COMMENTARY – Dialogue as a Tool for Unity and Mission

By the Reverend Matthew A. Laferty

The Feast of Peter and Paul on June 29th is a major affair here in Rome. Both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, and their tombs remain to this day important pilgrimage sites. Many representations and icons of the two saints exist, but the Eastern Orthodox icon of Peter and Paul meeting and holding each other in embrace remains for me the most powerful. In Rome this icon of the two saints in embrace is an important symbol for the ecumenical movement and holds a prominent place of viewing in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican’s ecumenical department. The icon reflects the deep longing and love for one another and the reconciliation with God and each other found through Christ; it too reminds us that as contemporary followers of Jesus Christ that each of us embodies both elements of Peter and Paul in our lives.

For me this icon engenders our journeys in Christ and the point where the unity of the church meets the mission of the church. In recalling Jesus’ prayer from John 17, the Rev. Dr. Kyle Tau, former ecumenical staff officer at the Council of Bishops, recalls in UM & Global blog of the clear linkage between unity and mission, concluding that, “mission is the beginning and true end of ecumenism.” The church cannot separate mission and unity as if they are two unrelated activities; rather, unity and mission, like Peter and Paul, are intrinsically linked at the heart of our ecclesiology.

Yet, mission and unity too often are severed from one another. Instead of close embrace, unity and mission are broken apart and only gaze at each other from a distance. Equally as disturbing is our impulse to privilege mission over unity as if the unity of the church is a secondary calling to mission in the world; it cultivates a situation where missionary zeal demands theological purity which, in turn, diminishes or entirely negates the call for Christian unity. Methodists are often plagued by both approaches.

It then begs the question – what tools are necessary and fundamental to draw together the mission of the church and unity of the church into loving embrace like Peter and Paul? How do we bridge the division between Christians so that “mission is the beginning and true end of ecumenism”?

In this journey, dialogue remains a relevant instrument in the quest for the full and visible unity of the church and necessary to manifest the greatest expression of the mission of the church.

I am hesitant to strictly define dialogue because many theological/philosophical understandings and typologies exist. In its broadest sense, dialogue is a conversation between two or more people which is characterized by the exchange of ideas or opinions.

In the church, dialogue is often marked by encountering one another to gain greater understanding of our own Christian faith and the Christian faith of others, dispel myths or misperceptions, mutually recognize of a common baptism and faith in Jesus Christ, and grow together in God. Dialogue is formal and informal, local and global, and short and long. Dialogue is contextual and has different points of departure.

For church leaders, dialogue can be viewed within a formal context which seeks to bring one church into dialogue with another church for the purpose of full communion and interchangeability of clergy. Such dialogues for The United Methodist Church have been conducted with the Moravian Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), and The Episcopal Church. These formal dialogues also take place between world communions (association of churches with a shared theological heritage and mission like the World Methodist Council or the Lutheran World Federation).

An example of international dialogue is the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission, a special theological dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church. The international Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue celebrates 55 years of continuous dialogue in 2022, working for “a vision that includes the goal of full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life” (§20, The Nairobi Report, 1986). For the international dialogue (and in my opinion, every Christian dialogue), unity and mission are intertwined; we dialogue so we may be in unity and mission together.

I do caution that dialogue should not be viewed strictly as a project of the elite nor within a formal framework. While church-to-church (or denomination-to-denomination) and international dialogues are critical, dialogue should find a home in local congregations, not as formal theological dialogues but rather informal dialogues with siblings from different Christian churches which focus on faith practices, encounter, friendship, and mutual discernment. Local dialogue should give attention to the gifts of each local congregation and what can be shared with one another. Local dialogue can be shaped in learning-settings in small groups or shared action or mission projects in a community. Sometimes it is easier to bring together different Christian congregations through service to the community, thereby building friendship and trust. For local dialogue, encounter is key.

We cannot expect dialogue on its own to resolve all differences or heal all wounds. But dialogue opens Christians to one another, so the Holy Spirit may draw the unity of the church and the mission of the church into loving embrace.

The blog post originally appeared on the UM & Global blog.

ENCOUNTER – Praying for Peace in Lebanon

In a special ecumenical prayer service for peace in Lebanon on 1 July 2021, Pope Francis and heads of churches in Lebanon gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome today to pray for peace in Lebanon. MEOR director Matthew A. Laferty along with ecclesiastical representatives, members of the diplomatic corps, and the Lebanese community in Rome were invited to join.

Read the Vatican News coverage of the Ecumenical Day of Prayer for Lebanon.

ENCOUNTER – MEOR Director Visits Focolare Movement International Headquarters

On 14 June 2021, the Rev. Matthew A. Laferty, director of the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome, visited Centro Uno and the international headquarters of the Focolare Movement today in Rocca di Papa outside Rome to learn about the Focolare Movement, the spirituality and legacy of their founder Chiara Lubich, and share about the work of the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome. The Focolare Mocement which means “hearth” in Italian is a Catholic lay movement with a special call for dialogue and Christian unity.

NEWS – MEOR Director Greets Italian Methodist Consultation on 30 May

The Rev. Matthew A. Laferty, director of the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome, gave a greeting to the Italian Methodist Consultation during its annual session on 30 May 2021 to over 90 Methodist pastors and lay leaders. Italian Methodists are in a union church with the Waldensians to form the Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches in Italy; they share one Synod (governing body). There is also an annual meeting of all the Methodist leaders in Italy once a year to discuss unique issues affecting the Methodist congregations and to strengthen the Methodist identity. The Consultation was held online this year due to the ongoing pandemic.

Rev. Laferty’s greeting is below:

Gentile presidente Mirella Manocchio, sorelle e fratelli metodisti italiani,

Grazia a voi da Dio Padre e dal Signore Gesù Cristo.

È una gioia portarvi i saluti dell’Ufficio Ecumenico Metodista di Roma. Mi chiamo Matthew Laferty e un pastore della Chiesa Metodista Unita. Da settembre sono il direttore dell’Ufficio Ecumenico Metodista di Roma e sono lieto di lavorare a fianco dei metodisti in Italia per l’unità della Chiesa. MEOR è un ministero e una collaborazione fra il Consiglio Metodista Mondiale, l’OPCEMI, il Consiglio Metodista Europeo, la Chiesa Metodista Unita e la Chiesa Metodista Britannica per promuovere il dialogo e l’unità dei cristiani, per cercare azioni congiunte per la pace e la giustizia, e per offrire ospitalità, preghiera e riflessione.

Metterò brevemente in evidenza alcuni progetti attualmente in sviluppo.

1. Stiamo lavorando ad un progetto su Roma come città di pellegrinaggio per i metodisti, per rivendicare Roma come città dell’ecumenismo celebrando la diversità del cristianesimo a Roma.

2. MEOR ha avviato diverse conversazioni con i nostri fratelli cristiani ortodossi per pregare insieme e pensare a come possiamo avviare una maggiore condivisione e apprendimento tra metodisti e ortodossi.

3. Il rapporto finale del Dialogo Internazionale Metodista-Cattolico sarà pubblicato in autunno. Il tema del rapporto è la riconciliazione con un capitolo dedicato alla giustizia climatica e alla costruzione della pace come grandi questioni di riconciliazione. Stiamo creando un programma per il prossimo anno per promuovere il lavoro svolto dai metodisti in queste aree di giustizia climatica e costruzione della pace.

Ringrazio l’OPCEMI e tutta la comunità metodista d’Italia per il loro sostegno, ospitalità e generosità e per una lunga, buona e fruttuosa collaborazione.

Grazie per la vostra attenzione.