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Common witness and friendship

· Evangelical-Catholic relations ·

The consultation between the World Evangelical Alliance and the Catholic Church, which began in 2009, hopes to finalize an agreed statement when they meet later this year.

The current round of consultation was planned by Cardinal Walter Kasper, then President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (pcpcu), Msgr Juan Usma, pcpcu staff member for relations with Evangelicals, and Dr Rolf Hille, Director for Ecumenical Affairs of the World Evangelical Alliance (wea). The wea draws together families of Evangelical Churches and Christians, and estimates that it has connections to approximately 600 million Christians.

Given the number of Catholics and Evangelicals in the world today, this consultation is both urgently important and full of potential. It is the principal way in which Evangelicals and Catholics are in conversation on a global level. National and local dialogues or working relationships also exist in some parts of the world, while relations remain very poor in other places.

At the international level, there have been two earlier phases of dialogue between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. The first phase resulted in the 1984 report Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission. The broad focus of the report was on the Christian mission, but it included initial treatment of a variety of theological points of tension, including the Scriptures, salvation, the Church, Mary and the saints, and the sacraments. A second phase of dialogue (1993- 2002) produced a report entitled Church, Evangelization and the Bonds of Koinonia. This document outlined an understanding of the church as communion or fellowship using the ecumenically rich theme of ‘koinonia’. On the basis of the degree of communion recognized, the dialogue moved to a consideration of the prospects for cooperation in witness and evangelization.

The goal of the current round of consultation was to come to better understanding of each other, and to foster more efficient cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals especially at the grassroots level. The 13 members of the consultation come from 10 different countries — Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Germany, Guatemala, Italy, Kenya, the Philippines, Spain, and usa. Canadian Catholic Bishop Donald Bolen, on the consultation, noted that “the dialogue has built on the experience of common witness and friendship which characterizes Evangelical-Catholic dialogue relations in some places, and has attended to places where those relations continue to be marked by tension and distrust. Many different voices have been given expression in our discussions”.

Three principal themes have been taken up in the consultation: a mapping out of convergences on doctrinal foundations and moral questions which open the door to closer relations; the relationship between Scripture and Tradition and the authoritative roles of each in our respective communities; and the role of the Church in salvation. The consultation members noted that they were not in the business of compromise and negotiation; the way forward was to patiently map out convergences, and to engage in a respectful and frank conversation about remaining differences. Along the way, they developed a methodology which has proven helpful. Bolen noted, “our meetings involved presentations and discussions which we have tried to summarize by first articulating common ground; secondly, by naming aspects of the other tradition which give us encouragement, where we rejoice in seeing God at work, and where we may learn from the other; thirdly, we have asked each other questions, questions which linger at this point in our conversations. It is to be hoped that these questions will be our contribution to further rounds of consultation”.

Rev. Dr Joel Elowsky, an Evangelical participant who is professor of historical theology in St Louis, usa, affirms that this process “has contributed to a level of trust and camaraderie that has allowed both sides to be frank and honest with one another. We continue to learn from each other and also gain further insight about each other that moves beyond stereotypes. Previous caricatures of the other dialogue partner have been shown to be too simplistic and often unfair. These discussions have enabled us to hear one another and to challenge some of our preconceived notions regarding issues that continue to divide us while seeking to chart a course forward”.

It has been helpful for the consultation to meet in different places and to experience Evangelical-Catholic relations, which differ greatly from place to place, in various parts of the world. This round of consultations took place at São Paulo, Brazil (2009), Rome, Italy (2011), Wheaton/Chicago, usa (2012), Guatemala City, Guatemala (2013), Bad Blankenburg, Germany (2014), and the final meeting will take place at Saskatoon, Canada from 30 August to 4 September, 2015. The consultation also commissioned a survey to assess Evangelical-Catholic relations and attitudes towards each other in different parts of the world.

Bolen summarized the situation of relations and the Evangelical-Catholic consultation as follows: “real differences remain between us. Yet the Lord prayed that his disciples would be one. It is in his name that we have been called into conversation, and called to live out the implications of that conversation. The unity that Jesus desires for his disciples is not a theoretical unity but a lived one. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we hope our consultation will help our communities to take some steps in that direction”.

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