anglicans discern right ethical teaching. This means that each tradition acknowledges its own struggles and tensions and asks where the graced experience of its dialogue partner may be able to offer a gift.
In a paper prepared for a discussion during the 2009 General Synod of the Church of England, Archbishop Rowan Williams lamented that Life in Christ contained scant acknowledgement of the Anglican theological tradition in the field of ethics. The draft of the second chapter prepared by the Core Group looks to remedy this lacuna by sketching something of that tradition as it developed after the Reformation. In placing the riches of both Anglican and Catholic theological traditions side by side it is hoped that the Commission will be able to identify which of these riches can be shared for the betterment of all.
While the progress made, even under the restrictions of the pandemic, has been impressive, members are very much aware that a much fuller discussion, and a much more thorough scrutiny of the draft text can only really be achieved in a live plenary gathering of the Commission.
The Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission (MERCIC)
The Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue managed to hold one of the very few international dialogue meetings to take place in 2020. A drafting group met in Duke University, Durham, North Carolina at the beginning of March (3-7). This group received draft chapters prepared jointly by Methodist and Catholic members and identified further work that needed to be done. Much was achieved during the four days at Duke, but nevertheless, a good deal of work remained to be completed after the meeting. One of the Commission members, Dr Clare Watkins, was hospitalised with COVID-19 and this meant other members picking up the work that she was unable to do. (Dr Watkins has happily made a full, if slow, recovery.)
Drafts of the document were circulated in the spring with a request for feedback. In May the steering group agreed that the planned October plenary meeting would not be able to go ahead. Instead they proposed to meet for six two-hour electronic meetings from 9th-15th October. In the meantime the drafting group revised the text in the light of comments received and in September sent out a new complete draft to all members. Suggested amendments on the basis of this text were then collated into a working document for October’s virtual plenary meeting, at which much progress was made. Even with all the extensive work done in preparation the drafting team has continued to meet after the October plenary and hopes to present the final text to the Commission for their final approval at an electronic meeting on 27th March. The text will then be sent to the respective authorities of each communion for approval.
It is, however, possible at this stage to give some indication of the form of the text and the issues with which the Commission has been grappling. The text has the provisional title God in Christ Reconciling and will comprise of four chapters. It opens, following the form of previous reports, with a scriptural reflection on the parable of the Prodigal Son or, as the Commission prefers to call it, the parable of the Two Sons, because both are called to turn and be reconciled with the Father. Temptations to identify a particular Christian community with one or other son are erroneous and to be resisted.
Chapter 1 will examine reconciliation as a Christian language for the salvation that comes in Jesus Christ. As sin has broken or damaged the relationship a person has with God, self, others, and the whole creation, so the healing of these relationships describes the salvation that God offers in Christ. In this analysis the Commission closely mirrors the language of Reconciliatio et Paenitentia which talks of the “four reconciliations which repair the four fundamental rifts; reconciliation of man with God, with self, with the brethren and with the whole of creation” (§26). Furthermore, if the calling of the Church is to be “the visible sacrament of [the] saving unity” which God desires for all, then Christian division must be recognised to significantly inhibit this purpose and mission. For this reason the call to Christian unity is urgent and impelling for all Christians.
Taking up this theme Chapter 2 will note how both Catholics and Methodists are guilty of historical actions that have furthered division. Acknowledging the healing that has been achieved through the ecumenical movement of the twentieth-century, the Commission recognises the continued suspicion and need for a further healing of memories. The goal of the ecumenical dialogue, as has been stated by MERCIC in previous reports, is our ecclesial reconciliation and full communion in faith, mission, and sacramental life within the full visible unity of the Church”. However, the unity God desires for the Church should not be understood as uniformity but rather a communion of reconciled diversity. God in Christ Reconciling will examine how the structures of our two traditions already act to reconcile and hold in communion a legitimate diversity.
It is envisaged that the third chapter of the report will examine the liturgical and sacramental practices of reconciliation within the two communions. Catholics and Methodists both recognise Baptism as the primary sacrament of reconciliation for Christians, and Eucharist as the sacrament through which Christians are most frequently strengthened in a reconciled communion with God, their brothers and sisters and with the entire creation. Some Methodists do practice rites of reconciliation which mirror sacramental penance, however most do not. The report will be the first international ecumenical document to examine the sacrament of penance. Methodists worry that Catholic insistence on the necessity of the sacrament restricts God’s freedom to forgive and the sinner’s ability to freely receive this forgiveness. Methodists also have concerns about the intermediary role of the Church and the minister. Methodist concerns can be salutary for Catholics, warning of misunderstandings to which Catholics themselves can fall prey. It is important to reaffirm the teaching of the Church that God is not bound by the sacrament (see Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 31) and that, in the words of the Catechism, “The confessor is not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant” (§1466).
The fourth chapter of the report will look to the mission of the Church and how Catholics and Methodists can work together as God’s reconciling agents in the world. By working together to respond to those in need and to the climate crisis, Catholics and Methodists give witness to their common faith and in doing so become a fuller sign of the unity to which God calls all people. By these shared initiatives Catholics and Methodists provide “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words” (Fratelli tutti 6).
Given the emphasis on the Healing of Memories it is planned that the document will conclude with a liturgy offered so that Catholics and Methodists can join together in praying for the reconciling of our two communions. The ecumenical prayer with which Pope Francis concludes his encyclical, Fratelli tutti, has encouraged and inspired the Commission in this initiative.
The plenary meetings of bilateral dialogue commissions habitually take place in an context of mutual respect and warmth. The friendships and the mutual respect for each other’s Christian faith make all the more painful the fact that members cannot fully participate and cannot yet receive the Eucharist together gathered at the one table. In many ways the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic mirrors this experience. Very often in the moments before the formal beginning of a virtual meeting there has been time to exchange news and experiences. In this time members have frequently expressed frustration at not being able to properly meet and spend the time our annual meetings afford with others on the commissions. The many email exchanges and electronic meetings have maintained the work of ecumenical reconciliation, but they are imperfect and in some sense a metaphor for the real yet incomplete communion we experience ecclesially. We look hopefully towards better times ahead when we can once again meet together, and through the dialogues we work for that time when our communion will be fully reconciled.
The Reverend Anthony Currer is the official for Methodist and Anglican Relations at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
The original article appeared in Italian in ‘L’Osservatore Romano‘ on 25 January 2021.