Several years ago the late Brother Jeffrey Gros, FSC, the keynote speaker at National Workshop on Christian Unity in Arlington, Virginia, lifted up five things for which to be grateful in the church unity movement today.
At the top of the list, Gros, who was then professor of Church history at Memphis Theological Seminary (Tennessee), put the Methodist Statement of Association with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). The JDDJ, signed on October 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, represents a formal agreement between the Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation on the historically divisive issue of justification or how we are saved.
At World Methodist Conference in Seoul, Korea, delegates voted acceptance of the JDDJ as their statement, too, in a Common Affirmation. The result is a unique theological agreement in which a third partner has joined with two partners already in agreement.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, former President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, called it “a historic day”, and Dr. Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, said it was a “new ecumenical landmark for which we must thank and praise God together.”
A key phrase in the JDDJ is “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”
In its Common Affirmation, after four years of seeking consensus within the World Methodist family, the World Methodist Council and its churches declared JDDJ’s understanding to be not church-dividing but church-uniting. It makes possible among Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists a common proclamation of the gospel in a deeper and more substantive way, and signals the possibility of additional movement towards the restoration of visible Christian unity.
Christian Churches Together, USA
Second on Gros’ list of things for which to be grateful: Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT-USA). At a meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, national leaders from five Christian “confessional families”—Evangelical/Pentecostal, Historic Protestant, Historic Racial/Ethnic, Orthodox, and Catholic—made the decision to officially begin, culminating a process instigated in 2001 by Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore.
The official ceremonial beginning of CCT-USA took place February 6-9 in Pasadena, California, with a service of celebration and commitment.
At the core of CCT is the desire for a forum bringing a broader spectrum of Christian traditions together “to enable churches and Christian organizations to grow closer in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian witness to the world” (CCT Charter).
“This is as much a challenge as a pledge,” Gros told the 400 participants. “African American churches wonder whether this is the best way to spread their limited ecumenical resources. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are inherently cautious and many will watch closely what the next decades bring before warming up to the idea.”
25 Years of Growth through BEM
Thirdly, 2007 was the 25th anniversary of the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry document produced by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and commonly known as BEM, or the Lima document because it was released to the churches at the meeting in Lima, Peru, in 1982.
Virtually all the confessional traditions are represented in the Faith and Order Commissions’ membership which formulated the large measure of agreement on the three areas of doctrine and practice which effectively represent the scaffolding of the church.
The document’s preface said “That theologians of such widely different traditions should be able to speak so harmoniously about baptism, eucharist, and ministry is unprecedented in the modern ecumenical movement.”
They recognized we have not yet reached “full consensus,” but that such “can only be proclaimed after the churches reach a point of living and acting together in unity.” BEM was given to the churches for “reception,” an on-going process at work in the churches today.
“BEM has contributed to deeper levels of communion between churches and clarified the way to communion for those for whom it seemed impossible,” said Gros. “Some have expected too much too soon.”
Rich Resource of Dialogue Texts
Fourthly, Gros observed, “some of the most polarizing issues in our society are beginning to be discussed among the churches. Church dialogue texts on abortion and euthanasia are helpful resources, as is the Faith and Order work in the U.S. on homosexuality, and that of the Vatican-WCC Joint Working Group on ethical issues.
“None of our churches,” he said, “have an alternate position, confessionally, to the common position on marriage; therefore we don’t have formal faith differences, only differences in practice.” Referring to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s (ARCIC) 1994 common text on marriage, Gros said “it needs to be tested among all the churches of the Anglican Communion and in the Catholic community.”
Fifthly, Gros lifted up for celebration all the texts which have been produced by the churches in their dialogues with one another. They represent a rich resource for local dialogues, for preachers and teachers, and for personal spiritual nurture.
“To God we can be grateful,” Gros said, “for many signs of reconciliation which point to the ultimate goal of union in his Son, and to the penultimate goal of full communion by stages as we move forward in human history.”
Fr. Tom Ryan is a member of the Paulist Fathers, a Roman Catholic community of priests founded in the U.S. in 1858 whose mission is expressed in evangelization, reconciliation, Christian unity and interreligious dialogue and collaboration. Tom directed the national Canadian Centre for Ecumenism for 14 years before co-founding and directing Unitas, an ecumenical center for spirituality and Christian meditation co-sponsored by 8 different denominations in Montreal, QC. In 2000 his community then called him to found and develop the work of a Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC., which is his ministry to the present day. Tom leads ecumenical retreats and co-leads Gospel Call with John Armstrong. He has authored or co-authored 15 books and over 150 articles in a wide variety of journals. His own quarterly journal/newsletter is Koinonia and he can be contacted via www.tomryancsp.org.